Insurgent turf wars heat up in Arunachal’s border areas

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By Avalok Langer

Map: Naorem Ashish

AS COUPLES exchanged roses in the rest of India on Valentine’s Day, the rattle of an AK-47 broke the fragile peace in Khonsa, Arunachal Pradesh. A Chinese-made M-16 temporarily silenced waves of sporadic firing from the underground’s weapon of choice. Within moments, a chorus of automatic weapons joined the duet.

As National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) ultras forced schools, markets and government offices to shut down, the factional war continued.

With inaccessible mountain ranges and dense forests, Arunachal has become an ideal ‘base camp’ for underground groups. While the two NSCN factions — Isak – Muivah (IM) and Khaplang (K) — battle each other for dominance in Tirap and Changlang districts, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have moved into the state in pursuit of new safe havens.

The two Naga-dominated districts — which were previously under the control of NSCN(K) —are not only part of the proposed Nagalim (Greater Nagaland) but are of strategic importance to the groups due to its location on the Indo-Myanmar border. Dense vegetation, difficult terrain and a porous border make these districts a sort of pitstop for cadres moving into and out of NSCN(K)’s headquarters in Myanmar. Whoever controls this ‘gateway’ controls the cross-border trade of arms and drugs (opium grown in Arunachal Pradesh) and earns the allegiance and financial tribute of underground groups seeking to cross the border.

With the return of general secretary Th Muivah to India, the NSCN(IM) has been making efforts to reassert itself in Nagalim. Having pushed into Arunachal, the rebel outfit is trying to edge out the NSCN(K) and take control.

The recent bloodshed over Khonsa is simple economics. Control of the village will ensure huge financial rewards through drug peddling and open ‘tax collection’ (extortion). While Opposition parties, student bodies and civil societies mount pressure on the state government to “handle the situation”, the authorities seem powerless to control either faction of the NSCN.

Meanwhile, the Burmese underground group KIA, an ally of NSCN, has moved into Namdhapha National Park and Miao, an area stretching into the two districts. Sources say that the KIA has not only moved in but with the support of the Singpho tribe (who are of the same genetic stock), they have started clearing sections of the reserve forest to set up camps and tea plantations.

“I can understand the presence of the NDFB, ULFA and NSCN in Arunachal; they are homegrown movements. But the KIA are foreigners, they are fighting the Burmese junta. So why are they allowed to be here?” asks a local villager. Suggesting a RAW-KIA link, he adds, “Just some time ago, the army captured two KIA cadres, but they were released overnight. The army, the government, the police, IB, they all know they are here, setting up camps but they don’t act. Why?”

With the Assam, Bangladesh and Bhutan governments cracking down on the NDFB and ULFA, the Assamese groups have been forced to find new safe havens. Military and local sources confirm that while the NDFB has moved into West and East Kameng districts of western Arunachal, ULFA is trying to set up camps in and around Lohit district.

Local residents complain that the groups have already set up extortion networks and have established hideouts in the dense jungles outside the army’s reach. Passing in and out of Myanmar for training, the NDFB and ULFA are both aligned with the NSCN(K).

As the Indian Army is engaged in the daunting task of defending the mountainous Indo-China border, the underground outfits seem to have a free run of the state. With a national media focussed on Maoists in the ‘Red Corridor’ and a state government unable to tackle the growing influx of insurgencies, the locals of Arunachal are left with one question, “Whom do we turn to for help?”

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