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Army's Trans-Border Raid in Myanmar

Interrogating the Claims

Subir Bhaumik (sbhaum@gmail.com) is a veteran BBC correspondent who has reported on and from the Northeastern states. He is the author of two books "Insurgent Crossfire" and "Troubled Periphery” on the insurgency and political problems in that region.

Some reasonably astounding claims have been made about the commando raid carried out by the Indian army on rebel camps in Myanmar. A long time observer of the region and military operations there separates the chaff to prise out the possible grain of truth. 

Reporting the Indian trans-border strike in Myanmar, a top newspaper headline has said "soldiers crawled to targets, finished operations in 45 minutes". That is where the tale hangs, on what has been projected as a bold move of the Modi government, a fitting riposte to the 4 June ambush by insurgents in Manipur that left 18 soldiers dead. The army's additional director general of military operations, Major General Ranvir Singh claimed the operations were along the India-Myanmar border and “significant casualties" were inflicted on the militants.

However subsequent reporting, driven by the Union Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore's claims of "strikes deep inside Myanmar", has run riot on casualty figures, locations and assumptions; of this last the most worrying is that such attacks can be repeated in Pakistan. It has been claimed that Indian military helicopters did not cross the international border but dropped the troops on the border and left them to trek and crawl into the rebel camps for a surprise attack. It has also been claimed that the whole operation was over in 45 minutes.  

What Camps, Where

Anyone aware of ground realities along the India-Myanmar border, specially the jungles of Sagaing region where the assault reportedly took place, would know that if the para commandos were dropped at the border and hit a rebel base and returned within 45 minutes, the base would not be "deep inside Myanmar". Knowing the punishing Sagaing terrain where these rebel camps are located, it would be too much to expect, even from the toughest of commandos to make even two to three kilometres on the run with heavy weapons like rocket propelled grenades and medium machine guns, hit the camp and de-induct within 45 minutes. Even if they had the benefit of guides from the anti-Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN),  who have broken off from the Burmese Naga rebel chieftain three months ago, it would be an impossible task. 

So it would be more accurate to imagine that perhaps the camp(s) attacked were right on the border or very close to it. If that was the case, it would be naive to expect that the commandos could retain the surprise as the noise made by helicopters in such desolate jungle terrain would be picked up by ever-alert rebel sentries even from a substantial distance. If the rebels pick up the noise of the helicopters -- as indeed they would if the drop was near rather than far from their camp --  they would either rush to pre-determined ambush locations around their camps to welcome the commandos or just abandon it, if they felt that they do not have enough strength and were not confident of making a fight of it. 

The commandos would then “destroy” an abandoned camp without rebels in it. That rules out the preposterous claims of casualties in rebel ranks -- 100 to 150 in some, at least 20 as claimed by army sources, 50 or more claimed by Home Ministry sources and 38 specifically claimed by a TV channel quoting "those involved in the operation". The Manipur Peoples Liberation Army (MPLA) has admitted one of their “border transit camp” coming under attack but the rebels insist that they beat back the attack without any casualties. The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) has backed that claim and the NSCN-K has denied any attack on their camp, suggesting the camp attacked by the Indian commandos was not theirs. 

What has added to the confusion are claims by a former colonel who headed a military think tank after retirement that the commandos were not only dropped at the location by helicopters but also had been "provided firepower support by attack helicopters". His inside contacts in the military make his account more believable than those of the gung-ho media warriors who have claimed 150 militants dead. He claims more than 20 militants killed. That would be more of a likely figure if the Indian attack helicopters went straight for a dive and fire attack, firing heavy ammunition and with commandos slithered down firing to finish off.  But initial military claims that the assault took place between 1 am and 4 am IST would mean the sun had not yet risen on Sagaing when the assault peaked. To hit a small rebel camp in the dark from the sky in the thickly forested Sagaing terrain and claim it was a “surgical strike” may be as incredible as Rathore's claim of hitting "deep inside Myanmar". 

Implications and a Lesson from Tripura

There was surely a military assault on a rebel base, on the border with Myanmar or somewhat inside it, the commandos did engage the rebels and they are claiming they could inflict some casualties which the rebels deny. Whatever may have been the actual course of events will never be fully known, but there are two pointers that emerge from this attack which are encouraging.

First, it does point to a new aggression in the Indian security establishment to exercise the option of a trans-border raid. Even if the rebel camp attacked on the border is just one of the many transit camps that dot the India-Myanmar frontier and serve as a “hop-in” point for bigger rebel squads coming into Indian territory from deeper -- and bigger -- rebel bases, it would have some effect in combating insurgency in the northeastern states. 

In Tripura, much of the success against trans-border tribal militancy followed joint operations by state police and military intelligence to destroy the “transit camps” on the border by using surrendered rebels. The “'transit camps” allow bigger rebel squads to rest after a long march from deep inside Myanmar and observe movement of Indian security forces or factional rivals (many amongst Naga groups) before they enter Indian territory for operations. Destroying them systematically will limit the Khaplang-led rebel coalition's ability to sustain hostile operations inside Indian territory. 

Second, it is always a good idea to take the battle to the rebels rather than concentrate forces around the spot of the ambush, from where the rebels have made off long before the security forces arrive. Such operations at the ambush site end up invariably causing human rights violations on innocent civilians. That is why there are so few such allegations of human rights violations in Tripura, because the whole focus was hitting rebels inside Bangladesh, by using surrendered rebels in jungle bases and using Bangladeshi mafiosi to target rebel leaders in safe houses in Dhaka and Chittagong.  Since the decision to strike the rebels on or across the border was taken this time, there have been few reports of human rights violations in Chandel after the 4 June ambush.  

But covert operations achieve results when kept secret. After all, this is not the first time such operations have happened. Tiny Tripura and its publicity-shy chief minister Manik Sarkar neither denies nor owns up to the more than 20 trans-border strikes by surrogates but those in the know are aware that the Chief Minister's Medal he conferred on a Military Intelligence officer was to recognise his stellar role in organising such raids . The army recognised this officer’s contributions much later, conferring a Sena Medal on him.

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