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Indian Rebels' Free Hand Strains Relations with Myanmar

Myanmar has asked rebels to move away from its borders with India, rather than cracking down hard on them.
 
 
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NEW DELHI and TAMU - Despite India's repeated requests to act, Myanmar's government is still perceived by Indian officials as "going easy" on Indian separatists known to be operating out of Myanmar's northwestern fringes.

More than two months after promising tough action against separatist rebels based in its territory during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Myanmar, President Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government is yet to commence any sort of crackdown against the rebels, many of whom are known to be based in Myanmar's Sagaing Division and border towns like Tamu.

Indian officials raised the issue again during a visit to New Delhi in early August by Myanmar's chief of defense staff, General Ming Aung Hlaing. "We have got the usual assurance of action but we have to wait and see," said a senior Indian military official who requested anonymity.

Unlike Bhutan and Bangladesh, both of which have cracked down hard on northeast Indian rebel armies after years of pressure and persuasion from India, Myanmar has instead asked rebels to move to "safer locations" away from its borders with India, according to rebel sources.

Rebel leaders confirmed to this writer that Myanmar has not cracked down against their groups in and around Tamu, where many from India's troubled northeastern state of Manipur have run camps for more than two decades, and that fighters have been allowed to move to areas deeper inside the country.

One rebel leader from Manipur's United National Liberation Front (UNLF), who identified himself only as "NC", said all top leaders of his group have "moved out" of Tamu in the past few weeks. "I am also on my way out," he said recently, declining to disclose where he and other leaders of his group planned to relocate in Myanmar.
The rebel leader moved about freely and met this writer in a Tamu restaurant, not far away from a border checkpoint manned by a large number of Indian and Myanmar border guards.

Indian intelligence officials say they have received reports that many rebels are moving to locations along Myanmar's border with China. This writer, however, could not independently corroborate those claims. Another mid-ranking leader of Manipur's separatist People's Liberation Army (PLA), which enjoys close relations with India's Maoist rebels, said that "our boys have moved out" of the Tamu region.

"All our big leaders are gone and we are also pulling out soon," the PLA rebel said, requesting anonymity due to fear of reprisals "from the Indian side". "The Indian intelligence is monitoring us and Tamu is easy to enter from [the Indian border town of] Moreh because the border is open for locals," he said.

It took this writer and other Manipur-based journalists just a few minutes to receive a pass to visit Tamu from Moreh. The two border towns are separated by less than five kilometers and this writer was allowed to drive a private vehicle into Tamu. "No pictures please, leave your cameras behind," is all that the Myanmar border guards said, while searching the car at the check post that is now being upgraded for anticipated higher volumes of border trade.

Indian intelligence officials say that not only the UNLF and PLA but almost all other Manipur-based rebel groups have until now maintained camps around Tamu, a major border trade entrepot and infamous smuggling route for narcotics and weapons from Myanmar. There is also a robust trade in legitimate goods, ranging from Chinese cigarettes to Korean blankets to Burmese cheroots, at the Namphalong market in Myanmar that straddles the check post from Moreh into Tamu.

"The Manipur rebel groups have had several camps around Tamu and hundreds of their fighters were based there for several decades. Now they have been asked to move out but the [Myanmar] army has not attacked them or nabbed any of their leaders," said an Indian federal intelligence official based in Moreh in an interview.

He said that many of these rebel groups run powerful extortion rackets from Tamu and many powerful businessmen in Manipur often visit the town to negotiate payouts from the rebel chieftains, often over a pint of beer and salad in local restaurants like Waterworld.

"Now that racket may be somewhat affected," the intelligence official said. But more than two months after Singh's visit to Myanmar, there is hardly any sign of a crackdown on the Indian rebel groups that New Delhi has long requested, he said.

During Singh's official visit, Myanmar officials reiterated their commitment to not allow their soil to be used for any anti-Indian activities. Nonetheless, the Indian delegation pushed for more committed offensive actions against rebel groups and were assured such security sweeps would soon take place.

Indeed, Myanmar security officials have cracked down on Manipur-based rebel groups operating around Tamu only once in the last 15 years. Nearly 200 rebels, including some of the top leaders of UNLF and PLA, were arrested by Myanmar security forces in the winter of 1999-2000 - only to be let off without charge a few months later.

Indian intelligence officials claim that one-off crackdown took place because rebels had failed to pay off sufficiently Myanmar border guards and that once these were adequately compensated the rebels were freed. Indian diplomatic intervention, through the then-ambassador in Yangon, Vivek Katju, failed to achieve the handover or extradition of any suspects while they were in temporary detention.

As bilateral and commercial relations have recently warmed, India expects Myanmar's new reformist government to deploy its security forces against the northeast Indian rebels based in its territory. While Myanmar leaders in the capital make assurances that such a crackdown is imminent, inaction on the ground speaks to an apparent desire to maintain a buffer with Myanmar's giant western neighbor.

Notably, other neighboring countries have obliged India's requests. The small mountain kingdom of Bhutan used its army in an operation codenamed "All Clear" to uproot rebel bases in its territory in December 2003. Bangladesh has more recently nabbed separatist leaders and activists and quietly handed them over to India since the Awami League formed the government in Dhaka in January 2009. More than 100 separatists, including some of the believed top guns behind northeast India's long-running insurgency, have recently been handed over to India.

Despite rising diplomatic pressure, Myanmar has so far resisted such decisive military action. "Upper Myanmar is the last great regrouping zone for these rebels. They have nowhere else to go," said former Indian military intelligence official Retired Major General Gaganjit Singh. " If Myanmar is a friend, we want some definite action against these rebels."