Great Game East: India, China and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier
Paresh Barua seemed pleased when he received the news over his satellite phone on 29 April 1996. One of his comrades told him that Devendra Tyagi, an Indian Army lieutenant colonel, had been assassinated the day before while paying a visit to the sacred Kamakhya temple atop Nilachal Hill outside Guwahati in Assam. Another officer, Lieutenant Colonel A.K. Ghosh, was wounded when what the press described as ‘unidentified gunmen’ opened fire at the temple. (1) But they were not unknown to Barua, the commander-in-chief of the United Liberation Front of Asom. And he was not alone when he received the news. He was in a safe house in Dhaka, flanked by two officers from the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, DGFI. I was there, too, and it was obvious that Barua’s minders from Bangladesh’s main intelligence agency were not pleased to see a foreign journalist in what was supposed to be a top secret safe house. Officially, of course, Bangladesh did not provide sanctuary to militants from India’s north-east. That was done only during the days of the erstwhile East Pakistan.
I had gone to Bangladesh on a reporting assignment for the Far Eastern Economic Review, and in Dhaka contacted Anup Chetia,ULFA’s secretary general. We had previously met in Bangkok and I knew him quite well, so he did not hesitate to take me to the safe house to meet other ULFA members. The solid, two-storey concrete building with a basement was located in an open field, at the end of a dirt road and, unusually in overcrowded Dhaka, with no other houses in the immediate vicinity.
In June, just over a month later, elections were held in Bangladesh and the Awami League, which is considered more sympathetic to India than other political parties, was back in power as leader of a ‘government of national unity’. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, BNP, whose leader Khaleda Zia had formed the previous government, was forced into Opposition. Almost the entire ULFA leadership, including its chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa, boarded a plane to Bangkok shortly afterwards. I met them at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand’s clubhouse in the Thai capital, and they made it clear that it was no longer safe for them in Bangladesh under the new government.
The only top leader who remained in Bangladesh was Barua, still protected by his powerful DGFI connections. Not even the new prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, was ever able to fully control the country’s many wily intelligence operatives. He was never arrested, but Chetia, who had returned from Bangkok to move ULFA money out of Bangladesh, was picked up in Dhaka in December 1997. He was charged with illegally carrying foreign currencies and a satellite phone, and was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment by a Bangladeshi court.
But then, in October 2001, new elections were held. The BNP won and Khaleda Zia became prime minister for a second time. All the ULFA leaders and other militants from north-eastern India could return to their old safe houses and other sanctuaries in Bangladesh. In March 2002, I was back in Bangladesh and had made arrangements to meet Sashadhar Choudhury, ULFA’s foreign secretary, in Chittagong. I waited in my hotel, sent him emails through an approved contact. But no one showed up. Later I learnt that the DGFI had warned Choudhury and other ULFA leaders not to meet me. I was ‘an Indian spy’, the DGFI claimed – a remarkable allegation, given that, for years, I had been on the immigration blacklist in India for my illegal escapades in Nagaland in 1985. In reality, I am convinced that the DGFI, after my visit to the Dhaka safe house in April 1996, did not want any foreign journalists snooping around ULFA’s hideouts in Bangladesh.
But even if I did not meet any Assamese militants at that time, I was able to establish that the ULFA had a solid presence in Chittagong, a port city where arms shipments could be received from abroad. The full extent of ULFA’s regional arms procurement network – and China’s role in it – was exposed when, in April 2004, a huge consignment of military material was seized in Chittagong.
It was so massive that, had it been successful, it could have had a devastating impact on the situation in the entire Indian north-east. It included automatic and semi-automatic weapons, Kalashnikovtype assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, hand grenades and a large quantity of all kinds of ammunition.(2) The total value of the shipment was estimated at between 4.5 and 7 million US dollars. (3)
The shipment originated in Hong Kong and, at that point, only involved new Chinese weaponry. From Hong Kong, the ship carrying the goods continued to Singapore, where more weapons of Israeli and US manufacture were added. According to the well-respected defence journal Jane’s Intelligence Review: ‘The shipment was then transported north through the Strait of Malacca to be trans-shipped in the Bay of Bengal to two trawlers, the Kazaddan and Amanat, which ferried the weaponry to a jetty on the Karnapuli [sic] river, Chittagong.’ (4) It has never been made clear why the shipment was intercepted, but Jane’s speculated that, ‘following a tip-off – understood to have probably come from Indian intelligence sources – the off-loading of the weapons was interrupted in the early hours of April 2 by the Chittagong Port Police and Bangladesh Rifles. Nine truckloads of munitions were seized, although it is believed that one loaded truck had left the jetty before the arrival of the port police.’ (5)
There was no question as to where the guns were destined. Barua, using the pseudonym ‘Asif Zaman’, had checked in at Hotel Golden Inn in Chittagong’s Station Road shortly before the two trawlers arrived at the jetty on the Karnaphuli. He was even supervising the unloading of the weapons when the police arrived, accompanied by Anthony Shimray, the chief arms procurement officer of the NSCN (IM). (6) Shimray, who was based in the Philippine capital Manila, had flown into Bangladesh via Bangkok just before the shipment was expected to arrive in Chittagong. (7)
Somehow, both of them got away after the incident. It was clear that the guns were seized more or less by accident, much to the displeasure of Barua, Shimray – and the DFGI. The loss of the weapons in Chittagong was a devastating blow for ULFA. It was meant to replenish ULFA’s arsenal after it had been forced out of Bhutan in December 2003. Assamese militants and other insurgents from the north-east had had a presence in the Himalayan kingdom since the early 1990s. Taking advantage of the difficult terrain – and the weakness of the tiny Royal Bhutanese Army – ULFA had established at least seventeen camps across the border in Samdrup Jongkhar in south-eastern Bhutan. The National Democratic Front of Bodoland, representing tribals from the Assamese plains, and the Kamtapur Liberation Organization, KLO, also had camps in Bhutan. The KLO’s aim was to carve out a separate ‘Kamtapur’ state comprising parts of West Bengal and western Assam, which would include the narrow and strategically sensitive ‘Siliguri Neck’ that connects north-eastern India with the rest of the country.
In December 2003, the Bhutanese Army, with full support from India, eventually moved against the unwelcome intruders and they were flushed out in an operation code-named ‘All Clear’. Large quantities of weapons were seized, which ULFA had to replace.
Hence the anger over the loss of weaponry in Chittagong in April 2004. But, as Indian author and researcher Subir Bhaumik points out, ‘While the Chittagong arms haul, the biggest seizure of illegal weapons in South Asia, was successfully foiled, many similar consignments have reached the ULFA through Bangladesh.’ (8) South-east Bangladesh especially – with its fluid population of migrants from Burma and elsewhere and lack of any effective law enforcement – has long been a haven for smugglers, gunrunners, pirates and assorted ethnic insurgents. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the region saw a massive influx of weapons, especially small arms, not only through Chittagong but also the fishing port of Cox’s Bazar. (9) Guns were brought in across the Andaman Sea from South-east Asia, but the actual origin and manufacture of the weapons were more often than not Chinese.
The new, commercially oriented China may not be interested in exporting communist revolution to the rest of the world, but the arms trade is lucrative business, and as long as there are buyers Chinese ‘private arms dealers’ are willing to sell. While the weapons actually come from arms manufacturers such as the state-owned China North Industries Corporation, or NORINCO, deals can be made through front companies in China or, more conveniently, Hong Kong with its freewheeling economy and well-established financial institutions.
Based on interrogations of surrendered ULFA cadres, the Indian media in about 2000 began reporting about a ‘mysterious organization’ in China known as ‘Black House’ which delivered arms, often after erasing all original Chinese markings. (10) But ‘Black House’ is just a direct translation of the Chinese hei she-hui, a generic term which refers to the black market in general. Most of the weapons seized in Chittagong in April 2004 were destined for ULFA, but the NSCN (IM) had better contacts in the arms trade through its master smuggler, Anthony Shimray. Payment for the original shipment on behalf of both organizations was made by the NSCN (IM) to an unnamed agent in Hong Kong. (11)
But where did the money to buy the weapons come from? Some details came to light after Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League once again returned to power after the December 2008 election. In May 2009, the Bangladesh press reported that a former National Security Intelligence chief, Brig. Gen. Abdur Rahim, admitted publicly that he had visited Dubai, and there had been several meetings with a business group called ARY in connection with bringing in the arms that were seized in Chittagong. (12) ARY, which runs an immensely lucrative gold business in Dubai and a popular digital television company, was publicly accused of acting as a conduit for funds from Pakistan’s notorious spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, ISI. The Star Weekend Magazine of the Bengali newspaper Daily Star reported on 22 May 2009:
“The ARY Group’s Abdul Razzak Yaqoob (whose initials form the acronym) has been linked with the Pakistani establishment. He has offered the Pakistan government cash to bail it out. Pakistan, on the other hand, has strategic interests in funding the ULFA and other such Indian insurgent groups, as the country wants to wage a proxy war against its archrival India. Every country can have its own idea of safeguarding itself; Pakistan may have its own too. But making Bangladesh a battleground for its dummy war against India can never be justified.” (13)
Bangladesh had broken away from Pakistan and emerged as an independent nation with the help of India. But the country had undergone some fundamental changes since the 1971 liberation war. And Pakistani influence was soon restored, waning and waxing depending on who was in power in Dhaka: the India-friendly Awami League or the BNP, which has always been closer to Pakistan.
Bangladesh actually emerged from a strong opposition in East Pakistan to the notion that all Muslim areas of former British India should unite in one state.
1. See, for instance, http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/india/assam/timelines/Year1996.htm
2. For a complete list of what was seized in Chittagong on 2 :April 2004, see :Appendix4.
3. :Anthony Davis, ‘New Details Emerge on Bangladesh Arms Haul’, Jane’s Intelligence Review,:August2004, posted on the Internet on 6 July 2004.
6. Subir Bhaurnik, Troubled Periphery: Crisis ofIndia’s Northeast. New DelhiSage Publishers, 2009, pp. 189-90.
7. fane’s Intelligence Review, August 2004.
8. Ibid., p. 191.
9. SmallArms Suro’!)’: Profiling the Problem,Oxford: Oxford University Press (and SmallArms Survey,Geneva), 2001, p. 181.
11. fane’s Intelligence Review, August 2004.
12. ‘Rahim, Sahab tell of ISI link’,The Dai!J Star, 31 May 2009, at http:/ /www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid ==90552See also ‘Rahimtells of ARY meeting, a foreign embassy link’, Bangladesh News, 28 May 2009, at http://www.bangladeshnews.com.bd/2009/05/28/rahim-tells-of-arymeeting-a-foreign-embassy-link/
13. Ahmede Hussain,”Selling their souls to the devil,” Star Weekend Magazine, 22 May 2009.