Looking East

Insurgency in Northeast India: The Chinese Link

02 Feb, 2015    ·   4826

Wasbir Hussain explains why insurgency cannot be controlled unless the flow of small arms to the region is checked

Wasbir Hussain
Wasbir Hussain
Visiting Fellow

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has just ended a four-day visit to China where she discussed “bilateral, regional and global issues of concern” for both countries. The range of discussions with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, that stretched to over two hours, were rather extensive: finalising the transit issue for Indian pilgrims to Kailash Manasarovar through Sikkim to the border question, to defence contacts between the two neighbours, trade and commerce, and possibly river waters, in view of the concerns in India over the massive damming of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra). What is not known, however, is whether Sushma Swaraj or the new Foreign Secretary, S Jaishankar, an expert China hand who spent four years in Beijing as India’s Ambassador there, raised the issue of official Chinese arms manufacturing companies regularly selling small arms (man-portable lethal weapons like AK series rifles, light and sub-machine guns, grenades etc) to insurgents in Northeast India. China, in fact, holds the key to the availability of weapons and ammunition among the terror groups in Northeast India that is actually keeping insurgency alive in this far-eastern frontier.

One has heard the Modi Government at the Centre talking of a ‘zero tolerance policy’ on terror, something that has not been clearly articulated as yet. Going by New Delhi’s diktat to the security establishment in Assam to go all out against the insurgents indulging in violence, in the wake of the 23 December 2014 massacre of around 80 Adivasis in the state by rebels of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit faction), one can assume that the Centre now is in favour of tough action to neutralise trigger-happy rebels. The approach seems to have yielded good results because from 23 December 2014 to 31 January 31, 2015, security forces engaged in stepped-up counter-insurgency operations against the NDFB (Songbijit) have arrested nearly 140 cadres, killed a top commander, and recovered nearly two dozen rifles, including sophisticated German HK 33 and US-make M 16 rifles and a range of AK series ones, most likely made in China. Close to 2,000 rounds of ammunition have been seized.

There is every reason to believe that unless the flow of small arms to the region is checked, insurgency cannot be eliminated or controlled in Northeast India. Any new anti-terror policy that New Delhi may formulate in the coming days would have to take this fact into consideration. It is here that the China factor will come into play, something that the Modi Government will have to confront.

In fact, if one looks at the charge-sheet filed by the National Investigating Agency (NIA) on 26 March 2011 against Anthony Shimray, chief arms procurer of the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM), it becomes clear that the insurgent group was actively buying weapons from Chinese companies. The FIR lists out the plan in detail and specifically says that Shimray, accompanied by a representative of another rebel group, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), visited the Norinco headquarters in Beijing. Norinco or the China North Industries Corporation, is one of China's largest State-owned weapons manufacturers. Bangkok-based NSCN-IM rebels paid USD 500,000 to Norinco and bought 1,800 weapons that landed at Bangladesh’s Cox Bazar in 1996 and were transported onwards to Northeast India, to NSCN-IM and NDFB camps. Half of these weapons, of course, were seized by Bangladeshi security forces while being off-loaded.

Around 2007, NSCN-IM faced desertion from its ranks with people going away with weapons. That was the time the outfit again decided to buy 1,000 weapons, mainly AK series rifles, light machine guns, sub-machine guns, pistols, rocket-propelled grenades etc. NSCN-IM approached another Chinese arms manufacturing company, TCL, and paid USD 1,00,000. The money was paid through a Thai arms dealer Wuthikorn Naruenartwanich alias Willy. The deal did not materialise due to the ‘disturbed situation’ in Bangladesh where the consignment was meant to be delivered. The NIA has electronic receipt of the payment.

Reports attributed to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said that a definite money trail exists as payment to the Chinese firm was made through normal banking channels via a leading private bank's branch in an African country. NSCN (I-M), according to the MHA, has parked its funds in bank accounts across several African nations. The NIA is bent on pursuing the Anthony Shimray arms procurement case to its logical end and has received a shot in the arm with the arrest in 2013 of Wuthikorn Naruenartwanich. His extradition to India was cleared by a criminal court in Thailand but Willy has since moved a higher court there and is awaiting its verdict on the matter of his extradition. What is clear is the Chinese link in weapons supply to rebels in Northeast India.

Bangladesh and Myanmar have been the key transit routes through which small arms made in China reaches the Northeast. The main conduits in Myanmar are the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). These two ethnic insurgent groups have acted as the interlocking chain for the illegal weapons flow from Yunnan in China via Myanmar to Northeast India, but the most effective illegal weapons trader in Myanmar is another armed ethnic group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA).

The UWSA is the military wing of the United Wa State Party (UWSP) founded in 1989 with members of the Wa National Council (WNC), which represent the Wa ethnic group and former members of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). The UWSA’s biggest source of revenue is its involvement in the illegal small arms network across South and Southeast Asia. It manufactures Chinese weapons with an “informal franchise” procured from Chinese ordnance factories. The main motive is to sell these weapons for huge profit to armed groups in Northeast India.

A security situation in the Northeast that remains under control is vital to the pursuance of India’s Look East Policy. Therefore, New Delhi will have to devise a strategy to neutralise insurgency in the Northeast, and that strategy will have to factor in the flow of small arms to these groups. The ability to chock this flow right at the source of its origin could well hold the key.