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MANTRAYA SPECIAL REPORT#06: 03 OCTOBER 2016

India: Lessons from ‘surgical strikes’ in Myanmar

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Bibhu Prasad Routray

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Abstract

It is not a commentary on the ability of the Indian army to carry out surgical strikes. Such strikes do not come with an element of success woven into them. And yet before the first shots are fired politics takes over. Chest thumping machismo is forced to beat a hasty retreat when facts emerge. The 2015 and 2016 surgical strikes in Myanmar to avenge the death of 18 Army personnel in Manipur in June 2015 impart few lessons.

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The Attack

In the morning of 4 June 2015, a group of 20 to 25 militants belonging to the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) and other groups such as the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL), the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) and the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) ambushed and killed 18 soldiers of the Indian Army’s 6 Dogra Regiment unit in Manipur’s Chandel district[1], 25 kilometres away from the India-Myanmar border. Immediately after the attack, the extremists retreated into Myanmar, making the area clearing operations launched by the paramilitary Assam Rifles within Manipur only a self-soothing exercise.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh promised “We will not allow the sacrifices of our soldiers to go waste.” Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar assured that “those who committed the cowardly act would be brought to book.”

The Plan

The deaths had to be avenged. Media quoting sources privy to the details reported a clearance to launch a hot pursuit was decided on 4 June itself at a meeting chaired by Home Minister and attended by the Defence Minister, the National Security Advisor, the Army Chief, and others. The final clearance was granted by the Prime Minister’s office on the night of 7 June, after the prime minister returned from his official tour of Bangladesh.

myanmar-image1

[Source: Indian Express]

Providing minute details media reported 70 commandos of 21 Para regiment, equipped with assault rifles, rocket launchers, grenades and night vision goggles, were airdropped at around 3 am on 9 June from Dhruv helicopters, inside the Indian territory near the Indo-Myanmar border. They trekked for at least five kilometers to reach the training camps of the insurgents. Once on the ground, the special forces split into two groups and headed for two camps being run by NSCN-K and KYKL. Each of the two teams were further divided into two sub-groups. While one was responsible for the direct assault, the second formed an outer ring to prevent any of insurgents from running and escaping. Then a clinical operation that lasted for 40 minutes left 38 Naga insurgents dead and seven injured.[2]

Not only did the commandos kill those present at the camps in gun fight, during which rocket launchers were also used, one of the camp was also set afire.”, the report said. The commandos suffered no casualties.

Media reports provided other minute details as well. Mi-17 helicopters of the Indian Air Force were put on standby, ready to be pressed into service to evacuate the commandos in case anything went wrong. The operation was carried out based on specific and very accurate intelligence and was overseen by General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the Dimapur-based 3 Corps Lt. Gen. Bipin Rawat. Army chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag, who had postponed his trip to the United Kingdom, was coordinating from the Army headquarters. NSA Ajit Doval too oversaw the operations. Several reports reiterated, quoting official sources, that the Army will undertake more such operations in the region if required.

Assumed Gains

On 9 June, the Indian Army released a statement detailing the gains from the operation. A statement signed by Major General Ranbir Singh, an additional director general of military operations in India read:

“Early this morning, the Indian Army engaged two separate groups of insurgents along the Indo-Myanmar border at two locations, along the Nagaland and Manipur borders. Significant casualties have been inflicted on them. As a consequence threat to our civilian population and security forces were averted. While ensuring peace and tranquillity along the border and in the border states, any threat to our security, safety and national integrity will meet a firm response.”  

Neither any pictures of the operation were ever released not any other evidence shared with the media. Minister of State for Information & Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore lauded the Army operation and said the operations were a message to all such neighbours who harbour terror intentions against India.

“Friendship and zero tolerance will go hand in hand. This is a beginning. India is strong. This message should go to everyone,” he said.[3] 

The NSCN-K’s own press release on that day that none of its cadres have been harmed during the operations were largely dismissed by the media and the experts. In August 2015, during the Independence celebrations, eight personnel of the 21 Para Regiment, which carried out the operation received gallantry medals.

Real Gains

Few days after the operations not only had the death toll started being revised downwards, additional questions also started being raised about the claims of the Indian Army. Villagers close to the Indo-Myanmar border said they saw some helicopters, but little else. Some others claimed that the insurgents belonged to Manipur and if some of them were indeed killed word would have got out. Experts started speculating that probably some of the small and insignificant camps were targeted and not the ones which housed the leadership of the outfits. An expert told the BBC, “We should have selected a hard target, deep inside Myanmar and hit some leadership cadres. Instead we have hit the softer and most proximate camps, which is why there was little retaliatory fire with no casualties on the Indian side.”[4]

On the diplomatic front, India’s drum-beating machismo ran into a diplomatic rough weather with Myanmar objecting to the violation of its sovereignty. Zaw Htay, director in the Myanmar President’s office told The Telegraph,

“We will not allow any foreign military operations in Myanmar territory. And I want to say this to you – every country must respect the other country’s sovereignty.”

Zaw Htay further said that Indian ambassador had “committed” to Myanmar’s deputy foreign minister that the operation would be restricted to Indian territory. “We told India our position on not allowing foreign troops, and India agreed to abide by our requirement”, he said.[5] A diplomat familiar with New Delhi-Naypyitaw negotiations on border security confirmed that there was a great deal of discomfort in the bilateral relations after the claims of the surgical strike in Myanmar were made by the Indian army and the minister, and it took great effort to calm things down.

After a fortnight, however, speculations were rife that the operation could have drawn a complete blank.

A Voice of America report quoting Indian intelligence officials indicated that the operation had not killed any insurgent.[6] These words were further corroborated by activists who visited the insurgent camps and found no evidence of any attack or casualty. A month later, a source in the Indian Army headquarters revised the casualty figures to just seven. He added that about 12 insurgents could also have been injured in the attack. Explaining the revised claim of success, the Army official told the Indian Express that

the target insurgent camps – one at Onzia and two adjacent camps in Ponyo- had been “chosen for reasons of tactical viability, rather than specific retaliatory intent.” “Given the short time frame available…the main idea was to deliver a message that camps across the border were not safe for anyone”, he added.[7]

The NSCN-K rubbished even this claim of the Army saying that Niki Sumi, the head of one of the camps in Ponyo had left the camp along with 40 of his cades much ahead of the said attack. The Nagaland police, with arguably the most comprehensive knowledge regarding the operational dynamics of the outfit, added that the camps chosen for the attack were minor launch pads of the outfit for movement into the state from its rear bases around Taga, in Myanmar’s Sagaing district. Life in Taga, housing the core of the NSCN-K’s strength, was undisturbed with no signs of insurgent movements in anticipation of further attacks.

What was, thus, confirmed within a month of the launch of the much hyped surgical strike that it had inflicted no damage on the NSCN-K’s potential and probably had only a minor impact on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), an outfit that operates in Manipur, maintains camps in the Sagaing district, and functions in close coordination with the NSCN-K- led coalition, the United Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW).

An expert duly summed up, the surgical operation’s “strategic value is exactly zero.”[8]

Few days after, the NSCN-K leader S S Khaplang was photographed undergoing treatment for old age-related ailments in a Yangon hospital. The outfit is on a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government and Khaplang had been shifted out of Sagaing on a plane for treatment. The complete absence of results from the surgical strike then led New Delhi to request Myanmar to hand over four top leaders of the outfit including S S Khaplang, Niki Sumi, Kirichu, and Asang. The request was made during a joint consultative meeting in July 2015. Myanmar did not accede to the request.

Since then, the NSCN-K has been involved in a series of incidents including ambushes, extortion, and abduction in Nagaland, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh.

These include an explosion in the Deputy Commissioner’s Office in Manipur’s Senapati district on 10 July 2016 and an ambush on the Assam Rifles in Changlang district of Arunacha Pradesh in the wee hours of 28 August. On 2 September 2016, the outfit nearly replicated its June 2015 feat by ambushing a four-vehicle column of an Assam Rifles convoy injuring four personnel in Nagaland’s Zunheboto district.

A Rerun

A year later, in August 2016, yet another surgical was launched by the Indian Army’s 12 para commandos against the outfit in Myanmar.[9] Unlike last time, the Army resisted the temptations of going overboard with its achievements. It firstly denied the incident until media reports quoting government sources confirmed the raid.[10] A senior official in the Home Ministry corroborated that the “the raid was part of many operations intended to maintain pressure on the NSCN-K.” Yangba Konyak, the Superindentent of Police of Mon district in Nagaland, from where the Army’s 12 para commandos reportedly entered Myanmar, also confirmed that he saw 30 army commandos returning from across the Myanmar border.

“The gunfight took place beyond Thorloi, a village in Myanmar two kilometres from the border. They had no casualty and I don’t know if the NSCN-K suffered any loss,” Konyak told.[11] 

Subsequently even the NSCN-K confirmed the attack claiming that the encounter had killed “five to six” Indian soldiers.[12] Notwithstanding the exaggerated claims of the outfit, it emerged that the operation had again drawn a blank. Indian officials confirmed that the Para unit’s movement through the jungles towards an NSCN-K camp near the Thorloi village had been detected by NSCN-K guards posted in the forest. Local police confirmed the account, adding that no combatant or civilian fatalities had been reported on either side of the border.

Lessons Learnt?

The ability of the Indian Army or the lack of it vis-a-vis the NSCN-K is not the focal point in a debate on the surgical strikes undertaken in June 2015 and August 2016. Guerrilla warfare evens out the advantages enjoyed even by the superiorly trained and armed security forces when pitted against extremists operating in their strongholds. Success, thus, is not an assured outcome. However, the chest thumping revenge politics in which both the military and the political leadership participate in equal vigour pending an honest assessment undermines the efforts of the commandos who undertake the operations. Whether lessons have been learnt from these episodes are yet to be known.

End Notes

[1] Chargesheet filed by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), 19 December 2015, http://www.nia.gov.in/writereaddata/Portal/CasesPdfDoc/RC-03-2015-NIA-GUW-CS_edited-1.pdf. Accessed on 3 October 2016.

[2]“Myanmar operation: 70 commandos finish task in 40 minutes”, The Hindu, 10 June 2015.http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/myanmar-operation-70-commandos-finish-task-in-40-minutes/article7302348.ece. Accessed on 30 September 2016.

[3]‘Indian Army’s Myanmar Operation a Message to Other Neighbours’, New Indian Express, 10 June 2015, http://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/Indian-Armys-Myanmar-Operation-a-Message-to-Other-Neighbours/2015/06/10/article2859162.ece. Accessed on 30 September 2016.

[4]Sanjoy Majumdar, “Indian raid in Myanmar raises regional tensions”, BBC, 19 June 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-33193275. Accessed on 30 September 2016.

[5] Charu Sudan Kasturi, “Respect others’ sovereignty: Myanmar”, Telegraph, 12 June 2015, http://www.telegraphindia.com/1150612/jsp/frontpage/story_25269.jsp#.V-_7JPl97IU. Accessed on 3 October 2016.

[6]Shaikh Azizur Rahman, “Indian Attack on Rebels in Myanmar Drew Blank”, Voice of America, 28 June 2015, http://www.voanews.com/a/indian-attack-on-rebels-in-myanmar-drew-blank/2841096.html. Accessed on 30 September 2016.

[7] “Myanmar strike: Seven dead bodies recovered, less than a dozen injured, say official sources”, Indian Express, 12 June 2015, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/myanmar-cross-border-strike-7-bodies-less-than-a-dozen-injured/. Accessed on 3 October 2016.

[8] ibid.

[9]Praveen Swami, “Targeting NSCN(K) camp, Army entered Myanmar”,  21 August 2016, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/targeting-nscnk-camp-army-entered-myanmar-2988133/. Accessed on 3 October 2016.

[10]“Myanmar: The Indian Army Encounter That Was Not, Or Was It?”, Citizen, 21 August 2016, http://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/NewsDetail/index/1/8512/Myanmar-The-Indian-Army-Encounter-That-Was-Not-Or-Was-It. Accessed on 1 October 2016.

[11] “Accounts Differ on ‘Cross-Border’ Army Clash with NSCN(K)”, The Wire,21 August 2016, Accessed on 1 October 2016.

[12]ibid.

(Bibhu Prasad Routray is Director, Mantraya. This Special Report is a part of Mantraya.org’s “Mapping Terror and Insurgent Networks” project.)

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