International crackdown deals blow to Indian rebels

Indian commanders say they're close to wiping out long-smoldering insurgencies with Bhutan's help.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

They had emerged from the jungles over the weeks, drawn by promises of amnesty, food, even job training. Shell-shocked and destitute, 156 once-feared rebels formally surrendered to the Indian Army Jan. 31 after they were flushed from illegal camps in Bhutan.

Those who laid down their arms are among more than 1,000 rebels who have been killed or taken into custody in recent months, according to officials. Indian Army chief N.C. Vij now says it's a matter of weeks before some of northeast India's deadliest ethnic insurgencies are put down for good, paving the way for reconciliation and much needed development.

The stunning reversal began when India's northeastern neighbors - Bhutan and Burma (Myanmar) - launched military operations in December and January aimed at dismantling jungle bases used by insurgents. The sleepy kingdom of Bhutan led the most effective raids, prompted by internal security fears following Nepal's descent into civil war.

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After six years of asking anti-India fighters to leave Bhutan, the nation's king resorted to force because of "a growing nexus" between Maoist rebels and their allies in India, Nepal, and Bhutan, says Ajai Sahni, editor of the South Asia Intelligence Review.

Nepal's rebels, who have taken control of much of the countryside in a conflict that has claimed some 9,000 lives, are increasing their cooperation with Communist insurgent groups in India.

"It was obvious this would turn into a coordinated move against the monarchy in Bhutan," says Mr. Sahni. "That was the triggering factor."

While the Maoist groups taking refuge in Bhutan were relatively small, the Bhutan operation also swept two powerful ethnic rebel groups from its soil, the United Liberation Front of Asom and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland.

A similar crackdown in Burma proved less effective, but symbolically important. Burma has been sympathetic about anti-India rebels in its territory, but has limited influence in those areas.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogo says that war and terror, which have claimed more than 5,000 lives in the province since 1993, are ceding to development and governance, thanks to military action, promising peace initiatives, and sagging public support for insurgency. Top rebel groups are weaker than ever.

Others dispute that assertion, noting that the fuel for rebellion - unemployment, ethnic rivalry, and competing land claims - is still prevalent in India's remote northeast. Added to this, analysts and officials say, is Pakistani support for militants.

Officials hope a handful of peace initiatives will lead to increased trade and employment.

The region is both physically and culturally distant from the rest of India. The diversity here is staggering. The region's seven states are home to more than 200 different ethnic groups that include Christians, Hindus, animists, Muslims, and even a tribe believed to be Jewish. More than 7,400 civilians, 2,100 security personnel, and 4,500 alleged militants have died in a dozen ethnic and religious conflicts throughout the northeast since 1992.

Chief Minister Gogoi says he is considering another amnesty for rebels. Those who surrender receive job training and a $44 monthly stipend for a year.

"We want these people who have been misguided to come to the mainstream and rejoin their families,'' says Lt. Gen. A.S. Jamawal, who presided over the Jan. 31 surrender.

Wrapped in a new scarf, and full of tea and cake, Lakhi Kauta looked unsure of himself after the ceremony. A fighter in the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), he'd recently fled a camp in Bhutan and turned himself in. He reentered civilian life with a quick handshake and a "best of luck'' from General Jamawal.

"I joined ULFA for Assam's betterment, but that's not possible anymore,'' he says, looking nervously at his Indian Army escort. For fighters like Kauta, "Assam's betterment'' meant a separatist war against security forces and vicious attacks on ethnic Bengalis and Biharis. The group was born amid popular anger over unchecked Bangladeshi immigration.

In November, the group led riots that led to the murders of 56 ethnic Bihari during a spasm of communal violence. In January, ULFA fighters blew up an Indian oil pipeline. ULFA's rise led to conflicts with other groups, including the Bodo tribe, who launched their own insurgency that is now also on the wane.

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