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Article from Outlook weekly Magazin
Subject: Article from Outlook weekly Magazine(India)
February 1, 1999.
OUTLOOK WEEKLY MAGAZINE COVER STORY
"Why is George Fernandes allowing gun-running that hits the army?"
"Route to suicide"
"The defence minister deals a blow to army efforts in the Northeast by
giving gun-runners free passage "
By Nitin A. Gokhale in Guwahati
July 27, 1998
Reference the combined operations in Andamans in the month of February,
it has become necessary to emphasize the need for utmost restraint in
launching such operations in the future in view of the objections that
are likely to be raised by Myanmar and Thailand.
The services headquarters may receive specific intelligence from time
to time with regard to vessels carrying weapons arms et ---al to Cox's
Bazar through the Andamans Seas?
Keeping in mind the sensitivities involved, it has been decided that no
precipitate action on such intelligence report is to be taken. Services
HQ is not to act in any intelligence relating to gunrunning and other
illegal activities in Andamans seas without the approval of the
Is the Ministry of Defence (MOD), so used to blaming the unrest in the
Northeast on the "foreign hand", itself contributing to the strife?
Otherwise. why did the then defence secretary, Ajit Kumar, send an order
to the three service chiefs on July 27, 1998, specifically asking them
not to take action against illegal gun-runners operations in the
Andamans? Those too when there are intelligence reports that arms
dealers have stepped up their supply to insurgent groups, including the
ULFA and the NSCN in the Northeast; and to Burmese rebels fighting the
military regime in Yangon. Besides destabilizing an already volatile
region, the government circular totally frustrated the Indian security
forces fighting insurgency.
The controversial order is, in effect, asking the defence forces to
ignore whatever tip-off it receives about the movement of illegal arms
consignment, which includes sophisticated AK series rifles,
rocket-propelled grenades, night vision fitted rifles and hand grenades.
Kumar wrote the letter (reproduced above) apparently under the
instructions of defence minister George Fernandes, whose sympathy for
the pro-democracy movement in Burma is no secret. The army is upset over
the fact that in his--and RAW'?zeal to support the Burmese rebels,
Fernandes is ignoring the dangers Indian army troops and civilians in
the Northeast are being exposed to.
The defence minister's stance has also made the Burmese government very
unhappy. A Burmese diplomat in the embassy in Delhi told Outlook: "on
the one hand, New Delhi official wants to increase military cooperation
with us, and on the other, your defence minister goes and supports the
anti-government forces in our country. How do you expect us to reconcile
The Indian army is equally indignant. Says a senior Indian army
officer, dealing with counter insurgency operation in the Northeast: "It
is irritating and painful that we are losing men in the operations even
as the decision-makers seem to be indirectly abetting the insurgents".
The anger is understandable over the last five years, at least 200
security persons have lost their lives in the Northeast; last year, the
toll touched 60. Hundreds of civilians have been killed. Over 25,000
troops are deployed in counter-insurgency operation; the cost of
maintaining them is close to Rs 100 crore a year.
In this context, the MOD directive and other instructions are puzzling.
* The services were specially told not to take any action on a definite
tip given by the Indian ambassador in Yangon regarding arms movement in
mid-1998. Evidently, the Indian diplomat was informed about a big arms
consignment coming from the Far East through the Andaman seas by the
Myanmarese military authorities.
? The Indian military intelligence's, which also received a tip-off, was
told to hold its horse while at least three arms consignments went
through and were received by militant groups in the Northeast and Burma
between August 1998 and now.
? Many more consignments, on which there were no intelligence reports,
have passed through.
? Arms running through the sea off the Andamans, which had been reduced
to a trickle in 1995-96 has increased manifold.
? According to a US intelligence report on the LTTE, the sea route from
the golden triangle to Myanmar is a key conduit for arms and narcotics.
Almost 80 percent of the heroin in the world market is channellised
through this route.
Most of the sophisticated weapons in the hands of various
insurgent groups can be traced to the Far East market (see map). The
narco-arms dealers obviously have a free run and easy access to this
arms bazar. For instance, most of the arms consignments, aided by the
Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), are getting their arms
supply from the flourishing arms market in the Far East.
Everything was going well till the Myanmarese realised in late'98 the
futility of dealing with MOD. "As soon as they realised the raksha
mantri's inclination, the Myanmarese became cool towards any proposal
for closer military cooperations, a senior army official told Outlook.
"They tell us ' your defence minister is hand-in-glove with the
opponents of our government and you expect us to cooperate with you. We
have no answer". Adds an army officer: "People in politics think
finishing in troubled waters in the neighbourhood is a good policy. But
in the long run, this attitude goes against the national interest".
Another intelligence official in Delhi told Outlook: "Nobody is
questioning the defence minister's integrity or patriotism but when he
takes up causes that are not wholly consistent with the national
interest, it becomes a serious matter". Neither Fernandes nor defence
secretary T. R. Prasad responded to Outlook's repeated queries on the
subject over the whole of last week?till 11:30 PM Friday.
There is, of course, another angle to the Operation Leech affair and
the subsequent MOD clampdown. Apparently, that particular arms
consignment was initiated by RAW, which is known to aid and abet
anti-government forces in neighbouring countries. RAW procured the
consignment for the Chin National Army and the Khaplang of the NSCN. It
objective was two-fold: to prop up the Chin National Army and to help
the Khaplang group. But why did RAW want to assist the Khaplang group?
That isn't clear.
The tri-services operation clearly caught RAW unawares. Once the RAW
angle came to light, there was a huge ruckus in government circles. The
defence services were livid that RAW was acting against "national
interests": RAW was unrepentant. Following the goof-up, several
high-level meetings, chaired by Union home secretary B.P. Singh and
attended by top IB, RAW and defence officials, tried to make sense out
of the confusion but failed to come up with any unanimous future course
For the armed forces, the Mod's constant interference?and the
revelation about RAW?was the last straw. The services top brass raised
the point with George Fernandes, but the defence minister has been
unresponsive. He, of course, has his own agenda, being openly supportive
of anti-government forces in Myanmar. Initially, for our men in
fatigues, Fernandes came as a breath of fresh air after a stream of
clueless defence ministers. He took a keen interest in the welfare of
the troops; and kept himself abreast of ground realities. His
well-published Siachen trips, packing off bureaucrats to the glacier to
experience life first hand, sent positive signals. But his concern for
the troops was overshadowed by his penchant for taking up causes that
seemed totally out of sync with the national policy.
As for the Myanmarese rebels, the soft stand taken by the MOD could not
have come at a better time. In Bangkok, intelligence sources are aware
of the attempts by the Khmer Rouge to make in arms sale to the rebels. A
Cambodia official, requesting anonymity, said Outlook: "Fifty percent of
the Khmer Rouge's stockpile is kept in Thailand and the rest in
Cambodia". Enter the Northeast rebels. Aided by the LTTE, which had
established links with the NSCN and ULFA in the early '90s. Northeast
insurgents went on a shopping spree. Rebels of the Chin National Army
also jointed in. It took some time to work out the modalities?the route,
delivery and payments?before the arms began to flow. The LTTE, with its
expertise in high seas operation, helps in transporting the arms up to
the ports of Cox's Bazar and Chittagong in Bangladesh.
Along with the weapons, heroin from the Golden Triangle is also shipped
to Myanmar through the sea route. The key drug trail, however, remains
the overland route from the Golden Triangle, stretching up to the
Northeast. At Cox's Bazar, the liaison point, the arms consignments are
broken up into small caches to be carried by three different routes.
Part of it goes to the Chin rebels and the rest to the Northeast.
According to army sources, the best chance to intercept arms is on the
high seas as Operation Leech showed.
But that was not to be. Within four months of the operation, the MOD
declared a cease-fire on gunrunners. As a senior army officer puts it:
"The babus want us to take prior permission from them before we act on a
hot up. You think the militants will wait before the file is put up to
the 15 joint secretaries, who will in turn put it up to the defence
secretary. And then it will go to the RM (raksha mantri). By the time it
comes back to us, it would be over a month. By that time, the government
would have already reached the destination".
With Harish Mehta in Bangkok.
Major Insurgent Groups
United Liberation Front of Assam(ULFA), Leaders- Paresh Barua and
Arabinda Rajkhowa, Strength-1,600, Weapons-200 AK series rifles, 20RPGs,
400 other types of rifles.
National Democratic Front of Bodaland(NDFB), Leaders-Ranjan Daimary,
Strength-600, Weapons-50 AK series rifles, 100 other rifles.
National Socialist Council of Nagaland(NSCN) and Isaac-Muivah faction,
Leaders- Isaac Chisi Swu and Th. Muivah, Strength-2,000, Weapons-400 AK
series rifles, 50 RPGs, assorted rifles.
NSCN(Khaplang), Leader-S.S. Khaplang, Strength-1,000, Weapons-200 AK
United Nationalist Liberation Front(UNLF), Strength-1,500, Weapons-200
AK series rifles.
PLA, Strength-1,000, Weapons-150 AK series rifles.
All Tripura Tiger Force(ATTF), Leader-Ranjit Debbarma, Strength- 200,
Weapons 50 AK series rifles.
National Liberation Force of Tripura(NLFT), Leader-Nayanbasi Jamatia,
Strength-150, 50 AK series rifles.
THE TOLL: 8,000 AND RISING
*Over 2,700 killed in violence in 10 years
*Over 380 killed in Santhal-Bodo clashes
*Accord stalled over Bodo Autonomous Council
*Bodos demand separate state
*Santhal also want a separate state
*Militants step up extortion, abduction
*300% increase in arms-snatching in 1997?
majority taken by Bodo militants
*ULFA has lost some ground I urban areas but maintain rural bases: is
under pressure but has spumed talks
*Over 1,500 killed in 10 years
*Movement violent but fractious
*Demand for a sovereign Nagaland
*Ceasefire with NSCN/IM on September 1. 1997
*NSCN/Khaplang maintains de-facto truce
*Over 1,600 killed in the last 10 years
*NLFT/ATTF have bases in Bangladesh
*NLFT has gained ground and 27 police station areas declared
*Abductions by NLFT up by over 300%
*Tension between tribals and non-tribals
*Rise in tribal militancy
*Over 3,000 persons killed in 10 years
*750 killed/ 4,000 homes burnt in Naga-Kuki
clashes since June 1997
*Meteis fear balkanisation
"LTTE: Lords of the seas"
For the LTTE, the sea east of the Andamans is a goldmine. From here,
they ship gold and narcotics to the East to fill their coffers and buy
sophisticated weapons. It's here that they receive most of their
shipment of weapons as well. Says a senior Sri Lankan foreign office
spokesman: "The LTTE is like the Suez Canal. It provides a short route
to link the east and the west. The LTTE links the narcotics barons and
gun-runners of the east and the west".
Sri Lankan official say the "LTTE has created a new route. Cambodia to
Myanmar, then to Mullaitivu in Sri Lankan via the uninhabited islands of
Andamans and Nicobar, from where the trail leads to the Cape of Good
Hope, then to the Mediterranean and Latin America. This is the
mostvolatile route with maximum insurgency". The ship MV Ahath, in which
senior LTTE leader Kittu was travelling before being captured by the
Indian navy, had used the Myanmar coast's drug-arms route. According to
Sri Lankan military intelligence sources, the ship which was blown up by
Kittu on January 13, 1993, following Indian intervention, was full of
arms collected from Thai and Cambodia sources mid-sea between Andamans
Sri Lankan defence expert Rohan Gunaratne says the LTTE bought SAM
missiles from Cambodia at $1million a piece. The Russian-made SAM 7s,
procured in the '80s for the Cambodia armed forces, were sold off to the
LTTE and opium warlord Khun Sa of Myanmar by "corrupt" Royal Cambodia
Armed Forces officials. The Bangladesh-based Robert Kamiol, Asia-Pacific
regional editor of Jane's, confirms the purchase.
According to Thai intelligence, surface-to-air missiles were moved from
Koh Kong south west of Cambodia, to Chumporn in Thailand and then across
the Kra Isthmus which take the sea route, can be intercepted on the high
seas off the Andamans, as the successful tri-services "Operation Leech"
conducted in February 1998 showed.
In that operation, securities forces killed six gun-runners, arrested
73 others and seized a huge consignment of arms, including 140 AK series
rifles and assorted ammunition. The end-users of this particular
consignment were mainly three major groups, two in the Northeast and one
in Myanmar?the banned National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), the
All Tripura Tigers Force (ATTF) and the Chin National Army in Myanmar.
The successful operation convinced the defence services that a constant
vigil along the high seas in Andamans would help them net more, a formal
briefing was held for the press in Delhi where representatives of all
the three forces were present. In May, defence forces intercepted two
more Thai trawlers near Narcodam Island and seized a 50-kg consignment
of heroin along with an unspecified numbers of guns and assorted
ammunition. At least, it appeared that the coordination between the
three services and the new-found cooperation between India and Myanmar
were bearing fruits.
Officially, New Delhi has been working hard at building good relations
with the military regime in Yangon for the last four years. The two
armies have launched joint operations to check insurgency?in April 1995,
they undertook Operation Golden Bird on the Manipur-Myanmar border where
at least 40 insurgents belonging to various militant groups were killed;
a huge cache of arms recovered-joint operations was the new mantra.
This was possible after years of lobbing by ground officials who
pressed for steps to cut off arms to the Northeast rebels. Lt. Gen. S.S.
Grewal, the then commander of Army corps entrusted with
counter-insurgency operations in Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura, told his
higher-ups in mid-1996. "The militants find sustenance in the arms that
they get from groups like the Khmer Rouge in the Far East. If these are
not allowed to come in, many of these groups will be weakened." His
counterpart in the Tezpur-based Corps, Lt. Gen. R.K Sawhney , who headed
the Unified Command set up in Assam to tackle insurgency for over two
years, spouted similar views at a press conference in October 1997: "The
militants in the Northeast and in Myanmar, actively to Phuket. This was
one of the three shipments by the LTTE even as it was talking to the Sri
The LTTE's money-laundering methods are similar to that of Latin
America's drug cartels. Money is invested in legitimate ventures, making
it difficult for investigators to trace its origins. Intelligence
agencies have detected their narco operations from the Philippines to
Germany and from the Italy to Canada.
Citing H. P. Klepak's book, The International Drug Trade, Gunaratne
says: "Colombia's FARC, Peru's Shinning Path, Myanmar's Khun Sa,
Turkey's PKK and Afghanistan's Hizbi-Islami engage in trafficking. US
experts say 80 percent of narcotics found in US originate from Myanmar,
shipped via the LTTE network.
In October'97, the Observer revealed that the underground PKK, which is
backed by shadowy 'November 17 Revolutionary Group' in Greece, has
close links with the LTTE. Saydo Hazar, a Kurdish-born German resident
described as "one of the world's most dangerous bombers", said the PKK
supplied 11 Stinger missiles to the Tigers. The money came from
smuggling narcotics out of Myanmar.
With Uncle George's Help"
'Defence minister or not, Fernandes stands by his pet causes'
George Fernandes, who prides himself for being different, revels in
taking up causes that are not wholly consistent with established views.
His open support for the pro-democracy forces in Burma is well
documented. The Headquarter of the All Burma Students League (ABSL) is
located in Fernandes's 3, Krishna Menon Marg residence in New Delhi.
Says Hla Saw, general secretary of ABSL: "Mr. Fernandes is like a father
figure to us. He has supported our cause whole-heartedly ever since we
came to India". Saw and other ABSL activists call Fernandes 'uncle'.
When he was introduced into the Vajpayee government, military
intelligence as well as the services chief found it difficult to come to
terms with an activists defence minister whodispensed with the pomp and
ceremony usually associated with the forces, Neither did he want
elaborate security arrangements. A man who speaks him mind, no matter
what his official position. Fernandes was all set to host a conference
last year, which would have been attended by the LTTE.
To be fair to him, the ABSL headquarters has been operating out of
Fernandes's residence long before he took over as defence minister. But
as Saw says, "defence minister or not, Mr. Fernandes will keep
supporting us." The ABSL general secretary, of course, admits that ever
since Fernandes became defence minister, their standing has gone up.
"His elevation has boosted our confidence", says Saw. The regime in
Yangon is obviously not amused at dealing with a government in New Delhi
whose defence minister espouses the cause of its opponents.
Burmese pro-democracy organizations are not the only rebels who have
got Fernandes' support. Last year, during a visit to Assam, the defence
minister broke protocol to meet a lawyer close to the banned National
Democratic Front of Bodoland. Apparently, the lawyer wanted Fernandes to
mediate in talks between the banned group and the government at a time
when the Center had clear said not to a dialogue with any militant
organization until they agreed to give up arms.