Boiling Pot of International Rivalry
By Bertil Lintner
The road up to the Se-la Pass winds its way tortuously along a steep mountainside. The temperature drops below zero and clumps of pine trees give way to a barren, rocky landscape. At a small Tibetan Buddhist shrine at the actual pass prayer flags flutter in the icy, howling wind. From Se-la, the road continues downhill, to the valley of Tawang – but even that “valley” has an average elevation of 2,700 meters. Welcome to the neuralgic point of two Asian giants.
|The presence of the exiled Dalai Lama in India makes Chinese control of Tibet appear incomplete, while India takes pride in its multi-ethnic, secular democracy that can offer a home to the Tibetan spiritual leader.|
Located in India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, Tawang’s rugged, inhospitable terrain was once the scene of a fierce and bloody war between India and China in 1962. Now, with their re-emergence on the world scene as regional superpowers, it is once again in the spotlight. The issue is not about a piece of barren land, if ever it was, but a broader contest for recognition. The presence of the exiled Dalai Lama in India makes Chinese control of Tibet appear incomplete, while India takes pride in its multi-ethnic, secular democracy that can offer a home to the Tibetan spiritual leader. Chinese involvement in anti-Indian insurgencies in the Northeastern part of the country is tied up with the struggle over Tibet and territorial sovereignty. It is a witch’s cauldron that could erupt and threaten the stability of the region.
China lays claim not only to Tawang but to most of the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls “Southern Tibet.” Official Chinese maps show the border where the plains around the Brahmaputra river end and the foothills of the Himalayas begin. India regards the MacMahon Line as the border, which is named after a colonial era British foreign secretary and follows the crest of the Himalayas. That, today, is also the so-called “Actual Line of Control” between China and India.
India rests its claim on the fact that the MacMahon Line was agreed to by Britain and Tibet as part of an accord signed in the Indian hill station of Simla in 1914. China, which took part in that conference and initialed but never ratified any agreements, has an entirely different interpretation of what happened in 1914. In a letter sent in September 1959 to then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, China’s Premier Zhou Enlai stated that the MacMahon Line was never discussed at Simla; it was the outcome of secret negotiations between the British and Tibetan delegates, “behind the back of the representative of the Chinese Central Government.”
At the heart of the problem is the status of Tibet. For centuries, China has considered Tibet part of its domain and, as such, it claims that the “region” cannot enter into international agreements with Britain or any other country. To reassert its claims, Chinese forces entered Tibet in 1950. India countered by extending its administration up to the MacMahon Line. In 1954, the area became the North-East Frontier Agency, NEFA. Relations between China and India became even tenser after the Dalai Lama fled to India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. He crossed the border near Tawang, a predominantly ethnic Tibetan area where the 6th Dalai Lama was born.
Open warfare erupted three years after the flight of the Dalai Lama. Several divisions of Chinese troops poured across the border, into Tawang and beyond. Within weeks, the Chinese had conquered all the territory it claimed in NEFA – and then withdrew to the Line of Actual Control. They clearly wanted to demonstrate that they were able to assert their territorial claims, if they so wished. India was humiliated, and the scars of the 1962 war still linger in the Indian psyche.
In 1972, NEFA became the Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh – “Land of the Dawn” in Sanskrit – and, in 1987, it was declared a state in the Union of India. On both occasions, China, perhaps out of diplomatic necessity, issued lame protests. The main issue was, and still is, the fact that the Dalai Lama has been able to maintain a government in exile in Dharmshala in northwestern India. And when the Dalai Lama in November 2009 paid a visit to Tawang, the Chinese were furious. It coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising and the Dalai Lama’s flight to India. No doubt, the memory of the March 2008 anti-Chinese riots in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, was also fresh in Beijing’s mind. The Chinese accused the Dalai Lama and his movement of being behind those riots – and now he had the audacity to travel to an area, which China claims should belong to its “Autonomous Region” of Tibet. Of course, the Dalai Lama recognizes this as Indian territory.
|The Chinese accused the Dalai Lama and his movement of being behind those riots (March 2008 anti-Chinese riots in Lhasa) – and now he had the audacity to travel to an area, which China claims should belong to its “Autonomous Region” of Tibet.|
The Indians said the visit was of a purely religious nature – and that the Dalai Lama, as an honored guest, was free to travel anywhere he wanted in the country. But many Indians were also furious with the Chinese. In August last year, D.S. Rajan, director of the Chennai Institute for China Studies, publicized an article that had allegedly recently appeared on a Chinese website. The author, Zhan Lue – a pen name meaning “strategy” – was said to have argued that India could not be considered a nation rooted in history, but “relies primarily on Hindu religion for unity.” China, therefore, should join forces with different nationalities like the Assamese, the Tamils and the Kashmiris. Then, India would fall apart and China could also recover “Southern Tibet.”
It is unclear how official that website was; Indian newspaper columnists seemed to believe that it belonged to a think-tank close to the Chinese foreign ministry, while skeptics pointed out that its exact status was obscure. Indian external affairs spokesman Vishnu Prakash also told reporters at the time that the article in question appeared to be an expression of some individual opinion, and not a reflection of official Chinese policy.
The Indian media for its part played up what is perceived as “a Chinese threat.” Around the time of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang, the Indian media made it seem as if another war with China was imminent. During this author’s visit in December there were no signs of any unusual military activity in Tawang. “If fighting were to break out, my unit would be the first to be hit by bullets. But do I look worried?” said an Indian army officer speaking strictly off the record.
The only noteworthy Chinese activity seems to be that of a number of “incursions” – i.e., army units leaving some rubbish or other traces of having been present south of the Line of Actual Control. India’s response has not been to send reinforcements to Tawang but to increase aerial surveillance over most of Arunachal and to build “advanced landing grounds” equipped with radar systems.
|After years of strained relations with Bangladesh, when India accused it of harboring anti-India insurgents, a thaw came with the victory of Awami League in December 2008.|
Beijing’s fury about the Dalai Lama’s recent meeting with President Barack Obama is a fresh reminder of China’s sense of vulnerability over Tibet and the role India plays in hosting the Tibetan leader. Contested Chinese rule over Tibet against the backdrop of rising economic and military power of the two neighbors does not promise any demilitarization of Tawang where the fluttering Buddhist flags belie the sense of peace and calm.
Northeast India, where seven Indian states with different ethnic groups straddle three international borders, has always been a boiling pot of emotions and grievances. The rise of China and the spread of Islamist militancy have now injected a new dynamic. China’s increasingly strident claim to India’s Arunachal Pradesh and the Pakistani intelligence agency’s effort to stir up trouble in the Northeast, using the Muslim majority Bangladesh as a conduit, have entangled local grievances with a larger global agenda, making the resolution of such grievances ever more complicated. For the time being, the emergence of a moderate government in Bangladesh has given India a window of opportunity.
After years of strained relations with Bangladesh, when India accused it of harboring anti-India insurgents, a thaw came with the victory of Awami League in December 2008. The state visit to India by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in January this year came a month after Bangladesh had detained several leaders of the separatist United Liberation Front of Assam, ULFA, and handed them over to the Indian authorities. Among them was ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and deputy commander Raju Baruah who for years had been based in Bangladesh.
|Though born out of a nationalist movement to expel illegal Bangladeshi migrants from Assam, ironically ULFA ended up being based in Bangladesh.|
Their Islamist and Pakistani link too suffered when on January 27, Bangladesh executed five ex-army officers convicted of the 1975 murder of the country’s independence leader – and Sheikhs Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Among those executed was Lt.-Col. Syed Faruque Rahman – who, in 1988, first met ULFA’s then foreign affairs chief Munim Nobis. That marked the beginning of ULFA’s clandestine presence in Bangladesh. According to Sanjoy Hazarika the Assamese author of Strangers in the Mist: Tales of War and Peace from India’s Northeast, Nobis traveled from Dhaka to Pakistan where his Bangladeshi contacts introduced him to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.
Faruque and his accomplices fled the country after the murder of president Mujibur Rahman but returned in the 1980s from their self-imposed exile and formed the right-wing and Islamic Freedom Party, which, according to an official, 2002 compilation from the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, has alleged ties with “ultra right-wing groups such as the Harkatul Jihad” which is linked to the ISI.
Though born out of a nationalist movement to expel illegal Bangladeshi migrants from Assam, ironically ULFA ended up being based in Bangladesh, and used by India’s archenemy Pakistan to stir up trouble in India’s northeast. ISI may not have been particularly interested in the ULFA’s separatist cause, but if militancy increased in the northeast, India would be forced to withdraw troops from the battlefront in Kashmir and send them to Assam, which would suit Pakistan. At least, that was the strategy, as ULFA commander-in-chief Poresh Baruah told this correspondent in Bangkok in March 1992.
In the 1980s, ULFA also established camps in Bhutan, mainly in the Samdrup Jongkhar region in the southeast, where ULFA ran lucrative businesses in the names of local Bhutanese citizens. However, in December 2003, the Bhutanese army, assisted by India, moved against ULFA and some of its allies, driving them out.
Following that operation, ULFA lost not only its cross-border sanctuaries in Bhutan but also huge stocks of arms and ammunition, which were seized by the Bhutanese and the Indians. To make up for these losses, ULFA, reportedly with assistance from Pakistan through a Pakistani businessman in Dubai, arranged for a massive arms shipment from China. But it was seized in the Bangladeshi port of Chittagong in April 2004. Jane’s Intelligence Review reported in July 2004 that the shipment originated from Hong Kong and reached Sittwe in Burma, where the weaponry was transferred to some smaller vessels and shipped to Chittagong. According to Jane’s, the shipment was worth an estimated US$4.5m-$7m and included around 2,000 Chinese-made automatic and semi-automatic weapons, rocket propelled grenade launchers, and vast quantities of ammunition and hand grenades.
China’s role in shipping military equipment to ULFA remains obscure, and it is not inconceivable that the weapons were obtained on the black market. However, diplomatic sources in Bangkok point out that the Chinese black market is actually more grey than black; former officers in the Chinese army buy weapons from army units as well as directly from the North China Industries Corporation, or Norinco, and sell them on. “This cannot be done without the Chinese authorities’ at least turning a blind eye to the trade,” says one such diplomatic source. Given China’s increasingly sharp border dispute with India, keeping a little but deniable fire going in Northeast may be a good strategy.
In the mid 1990s, ULFA units trekked through northern Burma to the Sino-Burmese border areas and even managed to open an unofficial “office” in the Chinese frontier town of Ruili. According to a well-placed local source in Ruili, ULFA maintained a more or less permanent presence in Ruili until 2007, and managed to buy weapons from Chinese dealers as well as former rebel groups that also had made peace with the Burmese government. Among them were the local army in the Kokang area and the powerful United Wa State Army, which is made up of the bulk of the fighting force of the now defunct Communist Party of Burma. “There was a lot of trade in 2006-2007,” the source alleged.
It is unclear why ULFA had to close its Ruili office in 2007, but as the organization’s leaders were being rounded up in Bangladesh and deported to India, commander-in-chief Baruah was indeed spotted in the border town of Yingjiang opposite Burma’s Kachin State.
Following its recent reversals, ULFA strength appears to be dwindling, and without immediate cross-border sanctuaries in countries such as Bangladesh and Bhutan – and a secure supply of weapons – its future is uncertain. A key determinant will be the durability of Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League in power. Bangladeshi politics can be turbulent, to put it mildly, and sudden changes and shifts occur frequently. Sheikh Hasina was prime minister from 1996 to 2001 as well, and that was also a period of tougher conditions for ULFA and other groups battling the Indian government. As soon as she was forced to resign after a defeat in the 2001 election, and her enemies in the Bangladesh Nationalist Party came to power, relations with Pakistan improved. And ULFA leaders returned from Southeast Asia, where some of them had been in exile since 1996. Then it all changed again when the Awami League returned to power a little over a year ago.
Given the volatility of Bangladesh politics, ULFA’s future also depends on what India will do with Rajkhowa and the other leaders who were deported in December. The word here in Guwahati, the state capital of Assam, is that New Delhi may try to neutralize ULFA with money and promises of representation in local administrations – as it has done with other separatist movements in India’s volatile northeastern region. It also depends on what Baruah may be planning. It is doubtful whether he can achieve much from his hideout in a small Chinese border town. But that may also change – if China believes he can be useful for their designs for the region. With India-China relations growing tense as the rivalry between Asia’s two giants intensifies, the ULFA commander can, at least for the time being, feel pretty safe in his present sanctuary.
(Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist based in Thailand and the author of several works on Asia, including ‘Blood Brothers: The Criminal Underworld of Asia’ and ‘Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korea under the Kim Clan’.)