By Ajai Shukla
Full version of article in Business Standard
16th June 2015
In 1986, as the intelligence officer of an army brigade in Nagaland, I oversaw the first Indian army patrol that went into Myanmar. With clearance from Yangon, we linked up with a forward post of the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, and proposed joint action against insurgents fighting for Nagaland’s secession from India.
Myanmar’s military government controlled just 20 per cent of the country’s territory, the remainder being in the hands of Kachin, Keran, Wa and Shan separatists, and powerful Naga groups along the Indian border. Even knowing that, our officers were surprised at how embattled the Tatmadaw unit was, and how relieved at the prospect of Indian collaboration against Naga undergrounds holed up in Myanmar’s Sagaing division, bordering Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.
Cooperation between India and the Tatmadaw thus goes back decades. Over the years, the Indian Army has conducted several operations inside Myanmar with the Tatmadaw’s tacit agreement, but has wisely refrained from embarrassing Yangon, or Naypyidaw (the capital since 2005) with public statements. In the wildly successful 1995 Operation Golden Bird, the two armies jointly killed and captured some 150 militants.
Such cooperation, and improving political relations, led the two countries to sign a “Memorandum of Understanding on Border Cooperation” in Naypyidaw on May 8, 2014. The ministry of external affairs announced that it “provides a framework for security cooperation and exchange of information between Indian and Myanmar security agencies. A key provision is that of conduct of coordinated patrols on their respective sides of the international border…”
Stretching the agreement for “coordinated patrols”, Indian troops struck two underground camps several kilometres inside Myanmar on June 9, retaliating against an ambush on June 4, in which a mixed group of undergrounds from at least three militant organisations killed 18 infantry soldiers of the 6 DOGRA battalion, and wounded 15 more, in Chandel, Manipur.
The militant ambush was led by the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang faction), or NSCN(K), which last year ended a 14-year ceasefire with the Indian government. The group’s veteran leader, Khaplang, had long been propped up by Indian intelligence to weaken what they considered the more capable and dangerous rival grouping---the NSCN faction led by Isak Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, or NSCN(I/M). When, in 1988, the army apprehended Khaplang’s operations chief, Jesop Konyak, New Delhi quickly interceded to free Konyak and hush up the incident.
New Delhi’s steadfast support of Khaplang turned in 1997, when the NSCN(I/M) signed a ceasefire with New Delhi, making Swu and Muivah the favoured interlocutors for a final Naga settlement. A beleaguered Khaplang too signed a ceasefire in 2001, but realised to his chagrin that the NSCN(I/M)---drawing support from the larger and more influential Thangkhul, Chakhesang, Lotha and Mao tribes---would corner the lion’s share of the spoils. Khaplang’s NSCN(K), supported mainly by Konyaks and Myanmar-based Naga tribes, would be left holding the wooden spoon.
Matters came to a head last year, when Khaplang refused to renew the annual ceasefire agreement. Although the NSNC(I/M) ceasefire continued, it was clear Khaplang needed a big operational success to underline his relevance. Two small ambushes in Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland during the last three months suggested a big ambush was coming. RS Pande, New Delhi’s interlocutor in the Nagaland peace talks from 2010-13, wrote for NDTV that Khaplang’s withdrawal from the ceasefire “was a major event and should have been taken note of… [which] means preparing for the kind of attack [that came on June 4]”.
Even so, the intelligence and military failure of the June 4 ambush might have been partly mitigated by the flawless retaliatory operation carried out on June 9 by 21st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment (Special Forces) on the underground camps in Myanmar. The number of militants actually killed is debatable, but there is no doubt that the operation signalled to underground groups that any further attacks will invite retaliation, even in erstwhile safe havens in Myanmar.
For that signal to be credible, however, the Tatmadaw would have to remain on our side. The army’s statement, issued once everyone in the raiding party was safely back in India, was carefully calibrated to keep faith with the Tatmadaw. It deliberately avoided mentioning that it had crossed into Myanmar.
“The Indian Army engaged two separate groups of insurgents along the Indo-Myanmar border at two locations, along the Nagaland and Manipur borders. Significant casualties have been inflicted on them. As a consequence, threats to our civilian population and security forces were averted", said the army.
Nothing more needed to be said. News of the cross-border raid would spread like wildfire through militant networks, while sparing the Tatmadaw awkward questions about Indian troops operating on Myanmar’s soil.
“There is a history of close cooperation between our two militaries. We look forward to working with them to combat such terrorism”, affirmed the army.
But while the army’s message was directed at anti-India militants, India’s political leadership was more interested in voters. A couple of hours before the army’s official briefing at 6 p.m. on June 9, senior government officials called up a handful of “trusted” journalists, meaning those who would report what they were told without cross-checking or contextualising. These scribes were told that --- notwithstanding the carefully worded briefing that army headquarters would give later --- the operation had been a cross-border strike into Myanmar. It was made clear that news reports should highlight the top leadership’s lion-heartedness in ordering them.
“Someone, somewhere, was feeding them”, pointed out Vikram Sood, former Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) chief, citing the pattern of reporting and a published photograph of the commandos who allegedly conducted the raid.
Later that evening, the government abandoned discretion entirely and deputed a junior minister, Colonel (Retired) Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, to tom-tom the raid on television. Rathore, an Olympic silver medallist in trap shooting with little experience of soldiering, duly shot his trap. “Our prime minister has taken a very bold step and given a go-ahead for hot pursuit into Myanmar…” he pronounced. “We are confirming that Indian armed forces crossed over into Myanmar and carried out strikes on two of the militant camps…”
Starkly displaying the political agenda, Rathore trumpeted: “(T)he entire nation wanted it and that’s perhaps a reason why they voted a strong government at the centre.”
Rathore’s jingoism, played up by a drum beating media, evoked a predictable backlash. Zaw Htay, director of Myanmar’s presidential office, flatly contradicted Rathore, declaring that while there was “coordination” between the two armies, Indian troops never crossed into Myanmar.
AFP reported that Zaw Htay posted on Facebook: “Myanmar will not accept any foreigner who attacks neighbouring countries in the back and creates problems by using our own territory.”
Meanwhile, Islamabad responded aggressively to Rathore’s threat that the Myanmar raid was “a warning to other countries”. Pakistan’s interior minister, Nisar Ali Khan, warned India that “Pakistan is not a country like Myanmar”, a reminder that raiding across the heavily militarised Indo-Pakistan border would not be easy.
New Delhi’s politicisation of the Myanmar raid successfully subverted the military’s message to Naga and Manipuri militants. Instead of projecting a quiet menace in the north-east, India’s defence minister Manohar Parrikar --- who is rapidly gaining a reputation as a loose cannon --- engaged in a slanging match with Pakistani officials over India’s military capability.
Says a top serving general ruefully: “I can only say that we soldiers were dismayed at how the benefits of a flawless military operation were squandered by leaders scrabbling for credit.”
Notwithstanding the political bumbling, this raid into Myanmar raises important issues. The army now knows it can expect political clearance for cross-border strikes on militant camps in response to grave provocation --- so far only in Myanmar, but potentially also in Pakistan. The government’s willingness to use military force puts the onus on the military to develop a cross-border response capability against Pakistan.
This demands a more sophisticated, calibrated approach to escalation. Our Special Forces currently cannot conduct surgical strikes across the heavily defended Indo-Pakistan line of control (LoC), but India can credibly strike Pakistani targets with fighter aircraft, rocket salvos and cruise missiles. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government disregarded these options after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in 2008. So too did the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government after the 2001 terror strike on Parliament --- the NDA unwisely leapt up the escalation ladder to full-scale military mobilization, stopped short of war only by Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent. Now that the Indian military is aware that it can cross borders in retaliation, it will have to think and plan beyond Myanmar.
Finally, even the most successful cross-border raid cannot wish away the worrying question of how an Indian infantry battalion allowed itself to be ambushed with such heavy losses. There are real questions around the military’s force planning, procurement and promotion policies, and its treatment of ex-servicemen. But few doubt that our infantry battalions are formidable fighting units that deliver on the battlefield. Hopefully the Chandel attack, in which 18 infantrymen lost their lives for the reported loss of just two militants, was an aberration, and not a sign that the army’s combat edge is eroding.