India’s North-East: Uniting Militancy
Insurgence, and security landscape as a result, in northeastern India has been in a constant state of flux, almost as long as the history of independent India. The mushrooming of new insurgent groups across the region has resulted in an enduring climate of insurgent violence, although the level of the violence has waxed and waned through its course. Although the formation of new militant groups is not a unique development, formation of a united militant front in 2015 has had a significant and enduring impact on the security calculus in the strategically significant lower eastern Himalayas.
The attempt by militant groups to condense into a united front is not new. There are four known previous attempts by India’s northeastern militant groups to consolidate a united front, with the latest attempt being the formation of United National Liberation Front West South East Asia or UNLFWESA, the conglomerate of various militant groups that has been an active outfit in the past two years since its formation on April 17, 2015 in Myanmar.
The outfit which was founded by National Socialist Council of Nagaland — Khaplang (NSCN-K), United Liberation Front of Assam — Independent (ULFA-I, KLO and KYKL has been the most high profile militant groups claiming some of the recent high profile attacks targeting security forces in the region. UNLFWESA, which is a joint body of various north east militant groups which is presently constituted by ULFA-I, Khaplang faction of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), IK Songbijith faction of National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-IKS), People’s Liberation Army of Manipur (PLA), Kamtapur Liberation Organization (KLO) KYKL, CorCom( another umbrella group of 7 Manipuri militant groups) , People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) and Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) of Meghalaya, which announced that it had joined hands with militant groups so as to be part of the militant conglomerate. Additionally, National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) has also joined UNLWESA ranks.
Recent attacks by the UNLFWESA or its constituent members include:
- On January 21, 2017 two Assam Rifles (AR) personnel were killed in an ambush by Tinsukia District of Assam, when militants ambushed an AR vehicle which was escorting tourists who were returning from a Pangsau festival. Security Forces later on the same day killed two militants who were involved in the attacks in the neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh, along the Indo-Myanmar border.
- On November 19, 2016 three Army men were killed and four wounded with ULFA-I militants at Pengeri in Tinsukia District. Later on November 20, Paresh Baruah the ‘chief’ of ULFA-I claimed that the a joint team of UNLFWESA militants had conducted the attack
- Later, on November 26, 2016 five Indian Special Forces personnel were wounded when militants of UNLFWESA ambushed them at Sajik Tampak area in Chandel District of Manipur, along the Myanmar border. In a statement issued by United Liberation Front of Asom Independent faction (ULFA-I), stated that “A group of PLA attacked the 21 Para Regiment of Indian Army between Aisi and Khunmulen near Sajik Tampak in Chandel District”.
- However, the most significant incident involving WESA occurred in June 2015 when the group attacked the 6 Dogra Regiment in Paralon at Chandel District of Manipur killing 18 Army men.
Between June 2015 to March 2017, 23 out of 60 security forces were killed in India’s north-eastern states by UNLFWESA militants.
Past Attempts by India’s Northeastern Militant Groups to Consolidate a United Front
The earliest attempt at a united front was in 1986 when ULFA, NSCN (undivided) UNLF came together to explore possibility of sending a combined team to China to acquire weapons and training, However, in 1988 NSCN split into two factions. Later in 1991, Khaplang of NSCN-K initiated the Indo Burma Revolutionary Front (IBRF)by grouping together NSCN-K, ULFA, United Liberation Front of Manipur (UNLF) the largest militant outfit in the region. Meanwhile, NSCN-IM, in order to strengthen its position also set up an umbrella organization: United Liberation Front of Seven Sisters (ULFOSS) consisting of ULFA, Dima Halim Daogan (DHD), United Peoples Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) of Assam Arunachal Dragon Force (ADF) in Arunachal Pradesh, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of Manipur and the Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF). A second attempt in 1944 was made by NSCN-IM when it created another consolidated front Self Defence United Front of South East Himalayan Region which included NSCN-IM, Hynniewterp National Liberation Council (HNLC) of Meghalaya, National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), Karbi National Volunteers (KNV), Hmar People’s Convention (HPC) and KYKL.
UNLFWESA, although formed in April 17, 2015 at Taga area in Myanmar, the official declaration was made on May 4 the same year by ULFA-I leader in a press release, a day after an ambush which killed 8 AR and one Territorial Army (TA) men in Mon District in Nagaland. The formation of UNLFWESA was the result of a series of events that began in 2011 when the representatives of 12 rebel groups from Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura and Meghalaya held their first meeting in Myanmar. The stated aim of UNLW is the “unified and total struggle” for the liberation of “ancestral homes” in the northeast and contiguous Naga areas in Myanmar.
According to intelligence officials, NSCN-K leader SS Khaplang has drawn up long term plans for militant groups including the creation of a regular army in northern Sagaing Division in Myanmar (which shares border with India) and fixed sources of income.
According to a notification issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in November 2016, UNLFW has been formed in April, 2015, and two of its constituents viz ULFA (I) and NDFB (S) have been desperately making efforts to perpetrate demonstrative acts of violence and during the current year they have been responsible for 57 per cent of the incidents of violence and 84 per cent of the deaths in Assam.
UNLFWESA: Estimated Strength & Capacity
According to latest estimates there are more than 1200 militants in UNLFWESA affiliated groups, based in Myanmar. Of this, NSCN-K has 1000 militants based across the border while, ULFA-I has 214, NDFB-IKS has 160, PLA has 256, KYKL has 102, PREPAK( includes two factions PREPAK and PREPAK-PRO) 80–100 cadres each , KCP has 40–50 militants, Kamtapur Liberation Organization has 10–15 militants in Myanmar.
According to intelligence agencies, Chinese intelligence had played an important role in the creation UNLFWESA, given the history of Chinese patronage for militant groups in the area, for the past decades. The Chinese intelligence agencies is active in Sagaing region of Myanmar and Chinese arms are smuggled to north east via Sagaing. Additionally, the Chinese are likely to be using militant organizations to spy on nuclear missiles and military formations deployed in the North-east. Notably in 2009, an arrested PLA militant had stated that about 300 militants had recently returned after training in China. Additionally, when UNLF militants were arrested from Guwahati in 2011 further evidence was unearthed from a laptop recovered from militants which detailed accounts of their operational linkages with China.
Further, the Assam Director General of Police (DGP) stated that Chinese intelligence agencies have been providing support to insurgent groups of India’s north-eastern region that have their bases and hideouts in Myanmar. These groups are under increasing influence of the Chinese agencies, and ULFA leader Paresh Barua is among those top leaders who have been in regular touch with the Chinese liaison office in Ruili on the China-Myanmar border
Intelligence agencies also added that Chinese have promised to provide weapons and logistics to the new grouping as they want to keep things boiling in the northeast in view of their claim on the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Moreover, the recent reports on the presence of ULFA and PLA camps along the Myanmar-China Border in Shan state provide further credence to the aforementioned analysis of intelligence agencies
Security Implications of the UNLFWESA on India’s Northeast
Although militancy related violence in the region has ebbed in the past few years, the consolidation of militant groups operating in Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Manipur is likely to result in sustenance of insurgent and ethnic violence, given that some of the groups in UNLFWESA such as ULFA-I and NDFB-IKS has been involved in ethnically motivated violence in the past. However, given that militant groups have set up bases in Shan state in Myanmar, which is at least four weeks journey from India, is a possible indication that the safe havens for militant groups in India is shrinking.
However, given that the demonstrated capability of the group to conduct visible high impact incidents of violence, smaller militant groups are also likely to join or work together with UNLFWESA, resulting in widening area of operations and logistical bases. Already ULFA-I leader Paresh Baruah is involved in routing Chinese arms to smaller militant groups which may also result in a visible lethal capability to more insurgent groups.
A significant tactical shift in operational methods is that militant groups have begun utilising one other’s operational territory to conduct attacks against Indian security forces, unobserved previously. For instance, an ambush on AR at Tirap in Arunachal Pradesh on December 3, 2016 was jointly conducted by NSCN-K, KYKL and ULFA-I. Although Tirap is a known area of operations for Naga militants, no Manipuri or Assamese militant groups had previously operated in the area, despite utilising Arunachal Pradesh as a transit point into Myanmar.
The location of the Chandel ambush in June 2015 serves as a primary example for this shift. NSCN-K does not hold operational territory in Manipur, but with KYKL’s willingness to participate in the attack, NSCN-K decided to plan an attack at Chandel District where KYKL militants could pass through and exploit their nexus with other local militant groups in Chandel. Chandel was also stronghold of UNLF, with the area being the route to UNLF camps in Myanmar from Manipur and it was in UNLF interest to keep the area quiet and peaceful.
The ambush in Chandel also serves to pressurise the UNLF which had not joined UNLFWESA, considering security forces’ deployments in the area would increase after the June 4 attack. According to a UNLF personnel, it is possible that UNLF would have to depend more on its bases in Khaplang’s operational territory for sustenance, leaving little choice but to concede to and accept the demands of Khaplang and UNLFWESA.
Additionally, albeit indirect, the movement of UNLFWESA bases to Myanmar from Bangladesh (such as ULFA), has led to an increase in insurgent activity on the Indo-Myanmar border over the past 3 years. From 2015 to March 31, 2017, terror activities along Indo-Myanmar border increased alarmingly in view of insurgents groups shifting their bases from Bangladesh to territories within Myanmar and China. The Indo-Myanmar border has observed a steady rise in insurgent activities during the abovementioned period. At least 206 armed encounters were reported between militants and security personnel across four of India’s North-eastern States; Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. More so, 18 security forces and 32 militants have been killed, with Arunachal Pradesh recording the highest with 81 encounters. In 2017, at least 13 encounters have been reported till March in the state. Overall, the changes in operational methodology and territorial bases pose wider strategic implications for India and its eastern regional neighbours.