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NE Separatist Leader's Rumoured Detention in Myanmar: Extradition On the Cards?

Earlier, apprehended militants had been handed over to India as part of an understanding between the two neighbours.

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Speculation is rife among a section of the separatist camp in the Northeast that a senior leader of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) has been nabbed by the Myanmar Junta.

Khundongbam Pambei has reportedly been missing from a camp of the separatist UNLF in Myanmar’s Sagaing Region for the past five months. He had assumed the role of chairman of the outfit after Sana Yaima alias Rajkumar Meghen, who was a scion of the royal family, was apprehended in Bangladesh in 2010 and handed over to India.

Subsequently, a faction within the outfit comprising senior functionaries had expelled Pambei from the organisation two years ago. The two factions have been maintaining separate camps in Myanmar after the split.
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What Led to the NE Separatist Leader’s Detention?

Different theories are being articulated by underground functionaries about Pambei’s detention by the Myanmar military. According to some functionaries, he was on his way to Thailand when he was captured by the Myanmar Army somewhere along the border. They also claim that the information about his movements was known to the Myanmar military, which had laid a trap to nab him at a convenient location near the international border.

Another view is that he was apprehended soon after he stepped out of Sagaing Region into a zone which was witnessing pitched battles between the Junta and local resistance groups. Pambei fell into the military’s net after his presence in the region was flagged by spies loyal to the Junta.

It is not clear why Pambei was headed to Thailand from the camp in Sagaing Region – considered safe for the UNLF and other separatist rebel outfits from Manipur’s Imphal Valley. Earlier, he had been arrested twice in India when he was the Vice Chairman of UNLF – first in Coimbatore in 2006 and then in Guwahati four years later.

UNLF was founded on 24 November 1964 with Kalalung Kamei as the President, Thankhopao Singsit as the Vice President, and Arambam Samarendra as the general secretary. Its objective is the establishment of an independent sovereign Manipur and to regain the lost territory of the state from Myanmar. It is currently the biggest separatist rebel outfit active in the Northeast with several camps in Myanmar’s Sagaing Region and a presence in other parts of the neighbouring country.

Pambei’s Expulsion From UNLF

The reasons that led to Pambei’s expulsion from UNLF by the outfit’s central committee for alleged 'anti-party activities’, were mentioned in a press release issued on 28 February 2021.

In brief, the release alleged that Pambei was a "real agent” of the Indian government who had 'repeatedly violated’ the party’s constitution for 'selfish interests’. He was accused of ‘accumulating financial assets’ for his family and writing letters to ministers on the party’s letterhead for garnering government contracts.

Further, it alleged that Pambei could not produce evidence to defend himself on the charges that were levelled and confirmed by an inquiry commission appointed by the party. Before the commission was instituted, the party’s central committee had declared an internal emergency to probe the charges and tide over the crisis.

Pambei had also come under suspicion of the party after he had been released from jail in a short span of six and three months respectively after being arrested at Coimbatore and Guwahati. "How was it possible? We have no arguments, but something to be questioned by people,” the release said.

Pambei and his coterie refuted the charges with counter-allegations against the rival faction. A general assembly convened last year by the group elected a new central committee and confirmed Pambei as the chairman of the organisation.

Both the factions of UNLF had threatened media houses in Manipur not to publish the statements of the rival group. Consequently, a decision was arrived at by the editors not to publish press releases from either faction.
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Possible Extradition to India

If Pambei has been apprehended by the Myanmar military, then his extradition to India remains a high possibility. On several occasions earlier, apprehended militants have been handed over to India as part of an understanding between the two neighbours.

Early in January 2020, 50 functionaries of a faction of the outlawed National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-S) that included its Chief– B Saoraigwra and General Secretary B Ferrenga –crossed over to India through Manipur and Nagaland. Subsequently, a peace agreement was inked between the outfit and the government, thus, ending a long chapter of rebellion by the organisation in Assam.
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Almost four months later, the Myanmar government handed another group of 22 rebels belonging to the Independent faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-I) and People’s Liberation Army at the Khamti airport in Sagaing Region. They were apprehended during 'Operation Sunrise' which saw the dismantling of the rebel bases by the Myanmar Army at Taga, Second Battalion and the General Headquarters of the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K). The rebels were convicted in the Hkamti District Court and sentenced to two years in prison under Article 17 (1) of the Unlawful Associations Act.

(Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Assam. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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