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They keep coming
Subir Bhaumik Former BBC Correspondent
They keep coming
PHOTO : Bangladesh Forces led by RAB-9 unearthed a huge arms cache in the Satcherri jungles of Habiganj\\\'s Chunarughat upazila on June 3, 2014. TIWN / Photo credit to Rasel Chowdhury, bdnews24.com

Chinese made weapons keep coming to Bangladesh despite the 2004 Chittagong arms case judgements

A change of regime in Bangladesh has led to a change of policy on insurgents from Northeast India . Sheikh Hasina has meant what she said -- zero-tolerance for insurgents and terrorists. Scores of rebel leaders and activists from Northeast India have been nabbed and quietly handed over to India . Hasina has also ordered a crackdown on smuggling of weapons. The judiciary has taken a cue and meted out death sentences to those found guilty in the Chittagong arms cases. Former ministers and intelligence chiefs have not been spared. But all this has not deterred those who smuggle into the country. The risks they now have to take are substantial -- but the high margins and the regional demand ensures they will still hedge their bets and try sneaking in consignments to those who have ordered for them.

The huge arms haul at Satcherri in Habiganj this week proves (a) the China-made weapons continue to flow into Bangladesh a decade after the Chittagong arms case and even after those found guilty have been heavily punished (b) it points to the continued involvement of Northeast Indian rebels groups , as in the Chittagong arms haul in 2004 (c)  the recovery close to Tripura border perhaps indicates that the ultimate destination of the weapons was Northeast India (d) that the RAB , rendered infamous by several recent cases of extra-judicial killings and extortions by their personnel, still remains Bangladesh\'s most potent anti-terrorist force  (c) that Hasina\'s government remains determined to combat the smuggling of weapons but despite its best efforts is somewhat unable to stem the flow.

That Bangladesh remains the favourite destination of rackets smuggling weapons into South Asia\'s eastern flank should worry both India and Bangladesh. Because as long as weapons are easily available and at reasonable prices, armed militancy cannot be totally eradicated from a region. Since the late 1980s, guerrillas in Northeast india have been largely armed by weapons brought in from China or south-east Asian blackmarkets through Bangladesh coast . The 1995 \'Operation Golden Bird\' of India\'s 57th Mountain Division that blocked a huge rebel column in Mizoram first clearly pointed to weapons dropped on the Bangladesh coast being carried inland across the porous border into Northeast India. The 2004 Chittaqgong arms haul further reinforced that.
 
That Bangladesh\'s coastal region was still the favourite drop site for those trying to smuggle in weapons into Northeast India became evident during Anthony Shimray\'s interrogation by the NIA. The NSCN leader has confessed he had paid Thai gunrunner Willy  to arrange for a huge consignment of Chinese weapons to be dropped at Cox Bazar in 2010 winter but the plan had to be cancelled because he was arrested in Kathmandu . This despite the arms haul at Chittagong in 2004 , in which ten truckloads of weapons were seized. The huge haul at Habiganj this week -- 200 rocket launchers, as many mortars, even many anti-tank weapons -- indicates that the Bangladesh coast is still being used for bringing in large consignments of weapons and they are taken inland for transfer to Northeast India and / or for others of India. 
 
The Habiganj haul should also raise an alarm -- which insurgent group in India\'s Northeast or which radical group in Bangladesh would fancy possessing anti-tank weapons as neither India nor Bangladesh has ever used tanks or heavy artillery against any insurgent group. If one goes by the logic that you dont buy weapons you don\'t use and buy those you atleast intend to use, it would be a challenge for both Indian and Bangladesh intelligence to figure out which group was seeking to procure anti-tank weapons and large quantity of rocket launchers and mortars (again area weapons) . If some group was planning to use these weapons and on quite a large scale ( indicated by quantities recovered) , that would surely be a major threat and point to much greater future intensity of  insurgent movement(s) .
 
The Satcherri jungles , from where the arms haul was made by RAB-9, was the one-time headquarters of the All Tripura Tiger Force. The ULFA, its close ally, also used the base for stocking weapons before they were smuggled into Northeast India in smaller quantities. Though the ATTF is much weakened and its top leader Ranjit Debbarma is now in a Tripura prison, it could well be possible that some of its fighters were still around in Bangladesh to help the ULFA use their old base for stocking weapons before bringing them in.

ULFA\'s military wing chief Paresh Barua , now believed to somewhere on the Sino-Burmese border , is still involved in smuggling weapons -- either for use by his own much-weakened rebel army or for sale to potential customers like the Maoists . For trade or for use, either way , inflow of such large consignment of weapons and the kind of weapons found are a major cause for worry. Since Anthony Shimray\'s confessions point to efforts by the NSCN(I-M) to bring in weapons even when his leaders are  negotiating with Delhi, one would need to find out whether (a) the NSCN (I-M) is still involved in weapons smuggling to build its arsenal in case they have to return to the jungles (b) whether the NSCN(I-M) is collaborating , as they were perhaps doing in the 2004 at Chittagong, with ULFA to bring in a huge consignment which can be finally shared .

The RAB\'s operations director Colonel Ziaul Ahsan has said they started the Satcherri operations from Sunday night following a definite tip-off. Obviously, he cannot provide details of the leads now. What is now needed is closer cooperation between Indian and Bangladesh agencies to figure out, working on the early leads that helped such huge seizures, who were the end-users of the weapons found at Satcherri. That would help provide them both with pointers to future insurgent action in an area perpetually afflicted by insurgency.

 

(Mr. Subir Bhaumik is a veteran journalist, former BBC correspondant and author of ‘Insurgent Crossfire’ and ‘Troubled Periphery’) 

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