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The political leadership of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA)  is engaging in unconditional peace talks on behalf of the decades-old Assamese insurgency with India’s central government. Assam is considered vital to the Indian economy due to its crude oil, coal reserves, vast tea industry and its geographical connection to the rest of northeast India’s isolated states to the Indian “mainland.” The Delhi-initiated peace talks have caused a grave split within the ULFA movement between its Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and its military commander Paresh Barua who is protesting the negotiations from exile in either China or Burma. Rajkhowa along with Pradip Gogoi, ULFA’s vice chairman, and six other members of the outfit’s leadership have been released from detention in Guwahati, the northeast Indian state of Assam’s commercial capital, to meet with top officials from India’s Home ministry as well as leaders from the Assam state government (The Telegraph [Kolkata], February 9). For the time being, ULFA has been divided by what the Indian government dub’s “pro-talk” and “anti-talk” factions led by Rajkhowa and Barua respectively.
ULFA coming to the table in Delhi, similar to the Isak-Muivah wing of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-I-M), another northeastern Indian separatist outfit and an ally of ULFA that is engaging in peace talks with the central government concomitantly, is partly a result of the restoration of democracy in neighboring Bangladesh in January of 2009. With the improvement of Bangladeshi-Indian relations, Dhaka has been quietly arresting and extraditing formerly sheltered anti-Indian militant leaders in a bid to win favor with the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. ULFA Chairman Rajkhowa and several other top ULFA leaders, who are now negotiating in Delhi, were originally detained in Bangladesh and handed over to Indian authorities beginning in November of 2009 (Outlook India, February 5). The elimination of northeastern insurgent sanctuaries in both Bangladesh and the Kingdom of Bhutan has led many Indian analysts to believe that many “anti-talk” militant leaders have taken refuge in Burma’s northwestern Sagaing Region flanking India’s eastern border, its northern Kachin State bordering China’s Yunnan Province, or inside Yunnan itself.
Addressing a press conference in Delhi after ULFA’s initial meetings with Indian Home Secretary Gopal Krishna Pillai and Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, ULFA’s Foreign Secretary Sashadhar Choudhury insisted that the ever recalcitrant Paresh Barua, despite his snubbing of the peace process’ possible potential, is still be ULFA’s commander-in-chief. Choudhury somewhat incongruously stated of his rebel superior: “He [Barua] may or may not join the talk process, I cannot say what decision he would take” (The Assam Tribune, February 10). Upon the ULFA leaders’ return to Assam after the conclusion of their meetings in Delhi, Rajkhowa told journalists vaguely that his meeting with Prime Minister Singh was “cordial and satisfactory” while apparently disclosing no specific details about issues relating to the status of Paresh Barua, arguably ULFA’s most important figure (The Hindu, February 15). ULFA recently dropped its call for secession from the Indian state as a precondition for talks and has for the time being relented on its leader’s insistence that talks be mediated by a neutral international body (Reuters, January 3). The meeting was nearly six years in the making after a letter from PM Singh was delivered in late May 2005 asking ULFA’s senior leaders to discuss “core issues” so long as they did not include negotiating outside of India’s borders and Assamese independence. Thus far ULFA has conceded after being thrown out of Bangladesh. Though the fact that the Singh government and ULFA are talking at all is a huge step toward creating stability in the restive, resource rich state of Assam, it is possible that an unrestrained Paresh Barua could easily act as a spoiler in the process should the talks’ results not be favorable to ULFA’s core followers and financiers and ULFA return to full-scale violence. Barua’s checkbook alliance with the Kachin Independence Organization/Army, (KIO/A) which controls territory in northern Burma’s Kachin State, could quickly reinvigorate Assam’s decades of troubles. The KIO/A, by training new Assamese militants to re-infiltrate India for a price at Barua’s behest, could cause Delhi a major internal headache by forcing it to mount expensive security and counterinsurgency operations (Outlook India, November 22, 2010).
When Philippine President Benigno Aquino was inaugurated in June of 2010, he pledged to fulfill his campaign promises of having his new government sit down with rebel groups for full-fledged peace negotiations complemented by mutually agreed cease-fires (UPI, February 14). One of the oldest and most troublesome of such groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), agreed to meet with a team from Manila in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. With the resumption of peace talks for the first time in over two years, Murad Ebrahim, the chairman of the MILF, announced that a newly renegade commander named Ameril Umbra Kato from the 105th Base Command angrily split from the organization seven months ago and announced the formation of the splinter Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) which would not participate in formal negotiations (AP, February 5). Not wanting to derail the talks, Manila sought assurances from Mohagher Iqbal on the status of Kato and his newly declared BIFF. Iqbal iterated that Kato would respect the ongoing truce between the central government and the MILF (Xinhua, February 11). President Aquino promised voters an end to the thirty-year-old MILF insurgency in Mindanao in the southern Philippines and is keen on moving forward on his electoral vows. After the two-day summit in Malaysia, both sides have agreed to meet again by the end of March after considering each other’s draft positions (AFP, February 10).
However, the now renegade Commander Kato presents both sides with a wild card in trying to reach a deal. Kato co-commanded attacks in Christian areas of Mindanao in 2008 which were a driving factor in the suspension of peace talks until now. At present, if indeed Kato has formally left the MILF, it is unclear what leverage the Moro rebels’ senior negotiators truly have over him to halt violence at present. The MILF’s assuaging of Manila aside, it looks as though their top echelon will have little effect on the actions of Kato and the BIFF unless he can be reined in. MILF Vice Chairman for political affairs Ghazali Jaafar indicated that there was still a window to bring Kato back into the MILF fold after a trio of MILF men sent by Chairman Ebrahim reached Kato and relayed back to the MILF’s top-tier that Kato was not irreconcilable as of yet and MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu stated that Kato was still tentatively part of the MILF and therefore protected by the in-place cease fire (Manila Standard Today, February 14). Between the MILF’s official statements on the Kato matter and those of the government’s chief negotiator Marvic Leonen, it remains unclear precisely where Kato stands. The Philippine government seems to be indicating that a near-term terrorist attack or kidnapping by members of the BIFF could cause peace talks to quickly disintegrate stating, “For now, we will hold the MILF to their representations regarding Kato and his men. However, I am also informed that our military and police forces maintain the usual state of defensive readiness keeping in mind the primacy of the peace process.” The MILF’s spokesman appears to be buying the rebels time until it can crystallize exactly where Kato stands, claiming that Kato is still a part of the MILF (Philippine Star, February 13).
Meanwhile on the island of Basilan straddling the Sulu and Celebes Seas, Philippine Special Forces soldiers from the First Scout Ranger Regiment fought a pitched battle with Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) militants loyal to commander Puruji Indama which resulted in the death of Juhaiber Alamsirul, an ASG sub-commander in the island’s south (The Philippine Star, February 14). In the days prior to the killing of Alamsirul, Philippine troops from the 32nd Infantry Battalion eliminated another ASG commander, Suhud Tanajalin, in an encounter in the town of Tuburan on Basilan’s east coast after being tipped off to his presence by local villagers (Sun Star, February 9). Before the Army closed in on Tanajalin, he was believed responsible for the killing of one soldier and the injuring of ten others in an IED attack on a Humvee while troops were en route to pursue leads relating to the abduction of two Chinese nationals believed to have been kidnapped by the ASG in 2010 (Manila Bulletin, February 3).
Additionally, another long-sought after ASG militant known by the nom de guerre Abu Walid was captured in Zamboanga City, Mindanao, in an operation conducted by Philippine intelligence agents (Mindanao Examiner, February 9). Abu Walid has been wanted by Manila for close to a decade in connection with a 2001 hostage-taking raid at a hospital and church in the town of Lamitan in northeastern Basilan. The Lamitan siege was connected to the kidnapping raid at the Dos Palmas resort on the southwestern island of Palawan in May of 2001 that included a Kansan missionary couple who were transported to Basilan and held hostage there for a year.
When ASG militants stormed Lamitan, they brought their captives from Palawan into town with them while taking additional local hostages before retreating to the jungle after deadly clashes with Philippine troops. The rescue operation in early June 2002 resulted in the death of missionary Martin Burnham and the shooting of his wife Gracia Burnham, who were celebrating a wedding anniversary on Palawan when Abu Sayyaf guerillas stormed the beach where they were holidaying the previous year. An Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman definitively stated that Abu Walid was part of the Lamitan siege but did not comment on whether he was part of the cell involved in the Palawan raid.
1. For a profile of ULFA, see Derek Henry Flood, Motivations and Methods of India’s United Liberation Front of Asom, Terrorism Monitor, April 10, 2009.