SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEW
New Samtal, spread over an area of 1,000 square kilometres and located in the southeastern corner of Chandel District in the Northeast Indian State of Manipur, along the India-Myanmar border, has remained, for the past decade, a bastion of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), the oldest Meitei insurgent group operating in the State. Moreover, the area, for at least the past three years, has remained a virtual ‘liberated zone’ in the State, providing a base area for the UNLF to launch its operations. Dislodging the outfit from the area, consequently, has long been crucial for the security forces (SFs) operating in the State.
New Samtal’s terrain, enveloped by hills and forests, made it almost an impregnable zone for the SFs. Long years of control over the area allowed the militants to pepper the area with landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), slowing down any potential SF crackdown and allowing the militants enough time to escape into the safety of Myanmar, where the UNLF maintained several camps. The problems associated with the terrain were further compounded by "the absence of a framework for a coordinated effort between the Indian Army and its Myanmarese counterpart". The dominance of the militants in New Samtal led to a complete collapse of governance in the area, in a State where the standards of general governance are already abysmal. No office or department of civil governance operated in the area, leaving the civilian population at the complete mercy of the militants.
At least two earlier Army operations to dislodge the UNLF from New Samtal had met with little success. In February 2006, the Army had launched and abandoned the major counter-insurgency ‘Operation Dragnet’ in the New Samtal area. The General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 57 Mountain Division, Major General E.J. Kochekkan, speaking on September 19, 2006, had asserted that that the inaccessibility of the region was the principal impediment for the continuance of the operation.
Thereafter, ‘Operation Khengjoi’ was launched by the Indian Army’s 10 J&K Light Infantry Battalion, in the second week of December 2006. The Operation reportedly followed a briefing provided by Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the security situation in the State, during the latter’s tour of Manipur on December 2, 2006. "Operations, continued both during day and night, were both tedious and hazardous, with vast stretches of the area mined by the militants. Villagers from the hamlets of Saimol and Sehao reported to the Army that they had been warned by the militants not to venture into the forest areas, as these were heavily mined". The UNLF militants were, moreover, known to have forcibly used villagers of Molcham and Tuileng as human shields against SF personnel during earlier operations. On December 18, 2006, at least 471 villagers from six villages in the Khengjoi areas had fled to the border town of Moreh, and were again escorted back to their respective villages by SF personnel who claimed to have recovered and later defused 61 IEDs during the operations.
However, contrary to the Army’s claims that heavy successes were achieved in purging vast areas of the militants’ presence within a fortnight of operations, the UNLF, on December 22, 2006, laid an ambush, killing one SF trooper and injuring five others in the Khengjoi range. One more ambush was carried out, with UNLF cadres firing mortar shells towards the Border Security Force (BSF) post at Aigijang near Sajik Tampak on December 29, 2006. Further, on January 8, 2007, the UNLF claimed to have killed two SF personnel near Hengshi. Again, on January 9, 2007, a stray bullet wounded an old man during an exchange of fire between UNLF cadres and SF personnel at Kamphajal village. Chief Minister Singh soon laid to rest the Army’s claims by pointing out that a great deal still remained to be done, particularly in terms of clearing large tracts of the State along areas like Tipaimukh, Barak and Loktak. He stated that, "there is still a 5-10 kilometre stretch along the Myanmar border [in the Samtal area] where the militants are in control". The Operations were then abandoned allowing the UNLF to reclaim the lost territories.
The failure of two operations within a single year was a major boost for the activities of the UNLF. Moreover, it appeared that New Samtal would continue to remain a virtual ‘liberated zone’, a blot on the purported capacities of the SFs. It was, consequently, almost obligatory on part of the SFs to make a fresh attempt in the area, putting its experience during past operations to practical use.
The two-pronged ‘Operation Samtal II’, targeting the ‘293rd battalion’ of the UNLF, was, thus, launched on November 18, 2007, by the Army’s J&K Light Infantry and the Assam Rifles (AR) battalions. Troops moved in simultaneously from the Khengjoi and Sehlon ridges, a tactic that had not been pressed into action on previous occasions. In the face of a calculated SF attack, the UNLF militants fell back on their old technique of using innocent villagers, mostly belonging to the Kuki tribe, as human shields. On December 16, Imphal Free Press, quoting the Kuki Students Organisation, Chandel, and the Kuki Chiefs Association, Chandel, claimed that militants had driven out people from Khengjoi, JM Moljol, Sijang, Old Samtal, Saikul Bungpi, Saikul Bongjoi and Toitung, and gathered them at Molcham, Twileng, New Samtal and Jangnomphai and Lajang villages, to use them as human shields. Some of the villagers had been taken as forced labourers by the outfit and had simply disappeared. The two Kuki bodies termed Operation Samtal II as a ‘ray of hope’ and a ‘new lease of life’ for the "beleaguered, innocent and indigenous people of Chandel District".
By December 1, 2007, the SFs had entered the Old Samtal village and the 44 AR battalion established its operational headquarters there. By January 9, 2008, troops entered New Samtal and New Laljang, thus clearing the core Samtal area of UNLF`s presence. On January 10, troops took control of Laljang and destroyed the UNLF camps, including field fortification and barracks. About 30 IEDs was cleared during this operation. By January 15, the SFs had established a clear control over the area by pushing the militants into Myanmar. The entire Operation had resulted in the death of 14 militants. In all, five militant camps were destroyed, 198 IEDS were neutralised and a "large quantity of warlike stores and rations" were recovered. In the course of the Operation, troops had cleared the road from Joupi to New Samtal, which was under the tactical control of the militants for over a decade. In all, 700 square kilometres, covering 19 villages, had been cleared by the SFs. The dominance of the SFs was further corroborated by a visit paid by Manipur Governor S.S. Sidhu to several villages in the interior areas of Chandel on February 14, 2008, and his address to villagers at Old Samtal and Khengjoi. Even the UNLF came out with a statement accepting its ‘temporary’ dislocation from the area.
The process of re-establishing the civilian administration in New Samtal area has already begun. The SFs are planning to set up a permanent post in the area to prevent it from falling into the hands of the militants. Police has also reached the area and is gradually taking control.
Operation Samtal II represents a small, yet critical, achievement for the SFs in militancy-riddled Manipur. In a State which recorded 408 militancy-related fatalities in 2007 and where none of the dominant militant outfits have shown any inclination to bring the conflict to an end through a dialogue process, the achievements of the SFs, although belated, underline their capacity to inflict serious damage on armed outfits.
There is, nevertheless, little scope for complacency. Areas of Chandel have been regained and lost to the SFs repeatedly in the past. The power of the UNLF has, at best, been dented, and the challenge of retaining the advantages secured in New Samtal is, perhaps, no less daunting than the task of having re-established present dominance.
in the Terai
On February 28, 2008, the Government and the United Democratic Madheshi Front (UDMF) signed an eight-point agreement, bringing an end to the indefinite strike in the Terai region on its 16th day. The shutdown had led to the closure of markets, major industries, transportation, academic institutions and Government offices. The continuous disruption of transport routes and closure of markets led to severe shortage of food supplies and fuel. Prithvi Highway, the main route to capital Kathmandu, was nearly deserted for two weeks during the strike. The Jhapa, Morang, Sunsari, Siraha, Saptari, Dhanusha, Bara, Parsa, Rautahat and Nawalparasi Districts were reportedly the worst affected. The indefinite strike had brought the whole country to a virtual standstill. While five persons were killed and hundreds injured during the strike, incalculable losses and difficulties were caused to the general public in many parts of the country. The supply of essential commodities from India – the principal source – was disturbed and the country witnessed an acute fuel shortage, deficits in daily household commodities and decreased industrial production.
A glance at the final agreement makes it clear that the Government has conceded all the major demands of the UDMF, including the most significant, for an autonomous Terai region within a federal system of governance. Complying with the UDMF’s demands, the agreement states that Nepal will be a federal democratic republican state with distinct power sharing between the Centre and the Terai region, conferring complete autonomy and authority on the Terai. The deal also promises to carry out appointment, promotion and nomination of Madheshis, indigenous communities, women, Dalits (lower caste Hindus), and to backward areas and minority communities, to ensure proportional participation in security bodies and all organs of the State. The entry of Madheshis and other groups into the Nepal Army will be ensured in order to give the Army a national and inclusive structure. The eight-point agreement also includes:
The signing of the agreement is an indication of the fact that the Terai movement has evolved from a rebellion by small armed ethnic groups into a fast-growing political movement, with political leaders across the party-lines joining hands to make the movement successful. Since senior leaders such as Mahanta Thakur from the Nepali Congress (NC), Hridayesh Tripathy from the Nepal Sadbhavana Party–Anandi Devi (NSP-AD), Mahendra Yadav from the Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), Ram Chandra Rai from the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), along with many others, left their respective parties in December 2007 and joined the Madheshi movement, it has gained greater strength, legitimacy and popular support. The movement gained further impetus when three regional political parties of the Terai – the Terai-Madhesh Democratic Party (TMDP) led by Mahanta Thakur, the Rajendra Mahato faction of the Nepal Sadbhavana Party (NSP-RH) and the MJF came together to form the United Democratic Madheshi Front (UDMF) on February 9, 2008.
The UMDF had put forward a list of six demands before the Government:
Similarly, the Terai-Madhesh Democratic Party (TMDP) had submitted an 11-point charter of demands to Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala on January 3, 2008, including, among others:
The TMDP asked the Government to fulfil the demands within two weeks or face a protest agitation. Mahanta Thakur threatened that the polls would not be possible unless the Terai region was transformed into an autonomous state: "We want autonomy for the Madhesh just like the American States. The Centre can't interfere in matters relating to the government and administration." He added, further, "We want this to be incorporated into the Interim Constitution… The state is treating the Terai as a colony." He also said that time was running out for the Government that had already lost control over many areas in the Terai.
On the same day, Rajendra Mahato declared that the rights of the Madheshis had to be ensured first, before his party could participate in the polls to elect the CA. Mahato alleged that the interests of the Madheshis had not been protected under the current electoral system and demanded 50 per cent Madheshi representation in the CA. He also insisted that 10,000 Madheshis be recruited immediately in the civil service, Police and Army. On February 17, the chief of the MJF, Upendra Yadav, had also vowed to continue the agitation "Till the fulfilment of the demand for the right to self determination and a single autonomous province in Madhesh."
Finally, after repeated appeals and threats to the Government, on February 13, the UMDF announced an indefinite strike in the Terai region and demanded that its six-point charter be met before the CA elections. While the Prime Minister wanted the Terai groups to participate in the elections and said that all the problems would be solved through democratic means after the elections, the Madheshi groups were adamant that their demands should be fulfilled before the elections. A cornered Government, on February 14, formally invited the UMDF for talks. The talks eventually ended successfully with the signing of the eight-point agreement on February 28.
The deal is certainly an achievement for the political parties of Terai region, through it offers no more than a breather for the Koirala regime, which continues to face the challenging task of conducting a peaceful election in the country. The implementation of the deal will be an "important contribution to the election of an inclusive constituent assembly in a conducive climate", Ian Martin, chief of the United Nations Mission in Nepal noted. While the Terai groups are ecstatic over their success, Prime Minister Koirala, who had earlier rejected autonomy demands from the region, sought to save face by assuring immediate implementation of the agreement. The deal and Koirala’s revised position are unambiguous indications of a weak State – the Government quietly surrendering before the demands of a group that threatened to disrupt the polling process.
The agreement does not, moreover, resolve the ‘Terai problem’ in its entirety. There remain other disgruntled armed groups, who continue to threaten to disrupt the CA elections. The Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha led by Jay Krishna Goit (JTMM-G) threatened, on February 28, that it would take "physical action" against those filing their candidacy for the Constituent Assembly polls. Goit rejected talks with the Government or taking part in the CA elections, stating that his outfit would continue its movement till Terai seceded from Nepal. "Terai is a separate, independent country… Nepal has no control over it. If Nepalis want to stay there, they have to take the permission of the Terai Government. If Indians want to work there, they have to get a work permit from the Government… Till Terai is freed, our struggle will continue," Goit told Avenues Television. Other groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Terai Ilam and Samyukta Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha have also issued similar warnings to the candidates.
Further, the Federal Republican National Front (FRNF), an alliance of Madheshi and six other ethnic groups, continues with its agitation in the eastern Terai and Hill Districts, at the time of writing. Normal life, consequently, remains disturbed in the areas where the Front is active. A dialogue between the Government and the FRNF is reportedly underway. The FRNF’s key demands include:
Thus, even after several rounds of talks, negotiations and agreements with numerous political and armed ethnic groups, holding elections in Nepal, especially in the volatile Terai, remains as difficult as before. Earlier, the Maoists had been the most visible obstruction to the electoral process; now it is the Madheshis and other armed ethnic groups who continue to challenge the feeble Government’s efforts to hold elections. Though all the major political parties appear to demonstrate a keen interest in holding the elections this time, without further postponement, there still remains significant disaffected elements with the potential to disrupt the process. Unless all these groups, small or big, come around to support the electoral process, the conduct and character of the polls would remain in doubt.
Weekly Fatalities: Major Conflicts in South Asia
February 25-March 2, 2008
Provisional data compiled from English language media sources.
Government and UMDF sign eight-point agreement to end strike in Terai: The Government and the agitating United Democratic Madheshi Front (UDMF) signed an eight-point agreement on February 28, 2008, bringing an end to the indefinite strike in the Terai region. The agreement states that Nepal will be a federal democratic republican State, complying to the demands of regional autonomy and a federal system of governance, including the demand for an autonomous Terai region. There will be distinct power sharing between the Centre and the Terai region and the region will have complete autonomy and authority. The deal also promises to carry out appointment, promotion and nomination of Madheshi, indigenous communities, women, Dalit (lower caste Hindus), backward areas and minority communities to ensure proportional participation in security bodies and all organs of the State. The entry of Madheshis and other groups into the Nepal Army will be ensured to give the Army a national and inclusive structure. The eight-point agreement also includes the declaration of those killed in the Madhesh agitation in 2007 as martyrs, providing treatment to the injured and immediate release of those in Police detention, and providing NR one million to each fatality victim’s family. Nepal News , February 29, 2008
42 people killed in suicide bombing in NWFP: 42 people were killed and at least 58 others were wounded in a suicide bombing at a tribal peace jirga (council) near the Zarghunkhel check-post in Darra Adam Khel in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) on March 2, 2008. The jirga of Zarghunkhel, Akhurwal, Sheraki, Bostikhel and Toor Chapper tribes had been convened to discuss the formation of a Lashkar (army) to drive militants out of the area. A severed head was reportedly found at the site and officials believed it was that of the bomber. Some people identified the teenager as a youth from the Sheraki area of Darra Adam Khel. Dawn, March 3, 2008.
35 Frontier Constabulary personnel dismissed in NWFP for refusing to fight Taliban: The District Government of Bannu in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) has dismissed 35 Frontier Constabulary (FC) personnel from service for laying down their weapons and refusing to fight the Taliban. According to details, the Taliban had attacked an FC check-post sometime in 2007, snatched ammunition from the FC soldiers and subsequently abducted them. Later, the FC personnel were released reportedly after successful negotiations mediated by a jirga (council). However, the Federal Government directed authorities to take stern action against the FC personnel. During investigations, it came to light that Taliban militants had abducted the FC personnel without any resistance. The authorities directed to dismiss the FC personnel who surrendered to the Taliban. The Post, March 1, 2008.
40 persons killed in suicide bombing at slain Police officer’s funeral in NWFP: 40 people were killed and more than 75 others sustained injuries when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the funeral prayers of the slain Deputy Superintendent of Police (Lakki Marwat), Javed Iqbal Khan, in the Mingora city of Swat District in NWFP on February 29, 2008. Among the dead were a son of the deceased Police officer, Ghazan Khan, and the Station House Officer of Mingora Police Station, Habib Jamal. District Police Officer Waqif Khan said the bomber was among the people taking part in the funeral. Deputy Superintendent of Police Iqbal had earlier died on the same morning along with three other policemen in the troubled southern Lakki Marwat District. The News; Dawn, March 1, 2008.
Suicide bomber kills Army’s Surgeon General and seven persons in Rawalpindi: Suicide bomber killed eight people, including the Pakistan Army’s surgeon general, in Rawalpindi on February 25 – the highest-ranking military officer killed since the country joined the US-led war on terror. Lieutenant General Mushtaq Baig, Surgeon General and Director-General of the Army’s Medical Services, died after a teenage suicide bomber blew himself up next to a military convoy on a busy road in Rawalpindi. Five civilians were also killed, while 25 others were injured, an Army statement said. "This was the first suicide attack in Pakistan in which a high-ranking military official has been killed since 9/11 and also the first attack after the election," AFP quoted Abbas as saying. Dawn, February 26, 2008.
LTTE chief Prabhakaran may commit suicide, say Sri Lankan leaders: Predicting the collapse of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), some leaders in Sri Lanka have said the LTTE chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran, will have no choice other than to "commit suicide" when the Sri Lankan security forces zero in on him. "He (Prabhakaran) will not be alive till the military arrests him. Simply, he will commit suicide. This is the nature of people like him," Social Services and Social Welfare Minister Douglas Devananda said. The Marxist JVP party leader Somawansa Amarasinghe also made similar predictions about the fate of the LTTE chief. "LTTE leader Prabhakaran will soon have to commit suicide by swallowing the cyanide capsule tied around his neck while the LTTE will come to an end without a leader," Amarasinghe told reporters. Meanwhile, the online newspaper Asian Tribune quoted a senior official as saying that Prabhakaran, who was suffering from diabetes, had lost his commanding position. The official, quoting intelligence sources, said the outfit was in "shambles" and two senior rival leaders had taken over the day to day activities of the LTTE, it said. Times of India, March 2, 2008.
Recommend South Asia Intelligence Review (SAIR) to a friend.