AROUND THE REGION
No farewell to arms in peaceful Mizoram
Mizoram is surely a state that gave peace a chance.
After twenty years of much bloodletting during the MNF led insurgency, the state returned to normalcy when the guerrillas walked out of the jungles in 1986.
Mizoram began to be showcased as an Indian success story in peace-making, reinforcing Delhi's faith in co-option and dialogue rather than conflict and retaliation to handle insurgencies and rebellions.
Mizoram's message was clear – don’t go for overkill when you handle your own 'misguided brothers and sisters', have patience and faith in dialogue and it will work at some point.
After fighting Indian troops for twenty years, MNF leaders dropped their battle fatigues for smart three-piece suits and became ministers to run the state for several terms. Even after losing elections, they remain wedded to electoral politics.
MNF chief minister Zoramthanga even became former Prime Minister Vajpayee's 'Man Friday' to mediate with other rebel groups in the Northeast.
Zoramthanga has also been advising Myanmar's peacemakers as they negotiate a nationwide ceasefire with nearly two dozen ethnic rebel armies.
He recently travelled to Myanmar to attend the first signing ceremony of the nationwide ceasefire, along with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Naga talks interlocutor R N Ravi.
Barring a few smaller groups, armed activity has been largely absent in Mizoram.
But that does not mean Mizoram has bid farewell to arms.
If seizures are any indication, more and more contraband weapons are passing through Mizoram on way to Bangladesh or mainland India.
The weapons are smuggled in from Myanmar.
Last week, the Assam Rifles raided two villages in Serchhip and recovered eight assault rifles and 12 loaded magazines. Two smugglers involved in peddling them were also caught.
This was the second big recovery of illegal weapons by the Assam Rifles in six months. Earlier they had seized eight US made M4 rifles in Champhai near the border with Myanmar.
But what is being recovered and seized is believed to the tip of an iceberg.
Mizoram shares a 510 km border with Myanmar and a 318 km frontier with Bangladesh. It appears it has become a corridor for arms' smuggling.
In August 2014, BSF seized eight AK series assault rifles from a gang of smugglers.
Interestingly, this was a Chakma gang -- two of those arrested were Bangladesh Chakmas and three were local Mizoram based Chakmas.
But the biggest ever one-time seizure of weapons in recent years in the Northeast was reported in March last year -- again from Mizoram. 31 assault rifles of AK varieties and a light machine gun were seized along with huge quantities of ammunition from a guest house near Aizawl's Lengpui airport.
It appears there is a major change of route in the region's clandestine arms trade.
Earlier, the weapons should come by sea to Chittagong port, brought in small ships from Thailand or elsewhere in south-east Asia. It contained a mix of old US and Western-make weapons from the days of the Vietnam war and also a new batch of Chinese weapons , sold off into the black market by the Khmer Rouge which, once armed by China, was just falling part.
From Chittagong, these weapons would be carried inland by north-eastern rebels through Mizoram and Manipur or through Tripura and Assam, depending on which rebel group was receiving it and which state it belonged to.
The Indian army first busted this route in 1995 by its hugely successful Operations Golden Bird, when it killed 38 rebels from three groups and arrested 118 of them, including ULFA's one-time foreign secretary Sasha Chowdhury. Scores of encounters were reported in April-May 1995 over a 200-kms stretch in South Mizoram.
But so long Bangladesh agencies played ball , the route could never be fully plugged.The ULFA used this route and got its ally, the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) to cache huge quantities of weapons at its headquarters in Satcherri. Much of this was for sale at premium, some for use.
But that changed in Dec 2008 when Sheikh Hasina came to power and reopened the 2004 Chittagong arms case . Four years later, a special court in Chittagong awarded death sentences to two former Bangladesh ministers Motiur Rahman Nizami and Lutfor Zaman Babar, three former heads of Bangladesh intelligence agencies DGFI and NSI and ULFA military wing chief Paresh Barua.
Subsequently, the Rapid Action Battalion of Bangladesh has carried out regular raids on Satcherri, recovering a huge cache of weapons left behind by the ULFA and the ATTF when their leaders were nabbed and handed over to India and the fighters fled Bangladesh in haste.
The sea route was given up in view of changing realities. But smuggling syndicates in Bangladesh and their partners in Northeast changed the route. With the United Wa State Army flush with Chinese weapons they procure or assemble in their northern Myanmar hideouts, these sydicates turned overland to Myanmar for weapons.
They use the Mon-Dimapur route to supply the upper Northeastern region from where the weapons find their way to Northern Bengal and beyond into mainland Indian states.
The Tiddim-Aizawl route is the second route from where the weapons are smuggled into Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts .
The Tamu-Moreh-Imphal-Silchar route is the third route used by the syndicates.
Intelligence officials say there has been much dissipation in the region's clandestine trade. More smaller groups are in play now instead of big cartels. Rebel groups also prefer to buy from them rather than take the trouble of bringing in the weapons. They end up paying more but cut down risk of loss enroute. A plethora of small players line up on the routes to handle the trade on an on-pass basis , each making their cuts.
Bangladesh's violent politics, its growing Islamist radical fringe, its warring CHT hill guerrilla factions and the Rakhine and Rohingya rebels of neighbouring Arakans in Myanmar all make the CHT a good marketing point for illicit weapons. CHT with its jungle terrain and its proximity to the Chittagong port makes for a good location to cache arms -- and Mizoram looks like a great corridor to keep the CHT markets supplied.
That is so much weapons is moving through Mizoram silently, ironically leveraging the peace the state enjoys.
Someone rightly said peace is good for trade -- looks like, trade of all kinds.
(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC Correspondent and now works as Senior Editor of Dhaka-based bdnews24.com. His books on Northeast "Insurgent Crossfire" and "Troubled Periphery" are well acclaimed. His forthcoming book "Agartala Doctrine" is being published by Oxford University Press. )