It is an unusual sight: Paresh Asom (Baruah) playing football. Leader of the anti-talk faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa), Paresh was widely reported to be based in China. Yet, here he was, guarding the goalposts on a football field carved out of
the jungle in eastern Nagaland, Myanmar. Paresh's team comprised cadres from Ulfa, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang). The opposing team was made up of Manipuri ultras. The Manipuris won, 4-2.
The match was the culmination of a yearlong effort to bring 14 anti-India insurgent outfits together. In March 2011, leaders of the northeast-based outfits met in eastern Nagaland and forged an alliance that has representation across the region, barring Mizoram. They agreed to push together for independence of the northeast and eastern Nagaland. Another meeting was scheduled in December, to finalise a name and organisational structure. For reasons unknown, this meeting was cancelled at the last moment.
Paresh, who is Ulfa's chief of staff, said, “All details about cooperation have been finalised and only a little bit of work remains to be completed. We hope to accomplish everything within this year and take it forward.” The united front is the brainchild of S.S. Khaplang, president of the so-called Government of the People's Republic of Nagaland (GPRN) and chairman of the NSCN(K) (see interview).
In the mid-1980s, Ulfa had forged a loose agreement with the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and People's Liberation Army (PLA), both based in Manipur. Today, five more Manipuri outfits are in the alliance—three factions of People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), the Noyon faction of the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) and the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL). Other members are the NDFB, two outfits each from Tripura and Meghalaya and a new outfit from Arunachal Pradesh, whose details are not yet known. Surprisingly, the Tripura and Meghalaya outfits were perceived as defunct for the past few years.
Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had hinted that the alliance was sponsored by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. He also said the attempts for unity were because of the declining firepower and dwindling cadre strength of the ultras.
After spending nearly four months in the rebel camps in eastern Nagaland, I feel Gogoi's statement is quite far from reality. Ulfa, for instance, had at least 500 cadres stationed at different camps in the region. PREPAK factions and KYKL have also been recruiting and training cadres in large numbers. Only the NDFB's strength appears depleted, especially after its jailed chairman Ranjan Daimary appeared willing to talk peace. Sources in the camp said plans were on to set up more camps and recruit newer groups.
My journey to the rebel camps in eastern Nagaland began with a 400km trek. Past dizzying precipices, the slippery path snaked through the mountains endlessly. It had rained the previous night, making the trail even more dangerous. The first day on the trail saw me tumbling 30ft down the bushy hillside; I have a deep scar below my right eye, to remind me of a miraculous escape. All recruits take this arduous path to the camps.
Day began at 4 a.m., and breakfast was mostly rice and boiled vegetables. The trek would begin at daybreak. Sometimes we passed remote mountain villages. The Ulfa scouts set the destinations for each day, depending on the safety of the area we were passing through. Some days we marched only about 12km, but there were days when we had been walking continuously for over 14 hours.
In unsafe areas, we covered a minimum distance every day and then holed up in places beyond the reach of army patrols. Every evening saw me and my colleague Pradip Gogoi holding each other up and stumbling down the trail, dead tired. There were days when we wanted to just go back home.
After four days of forced marches, I was down with excruciating pain in both knees. This slowed down the group. The doctor in the Ulfa team injected me with painkillers regularly for a week, but there was no respite. I stumbled at a snail's pace, with massage breaks every hour. The pain vanished after three weeks or so, as my body got acclimatised to the grind. We were deeply relieved when we arrived at a valley with a big stream, from where we travelled by boat for a few days.
Sniping and ambushes by enemies were a constant concern. Our group comprised eight people, including the four heavily-armed Ulfa cadres. Two scouted ahead and two made up the tail. And, two senior officers stuck close to us. In between, we lay low for a week in a village, as the Army had razed some camps belonging to a Manipuri militant outfit. The trek resumed once we got the all-clear over radio.
In professionalism, Ulfa cadres were as good as any formal military escort. We once came across a raging mountain stream with no ford. The only way across was by a bamboo raft, and there were no oars or poles. So, a rope was lashed to the raft and tossed to the opposite bank, where villagers waited to haul us across.
The first group crossed safely, and the raft came back for me and a few others. After we boarded, the villagers hauled away, and, in midstream, the rope snapped. The current inexorably swept the raft downstream. I was preparing to dive into the water, but my concern was about the camera and recorder, which were not in waterproof containers. Suddenly, one of the Ulfa commanders tossed his sidearm to a colleague and dived in. He caught hold of the frayed rope, swam to the bank and lashed the rope to a boulder, saving us all. Eventually, eventfully, we reached the camp.
The current camp is located in a scenic area controlled by Khaplang. And, the camps are the only human presence in this area, increasing secrecy and reducing the possibility of informers. The different outfits have separate camps, strung out about 20km apart.
A day in the camp starts at around 3 a.m. A wake-up whistle shatters the jungle's silence, and the likes of Mridul Das roll out of their makeshift beds in the huts. Hailing from Assam's Dibrugarh district, the youngster found it tough to adjust to the jungle routine. Das joined Ulfa immediately after his matriculation. His parents wanted him to try for a government job. But he and 19 others took the plunge and trekked for 30 days to reach the camp.
“Our life has undergone a sea change,” Das said. “It is an entirely new environment here. But we expected this and so we are getting accustomed to it.” He is one of the 200 new cadres recruited by Ulfa. The five women in his batch came from Upper Assam.
By 4 a.m. the parade ground is packed with cadres dressed in jungle fatigues and carrying assault rifles. The rifles are a medley—M16s, Kalashnikovs, and Heckler and Kochs. The cadres formed neat marching ranks and started their hourlong exercises. Breakfast was served at 6 a.m., followed by a couple of hours of leisure. Then there were classes and target practice, depending on the syllabus.
The three-month course is divided into political lessons, physical exercises and training in handling arms and explosives. In rare cases, the course is shortened, or is broken into different modules to be held at different locations. This usually happens when they are forced to break camp following military attacks.
After classes, cadres are assigned camp duties like cooking and gathering firewood. The last meal of the day is served between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. In the evenings, cadres huddle around a campfire and listen to news broadcasts on All India Radio's Dibrugarh and Guwahati stations. At around 8 p.m., the lights are doused. Barracks are separate for men and women.
While the training is the same, female cadres are usually not given hazardous assignments. They are also exempted from tasks involving long treks through unfriendly terrain. One of the women in Das's batch, Purabi Hazarika loves cooking, and she often volunteers to help her male colleagues on kitchen duty. Camp food is easy to cook, she says. It is mostly rice, boiled vegetables, pork and dried fish. Additionally, whatever is seasonal or available makes its way into the menu.
During my days in the camp, it was clear that the campsite was chosen well. Eastern Nagaland is contiguous to Nagaland and Manipur and is only a few days' walk from Upper Assam. The region is well connected by rivers and jungle pathways, making the delivery of weapons and supplies easy.
When I was in the Ulfa camp, a huge consignment of European 9mm pistols and HK33 assault rifles was delivered. Though Heckler and Koch do not make the HK33 anymore, variants of the rifle were produced under licence in some south Asian countries. Once the consignment was unpacked, young cadres test-fired the guns before putting them into storage.
Sources said that orders were being placed for the Chinese Type 81 rifles and the American M16; both fall in the price range of 02 lakh to 03 lakh. Concessional rates apply if orders are placed in bulk, and the united front benefits from slashed rates. Medicines, food and goods not available in Myanmar are smuggled in from China and Thailand. The rebels, wisely, source food from multiple sources. Even if one route is cut, the supplies will not dry up. Malaria is the biggest medical hazard in the jungle. Called “moklong” in local parlance, it has claimed quite a few lives over the years.
Seasoned northeast watchers say that this time the rebel outfits might successfully unite. Earlier, when some outfits decided on a tie-up, there was little brainstorming about projecting a common agenda. The first pact was among the undivided NSCN, Ulfa and the UNLF in 1986. The NSCN split into the Khaplang and Isak-Muivah factions. So, in 1990, when the Indo-Burma Revolutionary Front was formed, the NSCN(IM) stayed away. The IBRF even trained a combined batch, but troubles in eastern Nagaland caused the union to fail.
The third attempt was at the behest of the NSCN(IM) in the mid-1990s when the Self Defence United Front of South East Himalayan Region was formed with the NDFB and the NLFT joining in. Christianity was a major factor that brought these groups together. The front collapsed when the NSCN(IM) signed a ceasefire agreement with India in 1997.
So, this is the fourth time, and the alliance seems to be on firmer ground. Though the NSCN(K) is playing host, the actual unification started when the seven Manipuri groups allied to form the Coordination Committee in eastern Nagaland in 2010.
A senior PREPAK commander said the decision to expand and include other outfits was made after wide-ranging consultations with the NSCN(K) and Ulfa. “There is a need to create a strong foundation for the movement to go on till the goals are achieved,” he said. “Otherwise, it would lose steam, although the cause is genuine and based on legitimate rights.”
The base in eastern Nagaland also allows the ultras to train in peace. Severe military action from India, Bangladesh and Bhutan made these countries unviable for the outfits to camp in. Hence, Myanmar was the best bet.
And, the sheer vastness of the region makes it difficult for the Myanmarese army to launch an offensive operation. The army's strength is only about 2 lakh and it has the unenviable task of battling insurgency in the north and checking dissent all over the country. Nay Pyi Taw would never open another hostile front, as that would be a drain on its resources. And, what is the need anyway? The rebels would be the first line of defence against India.
Not surprisingly, there has been no positive response on India's proposal of a joint-operation against these bases. The only time Indian and Myanmarese armies came together was for Operation Golden Bird in 1995. The operation intercepted arms in Mizoram, which were brought in by Ulfa and the PLA from Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts.
And, if the Indian establishment's claims of Beijing supporting the rebels in the northeast are true, there is no way Nay Pyi Taw will help New Delhi. In fact, Myanmar is as obliged to China as India was to the Soviet Union. Nay Pyi Taw has been trying to balance Chinese and Indian interests, but it will always go with Beijing if a choice had to be made.
And, being an expanding economy, China will always ensure it gets the lion's share of the resources in Myanmar, especially oil and gas. And, to that effect, Beijing will not allow New Delhi to have a greater presence or say in Myanmarese affairs, let alone agreeing to operations by the Indian Army.
India has several ongoing schemes in Myanmar including roads, and the crucial Kolodyne Multi-Modal Transport Project, and has made a case for more projects. In all likelihood, Myanmar will continue to welcome Indian funds for infrastructure projects, but it is unlikely to concede anything that would upset the Dragon.
Just as this story was going to print, the Union home ministry announced the renewal of the ceasefire agreement with the NSCN(K). But, it also reminded the NSCN(K) not to support Manipuri outfits and the Ulfa faction led by Paresh. Perhaps, New Delhi is waking up to the rumblings in the hills.
My return trek was with a bigger group, for better security. The camera and recorder were sent with couriers through one route, and we took a different route. Routes were changed to avoid detection and to prevent information falling into the hands of intelligence agencies. However, our pace was amazingly fast. Distances we covered in two days while we were inbound, were covered in half the time. Soon after we crossed the border, we were told that a vehicle would be waiting for us near an Assam Rifles outpost. It was exactly three months and 20 days after we had set off to report the great gang-up.
Bhattacharyya is executive editor of the Seven Sisters' Post.