Guns, drugs and rebels

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INDIA’S Burma policy in the post-colonial era has always been influenced by the ‘China factor’. Addressing the Burma Council of World Affairs on 20 July 1950, Burmese scholar-diplomat U Tun Nyoe said: ‘India’s special interests in Burma cannot be denied owing to her geographical proximity. Her own security requires that no foreign power has a permanent interest in Burma.’1 In fact, way back in 1945, Jawaharlal Nehru had even talked of a ‘South Asian Federation’ that would include Afghanistan, Burma and Iran along with India (at that time undivided).2

Immediately after independence, when Communist insurgency threatened to bring down Burma’s federal government, India promptly extended military and financial help even before Burma had asked for it. Burmese Prime Minister U Nu said: ‘Why India gave us help is her concern, not ours.’3 India was herself concerned with growing Communist guerrilla activity at home and a Chinese backed Communist insurrection spreading out of Burma to engulf the whole of India’s Northeast was one of the worst case scenarios tormenting Indian intelligence in the early 1950s. Speaking at the UN General Assembly on 17 April 1953, V.K. Krishna Menon said: ‘What hurt Burma would hurt India because of links of friendship, geography and history between the two countries.’4

After the 1962 military coup in Burma, India-Burma relations deteriorated. India backed the cause of democracy in Burma and protested strongly against the heavy-handed treatment meted out to Indian settlers during New Win’s nationalisation drive. But the fear of China and its support for the Burmese Communists drove General Ne Win back in to Indian arms. In 1968, the Burmese Communists unleashed a fierce offensive in the border regions to expand their liberated areas. By then the Naga and Mizo rebels had started using Burmese territory, both for locating bases and for reaching China for training. While Ne Win needed Indian support to fight the China-backed Communists and other ethnic rebels, India need Burmese support to block the North Burma corridor used by its own rebels to access Chinese training and weapons. On 29 March 1969, at a banquet hosted by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in Delhi Ne Win remarked: ‘Though we (India and Burma) may not agree on every single point, we have similar responses to many problems, specially on some international issues [read China].’5

The ‘rebel factor’ has emerged as one of the most significant issues in India-Burma relations. Between 1966 (when the first ‘Naga Army’ batch reached China for training through Burmese territory) to 1980 (when Beijing stopped arming and training the Northeast Indian rebels), China had trained several batches of Naga and Mizo rebels and a few dozen Manipuri rebel leaders led by Nameirakpam Bisheswar Singh. It provided sanctuary, weapons and training to an entire generation of Burmese Communist insurgents. But China stopped supporting the rebels of Northeast India and Burma in the early 1980s, ending the ‘export of revolution’ phase of Chinese foreign policy.

In the early 1950s, the Naga National Council (NNC) in India’s Naga Hills came into contact with the Eastern Naga Regional Council (ENRC) that was active in Burma’s Sagaing region which has some Naga-inhabited areas. The ENRC joined the NNC in propounding the concept of a ‘Greater Naga Nation’ in which Nagas of India and Burma would live together. The ENRC provided the NNC the first links to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and helped the Naga Army fighters reach China. As the Indian Army tightened its grip in the Naga Hills and East Pakistan was lost as a safe base area in 1971, the NNC turned to Burma’s Sagaing region to set up some major bases.

When the NNC disintegrated after the 1975 Shillong Accord, its breakaway faction, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) shifted its main headquarters to the remote Tepak mountains in Sagaing division. With S.S. Khaplang as their vice-president, the NSCN was firmly entrenched amongst the Hemi Nagas of western Burma. During a visit to the NSCN base area in 1987, this writer found that the Manipuri rebels as well as the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) had also set up bases around the NSCN headquarters. In 1985-86, these rebels faced two Burmese military offensives but managed to beat them back because the troops found logistics a nightmare in the inhospitable terrain of the Tepak mountains.6

The MNF maintained a large number of bases in Burma’s Chin Hills, further south of Sagaing, though their main headquarters were located in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts. These bases were dismantled when the MNF signed an accord with the Indian government in 1986. But over the years, the Northeast Indian rebel presence in Burma has increased. Now, the NSCN (Khaplang faction), the ULFA and the Manipuri rebel groups maintain at least 27 camps in Burmese territory. The NSCN’s Muivah faction pulled out of Burma after the spat with Khaplang that led to the split in the NSCN in 1988. While Khaplang’s fighters are based in the wild Tepak mountains inside Sagaing division, the ULFA has few bases close to the Indian border. The Manipur Peoples Liberation Front (MPLF), a coalition of three leading Meitei rebel groups, has a number of bases around the town of Tamu and close to Molcham salient, while their main base area in Manipur’s Sajit Tampak area is located right on the border with Burma.

These rebel bases in Burma serve three important purposes for the Northeast Indian insurgents: (a) They sheltered the rebel leadership after East Pakistan was lost as a safe base area. (b) They serve as a crucial link zone through which rebels could go to China for training and weapons. (c) They provide a safe training and regrouping zone where new recruits can be taught the art of guerrilla warfare and active guerrilla units can be shifted out to when under pressure in India.

In November 2001, the Burmese army raided four Manipuri rebel bases, rounded up 192 rebels and seized more than 1600 weapons. Surprisingly, the Burmese later released these rebels including UNLF chief Rajkumar Meghen. While the Burmese junta claim that they attacked Khaplang’s base area in December 2004 and killed nearly 100 rebel fighters, they are unable to explain why they released the Meitei insurgents in 2001 and are not cracking down on their bases now. The Naga bases are located in much more difficult terrain than those of the Manipuri groups or the ULFA. It could well be that the Nagas are Burmese nationals whose demand for being a part of Greater Naga state is seen as a threat to Burmese sovereignty by the military junta. The Manipuri and the Assamese rebels do not covet Burmese territory – they are temporary guests and the junta can leverage their presence to bargain with India.

As India’s relations with Burma improved in the mid-nineties, the Burmese army even participated in a joint operation ‘Golden Bird’ in April-May 1995. The 57 Indian Mountain Division was blocking a large rebel column of more than 200 NSCN, ULFA and Manipuri fighters who had picked up a huge consignment of weapons south of Cox’s Bazar (on the Bangladesh coast) and was moving through the Mizoram-Burma border towards Manipur. But, as India awarded the Nehru Peace Prize to Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the Burmese junta pulled out of the joint operation, allowing the trapped rebel column to escape. An upset Indian eastern army commander, Lieutenant General H.R.S. Kalkat remarked later: ‘India should leave its Burma policy to the army. We are soldiers, they (Burmese junta) are soldiers and our blood is thicker than the blood of bureaucrats.’7

During the BJP’s tenure in power, the military-to-military relations between India and Burma improved dramatically. Burmese military chief, General Maung Aye visited India twice, once to meet the regional commanders at Shillong and then to meet his counterpart in Delhi. Indian Army chief, General V.P. Malik visited Rangoon twice in January and July 2000. During Maung Aye’s second visit to Delhi, India and Burma signed an agreement for ‘increased cooperation to tackle cross-border terrorism and drugs trafficking.’8 A BBC analyst wrote of this visit: ‘While India was successful in getting Burma to make arrangements for conducting joint military operations against the rebel groups in future, Burma managed to strike deals for supply of military gear.9

Ever since this agreement, the Burmese troops have attacked Khaplang’s bases often without being able to dislodge him from the Tepak mountains. The Indians have obliged Burma by cracking down on Chin and Arakanese rebel bases. In 1998, the Indian military betrayed the National Unity Party of Arakans (NUPA), by drawing a large contingent led by their military wing chief, Khaing Raza, to the Landfall islands in the Andamans. Six NUPA leaders, including Raza, were later shot dead. 34 of these Arakanese guerrillas are still lodged in a prison at Port Blair, charged with gunrunning. The army is so far stonewalling investigations into this controversial ‘Operation Leech’.

Operation Leech marked the end of India’s limited cultivation of the Burmese rebel groups and pro-democracy coalitions that had climaxed in the covert quid pro quo between Indian intelligence and the Kachin rebels. After the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) became the main source of training and weapons for all northeastern rebel groups, India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), cultivated the KIA for six long years, supplying them weapons and even allowing them to carry a limited trade in jade and precious stones using Indian territory. The KIA stopped aiding and abetting the Northeast Indian rebel groups after its chief, Maran Brangsein, met the RAW chief in Delhi twice.10

India is now strengthening its military-to-military understanding with Burma for tackling her northeastern rebels after having tried to contain them through an understanding with the Burmese ethnic rebel groups like the KIA. Burma has so far neither agreed to joint operations suggested by India nor obliged her by undertaking a comprehensive Bhutan-style operation along her western borders. But its army has attacked some of the NSCN (Khaplang) bases and warned other rebel groups to leave or face attacks. In future as in the past, Delhi’s policy towards Rangoon will be influenced by security considerations aimed at denying use of Burma’s weakly controlled frontiers by rebels from her troubled Northeast.

India’s troubled Northeast sits on the western corner of Burma’s infamous Golden Triangle, one of the two largest opium producing regions in the world. The International Narcotics Control Bureau (INCB), in a global report, has said that more than 70% of the amphetamines available worldwide are produced in countries around the Golden Triangle, particularly Burma.11 The INCB report ranks Burma as second to Afghanistan in opium production, but this position could well change in a year or two. It says international pressure compelled Burma’s military rulers to undertake tough anti-drug measures that led to a 40 to 50% fall in Burma’s opium production from the peak of around 2500 tonnes in 1996 to around 1700 tonnes in 2001 after a ten-fold increase in between 1976 and 1996. Between 1985 and 1995, Burma’s heroin output rose from 54 tonnes to 166 tonnes.12 By all indications, this could now rise again after reaching a plateau or a marginal drop in the last seven years.

What is more worrying about the ‘Golden Triangle’ is the eight-times rise in the production of amphetamines from an estimated 100 million tablets in 1993 to 800 million tablets in 2002.13 Amphetamines are cheap and popular as performance-enhancing drugs, as much in demand in Calcutta or Delhi as in London or New York. Recent huge seizures of amphetamine tablets in Northeast India clearly indicates that India has more to worry about Burma than just insurgency. Heroin and amphetamines are likely to find their way into Indian cities and border towns on a much larger scale than ever before.

Two important developments have taken place in the ‘Golden Triangle’ that augurs ill for India: First, traditional druglords like Khun Sa have been eclipsed by ethnic rebel armies like the United Wa State Army in the Triangle. The Wa formed the bulk of the fighting force of the Burmese Communist Party until they revolted against the Burmese commissars in the late 1980s. The once strong BCP just withered away and its Wa fighters took to drugs. Now, the UWSA monopolises the amphetamine output to the extent that a Time magazine cover described the Wa as the ‘speed tribe’.

Second, the Wa monopoly over amphetamines has forced traditional druglords like Khun Sa to reinforce their control over the heroin output. Khun Sa has tried to establish monopoly on the heroin export routes to Laos and Thailand from the Golden Triangle. Three years ago, he imposed a hefty 60% ‘profit tax’ on smaller cartels, forcing at least three of them to relocate their drug refineries to the borders with India’s Northeast and China’s Yunnan province. These three cartels – headed by Zhang Zhi Ming (former BCP officer), Lo-Hsin Nian and the Wei brothers – have between 14 to 18 refineries in western Burma, mostly in the Sagaing division and the Chin Hills but some as far low down as the Arakans.14

In January 2002, the six countries – Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China – set up the ‘Joint Special Task Unit 2002’ to coordinate the fight against drug trafficking. India is yet to join this initiative, despite clear indications that Burmese drug cartels are increasingly using Northeast Indian states to send their deadly cargo into Bangladesh, mainland India or Nepal en route to regional and global markets. Seizures of heroin and amphetamines have risen in most Northeast Indian states and they are believed to be the tip of the iceberg.

The threat posed by the increased drug trafficking to India and particularly to its sensitive northeastern region are threefold:

(a) Trafficking through the northeast has led to a rise in local consumption. The region’s drug addict population is currently estimated at around 1,20,000 by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). Many addicts use intravenous injections to push drugs and become HIV positive. The number of HIV positive cases in the Northeast has risen to around 20,000 in the last two decades.

(b) Several military and paramilitary officials have been arrested for smuggling heroin or lesser drugs in Northeast India. The drug cartel has sucked in several politicians, bureaucrats and even security force officials to carry on their illicit trade. Unless checked firmly, this trend is dangerous for the morale of Indian security forces.

(c) Ethnic separatists in India’s northeast are taking to protection of drug mafias as a quick way to raise funds. Some like the Manipur Peoples Liberation Front continue to fiercely resist the drug traffickers, but other groups, including the NSCN, have taken to the drug trade, as seizures from their camps in recent months indicate. The Burmese druglords are also encouraging tribal farmers to plant poppy. Unless these new plantations are promptly destroyed and gainful agricultural alternatives provided to the farmers, the India-Burma border will soon be dotted with poppy fields feeding the processing plants in western Burma. A rebel-druglord-officialdom nexus is emerging in India’s Northeast in a repeat of the Colombian scenario.

Recently, an upcoming drug lab set by the ‘Ah Hua’ network of Yunnan and North Burma in Calcutta’s posh Salt Lake area (in an apartment owned by a senior police official) was busted by the Narcotics Control Bureau. Six Chinese and Burmese nationals arrested from that apartment confessed that it was much easier to get the requisite quantity of poppy into Calcutta and sell the drugs in the Indian market than get tonnes of processing chemicals like acetic anhydride to remote Burmese locations from Calcutta.

India sees a major threat in the rising flow of narcotics from Burma’s ‘Golden Triangle’. It will have to engage Burma closely to fight this menace. Without further delay India should, and finally perhaps will, join the six-nation task force set to fight narcotics in the Mekong region, but the state of bilateral ties between India and Burma will be crucial to its efforts to keep out Burmese drugs from South Asia.

When the Naga rebels started their guerrilla campaign in 1956, they depended on World War II weapons left behind by the Japanese and the Allies. A few years later, Pakistan started arming the Nagas and the Mizo rebels in a big way. Later, the rebels received most of their weapons from China, as Pakistani support waned after the break-up of that country in 1971. As the Chinese weapons were carried back by the rebel groups through Burma, India started cultivating the Kachins to deny the north-eastern rebels the corridor to reach China. Between 1988 and 1994, the KIA developed close ties with the Indian RAW.15

By the mid-1980s, however, as China stopped backing these rebel groups and Pakistan was too far away for direct help, the rebels of Northeast India turned to blackmarkets of southeast Asia for weapons. The long conflict in Indo-China created a thriving arms bazaar that the LTTE was the first to access through the ‘Karikal Muslims’ (who hailed from the Tamil-speaking French dependency of that name and had settled down in Indo-China during French rule). Subsequently the rebel groups from the Northeast gained access to this black-market through different sources. Most of the weapons were received in Thailand, loaded in ships and brought to the coast of Bangladesh, from where they would find their way into Northeast India through land routes, with guerrillas doubling as porters.

The NSCN, the ULFA, the Bodo and the Manipuri rebels as well as the Tripuri guerrillas have all brought in huge quantity of arms through this route. But the Indian Army’s Operation Golden Bird in April-May 1995 and a mysterious explosion in a weapons carrying ship next year, exposed the risks involved in bringing huge quantities of weapons over such a long route. By the end of the 1990s, the rebels of the Northeast had turned to the Yunnan mafia. In an attempt to turn the state-run ordinance factories into profit centres, Chinese state-run Norinco started selling huge quantities of weapons to even mafia groups based in Yunnan – groups such as the Blackhouse. By 1999-2000, these mafia groups had become the prime source of weapons for the Northeast Indian rebel groups like the ULFA. A top leader of ULFA, now surrendered, told this writer that the weapons from Yunnan are at least 50% cheaper than those in Thailand.

In November 2001, the Burmese army raided five Manipuri rebel camps in and around Tamu and recovered 1600 pieces of weapons including mortars and rocket launchers. Investigations have revealed these weapons have been purchased from the Yunnan mafia.

Even after losing close to a thousand pieces of weapons in Bhutan, the ULFA military wing chief Paresh Barua told this writer that ‘weapons were no cause of worry, loss of men was.’16 Indian intelligence reports suggest that the ULFA has become the major conduit for these weapons for a whole host of rebel groups from the Nepal Maoists to the Peoples War in the Indian mainland. The ULFA has ‘been frying fish in its own oil’ – buying weapons from the Yunnan mafia and selling it to the Nepali and the Indian Maoists or the Islamic jihadis in Bangladesh at double the price, good enough to pay for their own acquisitions.

From Bogura in Bangladesh to Calcutta in West Bengal to Chittagong in April last year, huge quantities of weapons meant for the ULFA or for forwarding to its many clients have been seized. The quantities varied from a few truckloads in Bogura in western Bangladesh to a whole shipload good enough to arm a whole army division in Chittagong. A regional expert, however, asserts that the huge quantities of weapons seized at Chittagong port on 2 April 2004, had originated in Hong Kong, ‘which was shipped to Singapore where more weapons were added.’17

The easy availability of cheap weapons from China, either transported through the land route by the Yunnan mafia through Burmese territory, or brought by sea on trawlers through the Bay of Bengal, will remain a major source of worry for Delhi. These are routes it will have to block to control insurgency and militancy in the country’s Northeast and in neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bangladesh.

Ever since the Chinese stopped official help to the insurgents of Northeast India, are these rebel groups in a position to access and buy huge quantities of weapons at very affordable prices. That would mean they can raise more recruits and arm them. Indian military officials say unless this new weapons route is blocked (a) the northeast Indian rebel groups will have much more arms to fight with; (b) they will have much more money raised through weapons trafficking to other groups; and (c) they will have close fraternal ties with these groups and have access to their support networks in the subcontinent and abroad that may have a direct bearing on their potential to make trouble.

India will have to engage China on this whole issue of small arms proliferation in South Asia. But until such time the Chinese are willing to restrain a very profit-making weapons industry for the sake of regional peace and stability, India will have put huge pressure on the Burmese military junta to stop the thriving Yunnan-Upper Burma-Northeast India weapons route.


1. Reported in the New Times of Burma, 26 July 1950.

2. S. Gupta, India and Regional Integration in Asia, Bombay, 1964.

3. Burma, vol.1, no 3, 1951, p.34.

4. Official Records of the UN General Assembly, 7th Session, April 1953.

5. Select Speeches of Indira Gandhi (January 1966-August 1969), Delhi, 1971.

6. Subir Bhaumik, ‘Brothers in Arms’, Sunday magazine (Calcutta), 20 July 1987.

7. Lt. General H.R.S. Kalkat on 13 October 1999, during a speech at the Alipur residence of industrialist Rusi Mody at the invitation of the think-tank, Bengal Initiative.

8. BBC Online report, 30 July 1999.

9. Larry Jagan, BBC Online, 4th July 2000.

10. B.B. Nandi, former RAW additional secretary, interview to author, 6 March 2002.

11. INCB Annual Report 2003, cited in Larry Jagan, ‘Southeast Asia remains drugs hotspot’, BBC Online, 26 February 2003.

12. Bertil Lintner, ‘Ethnic Movements in Burma: From Insurgency to Terrorism’, paper deliver at seminar on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflicts in South Asia, held in Jadavpur University, March 2002.

13. Burma Prospect – Focus on Burma Issues, Bangkok, February 2002.

14. Interview with senior DEA and NCB officials in March-April 2004 for a BBC radio documentary (yet to be aired).

15. This relationship has been detailed in Subir Bhaumik’s forthcoming book, The Troubled Periphery: The Crisis of India’s Northeast (Penguin). The writer has spoken to several senior KIA and RAW officials.

16. Luit Deuri, former G2 of ULFA’s Bhutan base area, interview with the writer on 23 May 2002.

17. Paresh Barua, interview with the writer 22 January 2004.

18. Anthony Davis, ‘New Details Emerge on Bangladesh Arm’s Haul’, Jane’s Intelligence Review, September 2004. Davis says the huge quantity of weapons seized at Chittagong on 2 April 2004, were loaded at Hong Kong and brought to Singapore, where some US and Israeli made weapons were added to the consignment, after it was transported through the straits of Malacca into the Bay of Bengal in two trawlers, Kazzadan and Amanat.