Assam rebels ready for peace talks

A leader of the Indian separatist group Ulfa indicates he is ready for peace talks with the government. Unconfirmed reports emerge that China has stationed troops in northeast North Korea. All this and more in today’s security briefing.
Daniel C
17 January 2011

A leader of the ‘United Liberation Front of Asom’ (Ulfa), an Indian separatist group, has expressed his formal desire to begin peace talks with the government, raising hopes that the end is near for a bloody insurgency that has plagued the north-eastern state of Assam for over thirty years. Ulfa has been fighting an ‘armed struggle’ since 1979 for a ‘sovereign socialist Assam’ independent from India, accusing the government of economic exploitation of the region which is rich in oil. During this time, estimates of 10,000 to 15,000 people have been killed in violent clashes between Ulfa militants and state security forces.

The chief minister of Assam, Tarun Kumar Gogoi, told journalists recently that he received a letter from Arabinda Rajkhowa, the ‘chairman’ of Ulfa, in which Rajkhowa indicated his group’s official willingness to engage in peace talks. Rajkhowa initially expressed such a desire after being released from jail on 1 January, where he spent the past year on sedition charges. He announced then that the group was willing to hold talks for the first time without conditions. The group had insisted previously on such conditions, including the demand that the UN be involved, which Indian officials firmly rejected.

Speaking to reporters after his release, Rajkhowa said: ‘It is the mood for peace among the people of Assam that has brought us to this situation today, where we are set to begin a peace dialogue with the Indian government’. On another occasion he referenced the possibility of ‘[working] out modalities for opening formal negotiations with the government’.

In the recent letter sent to Gogoi, Rajkhowa confirmed these sentiments, while suggesting that the fate of the talks hinged on the outcome of a meeting with the group’s central executive council. Gogoi noted that it was not clear when this meeting would occur: ‘When the talks will be held is now up to them,’ he said. ‘The decisions taken at the meeting will be communicated to the government for the beginning of the peace talks’.

The openSecurity verdict: Some observers are cautiously optimistic about the recent developments, though the exact reasons for Ulfa’s change of heart are uncertain at the moment. It has been reported that the group’s popular support has decreased recently, a situation perhaps confirmed by Rajkhowa’s statement regarding the newfound Assamese ‘mood for peace’. A diminishing lack of support might put the brakes on a violent organization but it rarely causes such a group to give up the fight entirely and go home – at least not initially – especially an organization with thousands of militants, an extensive extortion network bringing in millions of dollars, and thirty years of fighting and history behind it.

Much more likely a factor is the continued pressure facing the group’s leadership by security forces and its loss of sanctuaries from which to operate. It has been reported that Ulfa has maintained training camps in neighbouring Bangladesh since 1989. In 2009, the Bangladeshi government began an offensive against militants in refuge there, arresting dozens of and sending them back to India. Other rebels have been detained at the border. Eight top Ulfa leaders found themselves in jail.

On 12 January, however, the last of these leaders were released on bail, in a program of good faith initiated by Indian authorities in March to pave the way for possible talks. Aside from Paresh Baruah, the group’s commander-in-chief who some believe is hiding in the jungles of Myanmar, Ulfa’s full leadership is currently free and in Assam. It has been reported that discussions were held between both sides during the leadership’s captivity. Though such a program of release seems exceedingly risky, it is unlikely the government would facilitate the freedom of known militants without having high confidence that talks would progress.

Yet, while all indications point to the likelihood of such talks, there are still no promises of success. Indeed, botched attempts at negotiation been made in the past. In 2005, a ‘People’s Consultative Group’ (PCG) was formed by Ulfa, designed to be a citizen-led intermediary between Ulfa leadership and the government. The process fell through, however, after three rounds of talks due to continued government operations against Ulfa members and failure to agree on fundamental issues. An initial truce enacted in August 2006 ended a month later when the PCG pulled out. Perhaps echoing these events, Rajkhowa, at a public rally weeks ago, remarked that, ‘If our peace efforts fail we will come back to you and seek your guidance on whether to take up arms again or fight it out politically for our rights’.

It is unsure whether any peace deal will have an effect on the other militant groups waging insurgencies in Assam. At least five such groups are known to exist.

China allegedly sends troops into North Korea

The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported yesterday that Chinese troops have been stationed for weeks in the North Korean Special Economic Zone of Rajin-Sonbong. According to the newspaper’s source, ‘In the middle of the night around Dec. 15 last year, about 50 Chinese armoured vehicles and tanks crossed the Duman (Tumen) River from Sanhe into the North Korean city of Hoeryong in North Hamgyong Province.’ Chinese troops have not officially been in North Korea since 1994, when they withdrew after decades there following the war between the North and the South in the mid 1950s.

If true, it is uncertain for what purpose the troops serve. Some suggest the soldiers were sent to protect seaport facilities in which Beijing has invested. Last month, China started to use the port in Rajin-Sonbong for shipping materiel and goods between the northeast of the country and Shanghai. The South Korean ambassador for international security, Nam Joo-hong, has a different opinion on the situation. ‘What China is most worried about in case of a sudden change in the North is mass influx of defectors, which would throw the three northeastern Chinese provinces into confusion’, he said. ‘With its military presence in Rajin-Sonbong, there is a likelihood that China could intervene in Korean affairs by sending a large number of troops into the North under the pretext of protecting its residents there in an emergency’.

China, for its part, denies the report entirely. A Chinese defence official claims that China would only send troops abroad with ‘with approval of the UN’, in which case they would only be used ‘for peacekeeping missions and disaster rescue efforts’. A further denial appeared in Xinhua, where a spokesman for the foreign ministry labelled the report ‘sheer fabrication’.

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