Mayhem: The Burma
By Sreeram Chaulia
the inhuman ethnic cleansing against non-Assamese by the United Liberation
Front of Asom (ULFA), the Indian Army has begun
counter-insurgency operations in Assam and Arunachal
Pradesh. This is a placebo that bypasses the real cancer breeding outside India's
borders. While discrimination, underdevelopment and unemployment in Assam
are serious internal failures of the Indian government that explain the
origins and early legitimacy of ULFA in the 1980s, the current savagery of
this discredited terrorist group owes to India's failed foreign policy
towards Burma (Myanmar).
mayhem unleashed by ULFA cadres on poor immigrant labourers
from other parts of India
can be traced back to terrorist camps located in Burma. ULFA's
killing machines utilise Arunachal
as a conduit that connects to their hideouts in Burma's northern Kachin state. The death shrieks of non-Assamese in Assam are stinging reminders that India's policy of cooperating with the
military junta in Burma
The mass abuses of human rights being committed by the junta in Kachin state provide ULFA the backdrop for a safe haven
Forced labour, natural resource depletion,
seizure of farmlands, disappearances and mass graves mark the history of Kachins since Burma's first military coup in
1962. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), whose
factions now shelter and train ULFA warriors, was created in response to
the unilateral abrogation of minority rights by the Ne
Win dictatorship in the 1960s. Had Burma remained democratic and
in civilian hands, the 'ethnicity problem' would never have exploded into
incessant warfare and cycles of destruction.
Waves of Burmese Army incursions to assert central government control over
the Kachin people and the area's jade, timber and
opium wealth created the fertile instability for ULFA and other northeast
Indian insurgent groups like the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and the United Liberation Front of Bodoland to find a foothold. Around 1986, ULFA
approached the KIA through the 'good offices' of the Naga
rebels. At a time when ULFA's stock in Assam itself was on a downward slope, its
recruits learnt the rudiments of fighting in Burma from the KIA, which
reportedly charged 100,000 rupees per trainee.
As long as Bangladesh
and Bhutan were the main
staging arenas for ULFA, Burma
played second fiddle in the outfit's overall priorities. ULFA shifted bases
from Bangladesh to Bhutan in 1997 after Sheikh Hasina's government assisted New Delhi in flushing it out. At India's
behest, the Royal Bhutanese Army destroyed most of ULFA's
camps and observation posts by 2003. Hounded everywhere, ULFA returned to
its first love: the war-devastated Kachin hills
where the KIA was ever ready to indulge in quid pro quos.
Some observers perceive India
and the Burmese military junta to have common interests when it comes to
acting against ULFA, since its partner, the KIA, is opposed to Yangon. This hides a more complex reality wherein the
KIA's political wing signed a peace treaty with
the Burmese military in 1994 and many elite Kachin
guerrilla leaders have developed a tight relationship with the generals in Yangon to jointly benefit from the war economy in Kachin state. Numerous splits within the KIA occurred
owing to divide-and-rule ploys of Yangon.
The segment of the KIA that is allied with the junta and has a hand in the
narcotics business is now ULFA's launching pad.
The so-called animosity between Yangon and
the KIA is limited to those factions that oppose the junta's militarisation of the region and plunder of natural
While sporadic junta operations to drive out ULFA and NSCN have received
attention, why has Yangon not eliminated
ULFA, root and branch, from Burmese soil? If Bangladesh
under Sheikh Hasina and Bhutan could do it, why not Burma, a
military state? Burma
is the world's second largest opium-producing country and Kachin state is next only to Shan state in overall
production of this deadly crop. Several top Burmese military generals have
proven involvement in the drug trade and are close to KIA faction leaders
on the ground who double up as mafia barons.
General Zau Mai, a former Chairman of the KIA's political wing, was one such figure who fixed
deals with the junta on logging, gold and jade mining in Kachin territory.
In December 2006, three ULFA terrorists were nabbed by the Indian army in Assam with
a haul of brown sugar worth 10.3 million rupees. This was the first
evidence that the KIO-junta duet in Burma had an ULFA angle. The
porous India-Burma border opens gigantic market for drugs, with ULFA acting
as an intermediary that finances its hit squads with illegal business
investments and transportation of contraband commodities.
ULFA is thus useful for the Burmese junta both as a business partner and as
a bargaining chip against India
cheering for Aung San Suu
Kyi's pro-democracy movement. Yangon proves
itself 'useful' to India
by occasionally cracking the whip on ULFA and NSCN while not entirely
smashing their redoubts on Burmese soil. This delicate strategy of keeping
the ULFA menace simmering enables Yangon to buy New
Delhi's tolerance for Burma's absence of democracy. India ends up as the biggest loser of this
triangular junta-KIO-ULFA game that is destroying the social fabric and
economy of Assam.
For over a decade, India
has been betting on the wrong horse in Burma. If New
Delhi hopes to counter Chinese influence in Yangon and defeat
ULFA, democracy in Burma
is the only honourable and pragmatic solution.
(Sreeram Chaulia is is a researcher on world affairs based at Syracuse University, New York. He can be reached at
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