Unlike Pakistan’s brazen support to rebel groups from Jammu & Kashmir, China’s assistance to the separatist outfits in the Northeast has been covert and selective, and has gone through many phases over the past five decades. It has been one of the many factors that sustained insurgency in the frontier region for several decades.
The consequence of the armed insurrection has been large-scale violence and disturbance in the frontier region, and massive loss of lives and depletion of resources by the government in combating the armed groups.
While the casualty figures of the army, paramilitary and the police in the region are not available, it can easily be concluded that the numbers are huge. According to government sources, Assam Rifles alone is estimated to have lost more than 750 personnel and officers in the battle against insurgency in the region, since Independence.
- China’s aid to separatist outfits in the Northeast has been covert, and has gone through many phases over the past 50 years.
- This aid has been among the many factors behind sustained insurgency in the frontier region for several decades.
- The consequence of the armed insurrection has been large-scale violence and disturbance in the frontier region, and massive loss of lives and depletion of resources.
- The worst phase in the Northeast was between 1990-2010, when more than a hundred different rebel groups were reportedly active in the region.
- The period of direct support by China to separatist outfits in the Northeast lasted for nearly 15 years, which began when a batch of the Naga National Council reached the country’s south western province of Yunnan.
Speculation Over China’s ‘Involvement’ In 2015 Guerrilla Attack On Army Personnel in Manipur
In 2015, a combined squad of the guerrillas ambushed and killed as many as 18 army personnel in Manipur, in one of the worst attacks, only a few days after an alliance of the outfits called the United National Liberation of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA) was formed in Myanmar.
Speculation was rife about China’s involvement in the episode, since cordial ties between Myanmar and India could impede its long term interests in the region.
The worst phase in the Northeast was the two decades between 1990-2010, when more than a hundred rebel groups – with different ideologies – were reportedly active in the region, with the maximum number of outfits being from Manipur.
However, it must be pointed out that an overwhelming majority of these groups were not linked with China, nor did they have Chinese support. They emerged and proliferated since the conditions that sustain armed rebellions – such as unemployment and alienation – could not be eliminated by the government.
Three Phases of ‘Chinese Support’
The period of direct support by China to separatist outfits in the Northeast lasted for nearly one-and-a-half decades, which began when a batch of the Naga National Council (NNC), led by Thuingaleng Muivah and Thinoselie M Keyho reached the country’s south western province of Yunnan after a long trek of over three months in 1966-67.
Following in the footstep of the Nagas were the Mizo rebels belonging to the Mizo National Front (MNF), who were aghast at the Assam government’s handling of the bamboo famine that ravaged the hill state since the early sixties. Then, there was also a squad of 18 functionaries from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Manipur who were trained for a longer duration in Tibet.
These training modules and supply of weapons to the rebel outfits seemed to have been stopped in the early eighties following New Delhi lodging complaints and Beijing’s policy shift after the death of Chairman Mao Zedong.
However, Beijing had other plans in mind. Years later it was unraveled in a research by Bertil Lintner, that China used the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Myanmar to train some batches of the Manipur PLA in the 1980s. KIA also trained many batches of the ULFA, although it is not precisely known if it was done at the behest of China.
These training facilities in Kachin drew to a close in 1989 following a pact between the KIA and India’s external intelligence wing Research & The Analysis Wing (R&AW).
KIA committed not to maintain ties with any militant outfit from the Northeast in return for weapons from the agency which was supplied through Arunachal Pradesh.
Manipur’s PLA Is China’s ‘Eyes & Ears’ In the Northeast
A long gap ensued in the subsequent years, even as efforts by rebel leaders from the Northeast – to establish a rapport with Chinese authorities – met with failures. Some senior rebel functionaries claim that a change in China’s policy was perceptible after the visit of US President George Bush to India in 2005.
By 2011, the ULFA Chief of Staff, Paresh Baruah, was already living in Yunnan, which would not have been possible without the knowledge of higher authorities. In the same year, two officials of a Chinese intelligence agency stayed for a week at ULFA’s camp in Mynamar’s Taga, and they interacted with leaders from other groups which was also reported in The Irrawaddy.
Around the same time, there were efforts to forge an alliance of the 10 rebel groups that had established camps in the region. Paresh Baruah told this correspondent that a government-in-exile would be formed, which has not materialised thus far. The situation turned worse for the groups when the base in Taga was dismantled by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) in January 2019.
The setback notwithstanding, China continues to allow Baruah to live in Yunnan, and maintains ties with the top leaders of the PLA (Manipur).
As a former official of the R&AW said, “For the Chinese, they are the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Northeast and Myanmar’s Sagaing Division. When necessary, they would be utilised for subversive activities.”
China’s ‘Grey Market of Weapons’
Interestingly, a vast quantity of factory-made weapons were up for grabs in China at a time when its agencies had displayed a reluctance to re-establish ties with the rebel outfits from India’s Northeast. The availability of weapons has led to assumptions that the Chinese government was deliberately arming these organisations to fuel disturbances in the Northeast.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, the State-owned China North Industries Corporation (NORINCO) embarked upon modernisation, and the disposal of obsolete weapons. In 2013, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) published a paper titled ‘China’s Exports of Small Arms and Light Weapons’ , detailing the reasons that fuelled the proliferation of Chinese small arms in the world.
Gun merchants in South East Asia and agencies like Blackhouse, constituted by retired personnel of the People’s Liberation Army (China), went on an overdrive to sell these weapons to rebel groups in the region.
Unsurprisingly, Chinese small arms were used by many insurgent and terrorist outfits which includes the Maoists of Nepal, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Only a few days ago, on 24 June 2020, a cache of Chinese-made weapons comprising AK-47 assault riles, machine guns, grenades and ammunition, was seized along the Thailand-Myanmar border.
Therefore, it needs to be clarified that these weapons were available to everybody with the right contacts and funds, and not meant only for the rebel groups in India’s Northeast.
Arrival of ‘Consignments’ In Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar
NSCN(IM) clinched the first deal with the Chinese, which was offloaded on the sea in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar in early 1994. This episode was mentioned fleetingly by former BSF Director General EN Rammohan, in his book Insurgent Frontiers. This deal prompted ULFA Chief of Staff Paresh Baruah to follow suit and firm up a deal for a bigger consignment, which was also delivered at Cox’s Bazar a year later.
More consignments arrived in the ensuing period for the groups in Bangladesh, but only one of them deserves special elaboration, since it underscored the role played by some serving personnel of the Chinese PLA. In 1997, it was decided that weapons would be dropped at Bhutan’s Haa Valley along the border with China for ULFA, and then ferried to the camps in the southern districts of the kingdom.
The operation was cancelled following the receipt of information about the consignment by personnel of Border Roads Organisation (BRO), who were engaged with a project in the region.
New Delhi alerted the Royal Government of Bhutan, and a senior Bhutanese government official advised Paresh Baruah, who was in Thimphu, to drop the plan.
A few months later, another consignment was successfully delivered at Cox’z Bazar.
Diminishing Supply of Weapons From China to Northeast Rebel Groups
This episode suggests, beyond doubt, that the serving personnel of the PLA also had a role (sometimes) in firming up deals, and in the delivery of weapons. In all probability, the higher Chinese authorities were not unaware about the plan to drop the weapons along the Bhutan border, but they were certainly willing to turn a blind eye to the transaction.
However, the latest trend would point to a diminishing supply of weapons to the Northeast rebel groups from China, owing to the low demand in the region.
Insurgent outfits are on the back foot, and a majority of the groups have evinced a desire for talks with the government for a negotiated settlement.
In addition, some weapons manufacturing units have sprung up in Myanmar – in Kachin and Shan States – which seem to be giving a stiff competition to Chinese weapons, and especially to the Kalashnikov assault rifles. They are sold at cheaper rates and their quality is as good if not better than the Chinese weapons.
These rifles, which can be identified from the unique design of the butt, were seen dangling from the shoulders of many functionaries of the ULFA and the NSCN(K), when this correspondent visited the Myanmar rebel bases in 2011-12.
(Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Guwahati. He tweets @rajkbhat. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)