In Myanmar jungles with a confident rebel leader

In Myanmar jungles with a confident rebel leader

In Myanmar jungles with a confident rebel leader

When I set out on the journey to Myanmar’s rebel bases one morning from Guwahati three years ago, I was unsure if I would be allowed to visit the camp of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland.

My prime objective was to interview the top functionaries of the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) and the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN).   I did not have any inkling about the duration of the journey or the destination we would be taken to.  Our task was to keep on marching and abide by the instructions of the senior Ulfa officer of the squad entrusted to escort us.  We reached the Ulfa camp 43 after the journey began in the midst of exciting but dreadful episodes.    

My request for a visit to the neighbouring NDFB camp was granted by Ulfa after the interview with its chief of staff Paresh Baruah was over.   A message was flashed and I was invited for dinner by the outfit. Soon, we were marching to the camp one frosty morning escorted by senior Ulfa functionaries.  I expected a sprawling camp with a huge number of cadres.  But it was small with only about 25 armed cadres and six huts covered with green and blue tarpaulin sheets. Like the other camps, this too was filled with mounds of varied shapes and sizes with creeks and shrubs all around.

We found a tall and slim man in his early 40s dressed in combat fatigues waiting for us.  He was I K Songbijit, chief of a faction of the dreaded NDFB that had carried out the recent massacre in Assam.  He garlanded me with a traditional Bodo scarf and offered to take me around the camp flanked by forests on its eastern and southern flanks. As we strolled, I began a casual conversation with the chief hoping to make him feel comfortable with me.  He appeared to be reserved and extremely careful in whatever he spoke.  I knew that extracting something sensational from him would be impossible in a brief span. Moreover, I had been advised by Ulfa not to stay too long at the camp. 

I began with a query on the escalation of prices of essential commodities in the region especially rice and salt.  He explained that the prime reason was the remoteness of the area and the role of middlemen in the trade.   Apparently, items either came from the towns hundreds of km away or from China and Thailand.    I then broached the topic of life in the camps, training and recruitment of cadres and whether he supported the goal of independence like the other Northeastern groups in the region.

Songbijit explained the process of recruitment and training which was similar to Ulfa’s and other Manipuri groups.  And much like them, he exuded confidence that the goal of sovereignty and independence of the Northeast was not impossible.   It all depended, he added, on the situation and that it could not be said with certainty that the Indian government would always be able to keep the separatist organisations on the backfoot.  He briefly narrated the history of NDFB and the reasons why his faction was different from the other two factions that were engaged in talks with the government.

Scattered cadres

Songbijit headed the third faction of NDFB, which had decided to chart a different course by joining hands with rebel groups campaigning for independence of the North-East.  According to informed sources, he was running low on cadres and trying to shore up the finances by tapping other sources of income.  This, he denied, when I asked him about it. He, instead, gave a picture which was quite the opposite.  There was no way of verifying his claim but it is a fact that his cadres were scattered at different camps in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division or Eastern Nagaland.

Soon, we were taken to another hut where dinner was served with rice, boiled vegetables and chicken cooked with herbs.   It was extremely tasty without oil and other ingredients we are usually used to.  I thought I would continue the conversation but Songbijit preferred to speak more with the Ulfa functionaries who had accompanied me.    Their discussion was absolutely Greek to me as it was on some people who I had never heard of.   The chief also threw queries at me on the current situation in Assam and he was keen to know the future of the peace process between the government and the other factions of NDFB.

I gathered the impression that Songbijit was confident and confused at the same time.   His hardline approach will always appeal to a section of Bodo youths who would be ready to take the plunge for the rigorous life in the camps here.    And the chances of NDFB’s survival in Myanmar appears high like the other insurgent groups for the time being.   So long as the Myanmarese army is occupied with conflicts with other parts of the country, there is meagre chance that efforts would be made to eliminate these camps.    New Delhi’s pleas for action is likely to fall on deaf ears for some more time.

Thus ended my tryst with the rebel leader. After dinner, we shook hands with him and senior functionaries and began to walk leisurely towards the Ulfa camp where we were staying.