21 years ago, in an operation code-named ‘Leech’, the tri-services (Army, Navy and Air Force) on 11 February 1998 arrested nearly 73 Burmese rebels on charges of gun-running from Andaman’s Landfall Island. In that operation, the forces killed six rebels. According to a report in Outlook magazine, they seized a cache of arms, including 140 AK series rifles and assorted ammunition.
Of these 73 men, 35 turned out to be fishermen and were released after a year of detention; two were Thai boatmen who were also released; two more reportedly tried to escape and went missing. The remaining 34 were held in India for nearly 13 years until their release in 2011.
Over the years, these men have maintained that they belonged to the Karen National Union (KNU) and the National Unity Party of Arakan (Nupa) pro-democracy rebels who were fighting Burma’s military junta.
They further claimed that they were promised sanctuary by India but were back-stabbed by an Indian Military Intelligence officer.
According to a report in The Guardian, their case was supported by a retired Indian intelligence officer and the leadership of the two anti-junta groups.
The daily also quoted Khin Maung of Nupa saying, “These people are not gun runners, they are our men.” He added that the rebels were promised a camp in Andaman but were later captured or killed.
But there is another narrative about the incident. According to the Outlook article, the arms assignment was “initiated by R&AW, which was known to aid the anti-government forces in neighbouring countries.”
While it is said that the operation caught R&AW off-guard, the Indian intelligence agency was un-remorseful even as the defence forces were furious that the agency had allegedly acted against national interest.
Then Defence Minister George Fernandes was known to be close to the Burmese rebels’ cause. Within four months of the operation, the Ministry of Defence asked the armed forces not to take action against illegal gun-runners in the Andamans.
What Was Operation Leech?
On the night of 8 February 1998, members of the Arakan Army led by Khaing Raza started their journey from the Thai-Myanmar border in boats with arms.
As per media reports, the boats were to stop at Andaman and Nicobar’s Landfall Island and then proceed to Cox Bazar in Bangladesh. The arms were to be sent to their comrades in Burma from Bangladesh. However, the Indian Army reportedly believed that the arms were meant for insurgents in Northeastern states.
On 9 February, the rebels stopped at the Narcondum Island in Andaman and resumed their journey towards Landfall Island on 10 February after they were told that Saw Tun, a leader of the Arakan Army, was in touch with the Indian Army officers.
While the men were treated well at the Landfall Island, on 11 February, the rebels claimed that their leaders were taken into a jungle on the pretext of meeting an Indian leader but they never returned.
Those arrested have alleged that the rebels who were taken to the jungle were shot dead while the others were arrested.
Military Intelligence Officer Accused of Backstabbing
Though these rebels blamed Col VS Grewal for backstabbing them, the retired army officer told The Quint that the operation was not carried out by the Army on its own. Grewal argues that it was after approval from the Government of India that the operation was launched.
“The Burmese government approached the Indian government and it was a government to government request.”Col (retd) VS Grewal told The Quint
He said that the Government of India’s letter was issued for the operation that was code-named ‘Leech’.
By 1995, New Delhi had officially started working on building a good relationship with the military regime in Myanmar. However, the military in Myanmar accused the then defence minister being in cahoots with the rebels in 1998.
According to reports, the tri-services were specifically told not to take any action regarding arms movement in mid-1998.
Former intelligence officer DB Nandi had told The Guardian in 2007, “This whole thing was designed to smash the revolt of the Arakanese. These people were not prejudicial to the security interests of India. But they were butchered and imprisoned.”
What Happened to the 34 Men Who Were Arrested?
The 34 men were jailed and charges were brought against them after nearly six-and-a-half years, The Guardian reported. In 2010, the Central Bureau of Intelligence (CBI) was unable to prove the gun-running charges and decided to reach a settlement, clearing the deck for their release.
Speaking to The Quint, civil rights lawyer Nandita Haksar said that the 34 men were accorded ‘refugee’ status by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and were released in 2011. They were later resettled in the Netherlands.