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ULFA in disarray after Myanmar Army's crackdown: Has endgame begun for the separatist outfit?

Reports indicating panic and confusion at some rebel camps in Myanmar were vindicated when seven United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) functionaries surrendered after crossing over from Myanmar on 19 March. Two days later, a senior functionary of the anti-talks faction of the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) followed suit fuelling speculation that more rebel cadres would return to the mainstream.

The trigger was the Myanmar army's (officially known as Tatmadaw) operation in Taga almost two months ago resulting in the dismantling of all the camps belonging to the separatist outfits from the Northeast except the NSCN(K) which is a Myanmarese outfit. Only one senior cadre of ULFA was reported to have been killed in a skirmish that occurred after the army had surrounded the camp. Media reports in Myanmar said that five leaders of NSCN(K) were also detained at Khamti for violating the Unlawful Association Act.

Sources in the different factions of ULFA and NSCN(K) revealed that hundreds of cadres from all the groups except the NSCN(K) dispersed in different directions after the raid. Majority of the functionaries belonging to the outfits from Imphal valley headed south to the region opposite Manipur in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division where their facilities continue to be intact. ULFA and NDFB cadres shifted to the hills in the Pangmi and Konyak Naga regions contiguous to Changlang in Arunachal Pradesh and Mon in Nagaland.

 ULFA in disarray after Myanmar Armys crackdown: Has endgame begun for the separatist outfit?

A camp of ULFA in Myanmar's Taga which was vacated. Image Credit: Rajeev Bhattacharyya

The rebel cadres have been accommodated in villages and the three camps – Arakan Camp, First Battalion and Council – that were erected years ago. In a press release issued on 16 March, ULFA chairman Dr Avijeet Asom and chief of staff Paresh Baruah expressed their gratitude to all the groups and the inhabitants of the Patkai region for ensuring the security of its cadres.
According to informed sources, the seven cadres who came over ground were part of a larger group that had reached the Arakan Camp after escaping from Taga that arrived at a unanimous decision to surrender. It is not yet known what prevented the other members from following the same route although the intelligence community is hopeful of “more results” in a short span.

Raid on Taga – What Next?

The operation by the Myanmar army in Taga seems to have caught all the rebel groups by surprise. A middle-rung NSCN(K) cadre said it was “least expected” since a ceasefire agreement had already been inked between the outfit and Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) in 2012 just a few weeks after this correspondent had returned from the camp. Not only were the camps abandoned, nine senior leaders of NSCN(K) were detained at the army headquarters in Khamti for interrogation which coincided with the visit of Myanmar state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi to the Naga region.

Clearly, the raid was meant to deliver two messages to the NSCN(K). First, that it ought to seriously consider signing the nationwide ceasefire agreement and give up the demand of sovereignty of the Naga inhabited region in India and Myanmar. And secondly, it should distance itself from the separatist outfits from India’s Northeast whose presence in the region has never been of any benefit to the Tatmadaw.

Map Showing Taga in Myanmar. Image procured by author

Map Showing Taga in Myanmar. Image procured by author

NSCN(K) didn’t have any choice – it was in no position to retaliate against the Myanmar army. The least it could do was to inform all its officers in the villages to assist the fleeing members from the other groups. Inputs trickling sporadically suggest that some villages opposite Changlang in Arunachal Pradesh where a large group of rebel cadres are holed up are beginning to reel under a food shortage. Communication between the cadres and ULFA leader Jibon Moran, who was based at Taga and was entrusted with the task of managing all the camps, had been snapped after the operation. Moran, who is currently the senior most functionary in ULFA, is known to be unable to walk for long distances in the hills.

A senior government official was emphatic that “their (ULFA and NDFB) hands have been tied. They don’t have any other place except to settle except in the Naga hills (Myanmar). They will remain safe for sometime but only if they don’t launch any attack in the Northeast.” While it may be too early to say if the groups would remain confined to the Naga hills, what appears imminent is a tremendous setback to their plans of continuing with the separatist campaign. NSCN(K)’s position would be rendered more vulnerable if these outfits carry out strikes in the Northeast.

The Myanmar army may not have extended the operation to the hills, but it cannot be ignorant of the locations where the rebels have shifted. It is already overstretched with the engagements in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states. There are rumours that New Delhi has been pressurising Tatmadaw to establish a military cantonment at Taga which will ensure a permanent presence of the army in a large part of Hukwang Valley near the Chindwin river.

Will ULFA survive the crisis?

In its four decades of existence, ULFA and the other separatist groups from the Northeast had established bases in Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar and cultivated high-level contacts with the governments of China, Pakistan and other countries. But the space is fast shrinking and Myanmar could well be the last sanctuary for these outfits. While there is a greater possibility of the Manipuri groups surviving for a longer duration, the condition of the smaller outfits like ULFA, NDFB, KCP and PREPAK (Progressive),etc could soon become critical.

ULFA had suffered many blows earlier – during Operation Bajrang in 1990, Operation All Clear in Bhutan in 2003 and the crackdown in Bangladesh in 2009 which was followed by a division in its ranks. But every time it was able to rebound and continue with the separatist campaign. But in real terms, the outfit had been on an irreversible downslide since the late 1990s when “secret killings” was unleashed by the government. But the decline in their fortunes were also aggravated by other factors.

Unlike the other rebel groups in the Northeast such as the PLA, UNLF or the NSCN(IM), ULFA’s fundamentals were weak and it never had a long term vision to fulfill its objectives. The leaders were young, inexperienced and without knowledge about domestic politics or international relations. The organisation’s entire focus had been to ensure its survival, shifting from one country to another, and acquisition of weapons and money. The leadership was never bothered to iron out the differences among themselves which had only widened after the arrest of general secretary Anup Chetia in Bangladesh in 1997. While the majority of the top functionaries led by chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa were supportive of talks with the government for a negotiated settlement, chief of staff Paresh Baruah would not budge until the government agreed to discuss Assam's sovereignty.

No wonder then that ULFA has also been wavering in its opinion on vital issues from time to time. Putting an end to illegal immigration in Assam and the economic exploitation of the state had topped ULFA’s agenda when it emerged in the early 1980s. But a year after Operation Bajrang when the leaders were forced to flee and land up in Bangladesh, a booklet was issued which not only condemned the Assam Agitation but justified the presence of the illegal migrants in Assam. Likewise, there was no policy on recruitment or gathering funds and there were innumerable cases of capital punishments being awarded on flimsy grounds.

Eyebrows were raised when the media flashed videos of two engineers, including a nephew of Baruah, a senior functionary of the influential All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and a woman kick-boxer justifying their decisions to join ULFA about two months ago. It is estimated that over a hundred new recruits had crossed the border to the camps in Myanmar in the last one year or so. The situation was somewhat reminiscent of the late 1980s when the ULFA enjoyed massive support in the state and had also established a parallel government.
Baruah and the anti-talks faction of ULFA that he heads are viewed as an ‘alternative’ by large sections of people, especially in the rural areas of eastern (upper) Assam where the outfit still commands support. He is seen as a leader different from the rest who had either come over ground or compromised with the government. As such, ULFA would always be able to attract new cadres which has been evidenced from time to time in the past couple of decades. But the situation could be very different this time around with the odds stacked heavily against all the separatist outfits based in Myanmar.

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Updated Date: Mar 30, 2019 15:19:11 IST