Why the Claim That the Indian Army Killed 83 Militants During its Operation in Myanmar Doesn’t Stand Up To Scrutiny

On 9 June 2015, the Indian army reportedly engaged in a cross-border attack in Myanmar in response to a militant attack in Manipur earlier this month. A map prepared by an intelligence agency in 2008 showing the locations of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) camps in Myanmar.
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21 June, 2015

A little more than a week ago, the Indian army reportedly engaged in a cross-border attack on the insurgent organisations that were believed to have been responsible for the ambush on an army vehicle on 4 June 2015. The outfits that had reportedly executed the strike included the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K)—a Myanmar-based insurgent group also active in the northeast of India—the Kanglei Yawo Kannal Lup (KYKL) and a faction of Kangleipak Communist Party, both from Manipur. However, the outfits that came under attack of the Indian army in retaliation were the NSCN-K and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), also a rebel group from Manipur. Both these organisations are close allies that have been campaigning for the independence of the northeast and contiguous Naga areas in Myanmar.

Shortly after the ambush by the Indian army, reports quoting official sources indicated that at least 83 insurgents were killed during the operation in Myanmar, across camps in Manipur and Nagaland. But a close scrutiny of the ground reality along with the estimates of officials and a section of the rebel outfits reveals a different situation.

Furthermore, while it is true that the army conducted cross-border strikes in two places across Nagaland and Manipur, an enquiry into these incidents suggests the locations at which the strikes were conducted were barely two to three kilometres from the border. According to some of the functionaries from rebel outfits that I spoke to, most of the insurgents who were killed during the attack were not from the NSCN-K, KCP or the KYKL. They were from the PLA, which had a mobile camp across Manipur’s Chandel district.

To understand why the claims made by a section of government officials don’t stand up to scrutiny it is necessary to understand that this region of Myanmar is home to around 60 rebel camps, both big and small, that cover a wide region contiguous to the northeast. These camps belong to nine separatist outfits—the NSCN-K; the anti-talks faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA); the PLA; the United National Liberation Front (UNLF); the People’s Republican Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK); the PREPAK (Progressive), a faction of KCP; and the KYKL— which exist in addition to the hideouts of militant groups that are over ground and currently engaged in a peace process with the Indian government.

When I visited some of these camps in Myanmar between 2008 and 2012, I noticed that they could broadly be divided into two categories: those that are situated in the northern Sagaing Division under the control of the NSCN-K, and those that are located in areas adjacent to the border districts of Manipur where infrastructure such as roads and electricity has been developed by the government of Myanmar.

The region in which the first group of camps has been set up is located to the west of the Chindwin river and is contiguous to the Lohit district in Arunachal Pradesh up to Tuensang in Nagaland. The camps are sprawled across five locations in the area. The General Headquarters (GHQ) of the NSCN-K is barely five kilometres away from the Nagaland border and is a large camp. It is manned by members from all the outfits that have a presence in the northern Sagaing Divison. A little ahead of the GHQ, is the second largest concentration of rebel cadres in SS Khaplang’s domain —the chairman of the NSCN-K—in a group of camps referred to as the “Second Batallion” in the Konyak Naga region, surrounded by the Pakai hills. By my estimate,  it would take two days for a rebel cadre to reach this camp from the GHQ. All of these camps follow a similar layout wherein the NSCN-K camp is located in the middle and surrounded by the rest of the residing groups within a radius of about ten kilometres.

Explaining the rationale of this arrangement, functionaries from the rebel groups told me that security was the primary motivation for maintaining a distance between the camps in any such settlements across the region. “If one camp were to be attacked, then cadres from the others could be assembled at a short notice to launch counter attacks. In such a hilly terrain, even the biggest army in the world would find it difficult to launch simultaneous strikes on all the locations,” a senior cadre explained. Additionally, when these camps are situated in separate locations, it would be easier for the outfits to avoid confrontation with the enemy and engage in hit-and-run tactics in the event of an offensive.

Further up at a point right opposite Changlang district in Arunachal Pradesh and across the Lake of No Return in Myanmar, are two routes that head to the east and south of Myanmar. The route that goes east leads to a group of camps called the Council, named so because it was previously the council headquarters of the NSCN-K. These camps are situated near Lahong, and former members of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) told me that top leaders such as Paresh Baruah, the head of the anti-talks faction of the ULFA, and RK Meghen, the chairman of the Manipur-based UNLF who is now in jail in Assam, have also frequented these camps. The other road is a tortuous climb over steep mountains to another camp called the First Battalion, which was attacked and looted by the Myanmar army in 1993. The encampment was rebuilt six months later, but the strength of the cadre has been severely depleted in the past few years.

The biggest concentration of camps is in a stretch of plains deep inside Hukwang Valley, also called Valley of Death, bordering Kachin and the Chindwin river in Myanmar.

Living in this area is easier compared to the hills, which would explain why some inhabitants from the hills have set up villages in this region. This area is also well linked by river and land to other territories thereby facilitating a smooth supply of all kinds of materials, including weapons. There are small shops that emerged in this section, that supply foodstuff to the camps.  My sojourn to this region revealed that the biggest camps belonged to the UNLF and PLA while the smallest was of the United People’s Party of Kangleipak (UPPK), a breakaway faction of Manipur’s PREPAK.  UPPK has since left Myanmar and has come over ground after a ceasefire agreement with the Manipur government in 2012.

All the groups from Manipur—PLA, UNLF, PREPAK, PREPAK (Progressive), a faction of the KCP and  the KYKL—also have camps in the lower Sagaing Division contiguous to Manipur but they are beyond the control of Khaplang.  They formed a coalition called the Coordination Committee (Cor Com) in 2010 for the coordination of activities and to share information. A report compiled by the Special Branch of a state government around five years ago stated that a “working relationship” had been established between the rebels and the Myanmar army that entailed a periodic payment by the groups to the army at regular intervals. The report went on to say that the militants in this region were also forced to bribe the police and local authorities with donations. If the government of Myanmar were to decide to eliminate these facilities in the future, the insurgents in these camps would probably relocate to the north under Khaplang.

With the Myanmar army turning a blind eye to the presence and activities of these insurgent organisations, members from various rebel groups have told me of camps being set up outside the Sagaing Division as well by at least three groups. These are small camps occupied by a small number of cadres, and do not have the training facilities that are found in the camps of the north. These functionaries added that the camps are maintained in close association with local Myanmarese outfits who have signed ceasefire agreements with the army. Former militants who have now surrendered were of the view that these camps have been established to store weapons and as a “fallback option” in case the others camps are demolished.

Several functionaries from the rebel groups active in Myanmar and officials from the government told me that none of these camps had been raided by the Indian army in its recent cross border operations. Naga militants never fled towards the border and the Myanmarese army did not destroy their camps. According to the experts on Myanmar I spoke to, the strength of the Myanmarese army is close to three lakhs, and it is unlikely that it would be willing to invest resources in opening a hostile front with the Nagas when the country is already suffering from unrest in Arakan and Shan State. A ceasefire agreement had been signed between the NSCN-K and the Myanmarese Army on 9 April 2012 and both have accepted each other’s preconditions.

The claim that that the India army had eliminated the militants involved in the attack on 9 June is also unlikely to be true for two reasons. To begin with, it would be highly difficult for the authorities to ascertain the details and identify the cadres who had been killed within days of the operation. Furthermore, most insurgent groups devise an escape strategy and route in advance before a strike such as the one that was executed against the Indian army on 4 June. The functionary from a rebel group told me that the insurgents involved in the attack had crossed the border within hours and were deep inside a day later.  It is improbable, that such a group would hover so close to the border right after going into hiding.

News reports suggest that there may have been a gun battle between the Indian army and militants that stretched on for hours on both sides of the border. Residents from the Paraolon village in Chandel district have told journalists that they were forced to vacate the village for more than a day on account of the combat. In all likelihood, the army succeeded in pushing the rebels back, but the militants might have retaliated as indicated by the photo and release sent by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).  The release stated that a helicopter hovered around and dropped “something”. The photographs show ammunition supposedly left behind by the army which had markings similar to Indian Ordnance Factories.

Most of the people I spoke to—former and present members of rebel outfits, and government officials—agreed that the casualties on the rebel side could not have been as high as 83. Eliminating so many militants would require huge resources, the deployment of large troops, and sustained operations for several days. The government of Myanmar wants to involve as many insurgent groups as possible in a nationwide ceasefire ahead of the general elections later this year. Khaplang has voiced his support for the agreement. It appears the government of Myanmar would not allow the Indian army to conduct such raids. It is unhappy over the recent episode and has indicated that it would not welcome such an imposition from the government of India again.

Rajeev Bhattacharya is a senior journalist in Guwahati and author of Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India's Most Wanted Men.