On 3 May 2015, seven soldiers from the 23 Assam Rifles battalion and one jawan from the 164 Territorial Army Battalion were killed in the Mon district of Nagaland, during an ambush by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K), an insurgent group from Nagaland that operates in the northeast of India and in Myanmar.
A day later, on 4 May, a press release issued by the anti-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) confirmed its membership, along with that of the NSCN(K), the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) and a faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), in a joint forum called the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW). The forum was formed on 17 April by separatist outfits from India and Myanmar for an effective campaign of independence for the northeast and the contiguous Naga inhabited region in the neighbouring country. While the NDFB and ULFA are active in Assam, the KLO has a presence in north Bengal. The release went on to state that the objective of the coalition was the “unified and total struggle” for the liberation of “ancestral homes.”
Established after a series of meetings that were held last month in the Sagaing region of Myanmar, the UNLFW will function with Khaplang—the head of the NSCN-K who is based in Myanmar‑—as the chairman.
The UNLFW’s declaration has culminated after a long sequence of events that began in early 2011 when the representatives of as many as twelve rebel groups from Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura and Meghalaya held their first meeting to decide upon a common goal in Myanmar. However, their objective to float the front by the end of the year failed to materialise as some leaders could not confirm their participation at the proposed meeting. Furthermore, one group each from Meghalaya, Manipur and Tripura backed out a year later, necessitating fresh efforts to create the front.
This is the fourth such initiative that separatist groups from different states in the northeast have undertaken to stitch a coalition. The first came as early as 1986 in Myanmar when the ULFA, UNLF and NSCN came together to explore the possibility of sending a combined delegation to China for weapons and training. The NSCN split into the Khaplang and Isak-Muivah factions two years later. While NSCN(K) formed the Indo Burma Revolutionary Front (IBRF) with ULFA and UNLF, the NSCN(IM) formed another alliance with one group each from Assam and Meghalaya in the mid 1990s.
According to a top functionary from a Manipuri rebel group, whom I spoke to over the phone last month, all the Manipuri groups— the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), the People’s Republican Party of Kangleipak (PRK), the People’s Republican Party of Kangleipak-Progressive, Kangla Yawolkannalup and a faction of the Kangleipak Communist Party—that have camps in Myanmar, participated in the meetings that led to the formation of the UNLFW and were expected to put their signatures on the declaration. However, he told me that last minute hitches and disagreements “postponed” their inclusion.
Another member from a rebel outfit who had participated in the talks confirmed this and went on to say that the UNLF of Manipur, the largest underground outfit in the northeast, had demanded that its chairman RK Meghen be given the post of chairman. While this demand was supported by all Manipuri outfits, his selection was refuted by other groups as he is currently in jail in Guwahati in Assam, and would have been, they argued, ineffective as the chairman in such a scenario. While the press release did not mention the names of either a vice chairman or a commander in chief, the member told me that the Manipuri groups were offered the post of vice chairman instead, but that proposal has not been accepted so far. These groups have, for the time being, the top functionary claimed, extended their “moral support” to the UNLFW.
During our conversation, the top functionary said that he hoped the differences would soon be resolved and that efforts would be made to make the front broad-based with the participation of all like-minded outfits in the region aiming at independence from India. He added that a committee had been formed by the four founding groups to draft a joint constitution and design a flag.
The birth of the UNLFW comes soon after Khaplang’s decision to abrogate a 14-year-old ceasefire with the Indian government on 27 March. The Naga chief decided to sign the ceasefire with the Indian government in 2001 but there was hardly any progress towards a negotiated settlement apart from the extension of the agreement every year. Khaplang was of the firm opinion that the ceasefire would not yield any result since the government was against negotiating on the demand of sovereignty. A few weeks ago, the leader also sent delegates from the NSCN-K to Naypyidaw—the capital of Myanmar—in support of the Myanmarese government’s move to sign a nationwide treaty with militant groups.
Most separatist organisations come together to offset certain disadvantages such as the procurement of weapons, securing camps and hideouts, training of new recruits and tapping sources of funds. But the birth of UNLFW comes with a difference. None of the insurgent groups based in Myanmar currently face the danger of being evicted by the army there. The Indian government’s repeated pleas to the government in Myanmar to eliminate rebel activity have fallen on deaf ears. The NSCN(K) concluded a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmarese army in 2012, and contrary to media reports, I was told by multiple functionaries, that there has been no conflict between the rebel groups and the army since 2001. When I visited Myanmar three years ago, in 2012, I noticed that the camps of all these groups were located close to each other at several locations in the northern Sagaing Division, both in the hills and the Hukwang Valley.
However, the Myanmarese government has categorically denied the presence of militants from the northeast on its soil. It is unlikely that the Myanmarese army would open another hostile front with the Nagas when a war between the country’s army and ethnic rebels is already underway in Shan State, and Kachin is limping back to normalcy after almost four years of fighting between the army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Since 2012, there has also been an outbreak of communal violence between the Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State. ,
The formation of the group, in this backdrop, assumes significance. An intelligence officer I spoke to over the phone this week, told me that he believed China was involved with the UNLFW. He said, “This coalition could be used to further their [China’s] objectives in Myanmar and also keep tabs on the northeast.” He then added that “It is now a well-known fact that some leaders from some of these groups have been living in China for quite some time and this could not have happened without the knowledge of the government.”
The UNLFW appears to be pursuing its goals with a vengeance, if the attack on the 3 May, orchestrated a day before the press release is any indication. The government is rattled and operations against the rebels have been intensified. However, it remains to be seen if the front can actually sustain the campaign and take on the security forces. The KLO is almost non-existent; the ULFA has suffered erosion in its support base and cadre strength; the NSCN-K has been dealing with internal strife; and the NDFB has also been weakened, although it still has the capacity to carry out strikes.
For the government in India, which believes that development can be accelerated and peace established in the frontier zone if insurgency draws to a close, the UNLFW may grow to be a cause for worry. The northeast is an area of immense strategic significance. It is the bridge between South and South East Asia and is envisaged to play a crucial role in the Look East Policy. A safe sanctuary in Myanmar for these outfits means that the government’s efforts to put an end to the separatist campaign may not bear results immediately. Besides these groups, there are at least forty more armed organisations in the northeast either demanding autonomy or indulging in unlawful activities. Many of them have ceasefire agreements with the government and are engaged in talks for a negotiated settlement.