AROUND THE REGION
The great Northeastern arms trail
It is a first for India -- and a development considerably more significant than the extradition of mafia don Chota Rajan, whose utility as a counter-foil to Dawood has been increasingly in doubt.
India has finally succeeded in securing the extradition of a Thai gunrunner Wuthikorn Naruenartwanich alias Willy to stand trial in India -- something Delhi has so far failed to do with the Purulia armsdrop mastermind Jan Christien Nielsen alias Kim Davy .
During the first round of interrogation conducted by the NIA, Willy has finally blown the lid on the $ 1.2 million deal that he had signed with the NSCN(I-M) chief of procurement, Anthony Shimray alias Nikhang Shimray.
One cannot think of a more successful handling of a serious case with trans-regional implications than this one and full credit should go to the NIA officers who doggedly pursued the case in a Thai court with solid evidence.
The Indian media seems to have completely missed out the story. Peter and Indrani Mukherjee's money trail is important for tax authorities - but the arms trail to China through South-east Asia is no less important because it has serious security implications. But this was a story our anchors did not want India to know because they did not get to know of it.
Exactly a decade after the failed attempt to smuggle a huge consignment of weapons through Chittagong, fresh evidence has now surfaced that the NSCN (I-M) had planned to use the Bangladesh coast to bring in a similar, though not as big a consignment, through Cox's Bazar in late 2010. All this while they were in negotiations with the Indian government.
The weapons recovered on 1 April, 2004 in Chittagong port area had to be carried off in ten trucks and could arm a whole military brigade.
Now, India's National Investigation Agency (NIA) has garnered all details of a plan by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) to land a huge consignment of weapons south of Cox's Bazar in late 2010.
The consignment of 1000 Ak series rifles , 50 universal machine guns and as many rocket launchers alongwith an assortment of ammunition was supposed to be loaded in a ship at Beihei port on China-Vietnam border in the South China sea and brought to Cox's Bazar to be carried inland into northeast India.
The plan was cancelled after NSCN's chief of procurement Anthony Shimray alias Nikkhang Shimray, who had struck the deal with Chinese suppliers, was nabbed by Nepal police and handed over to India in the summer of 2010.
The NIA has filed the charge sheet in an Indian court against Shimray and three others but one of them has turned approver and spilled the beans.
Then the NIA moved a court in Thailand and secured the extradition of Bangkok-based gunrunner Wuthikorn Naruenartwanich alias Willy to India after receiving ‘robust evidence’ about his efforts to mediate the arms deal between the NSCN and Chinese arms manufacturers.
Willy's appeal failed because the NIA had done its homework and the evidence it produced in the Thai court was seen by the judges as 'conclusive' of his complkicity.
Willy was brought to Delhi last week to stand trial for negotiating the deal between the NSCN and Chinese ordnance companies for supply of weapons worth between $ 1.2 million.
Though the NSCN has not fought against Indian forces since 1997, its fighters have been involved in factional feuds and turf battles with other breakaway Naga rebel factions and separatist groups representing other communities who oppose the NSCN’s plans for a ‘greater Naga state’. Some suspect arms trading in the murky conflict zones of Northeast.
Anthony Shimray, who has lived in Thailand for most of the last twenty years, was said to be the NSCN’s chief of procurement.
His name surfaced in the 2004 Chittagong arms cases, when prosecutors there found some evidence of his involvement with ULFA military wing chief Paresh Barua in trying to smuggle in a huge consignment of China-made weapons through the port city in Bangladesh
Barua and Shimray were said to have stayed in the same hotel on the day the Chittagong police seized the ten-truck consignment in the port city.
But the trail on him went cold and could not be seriously pursued by the Bangladesh prosecutors.
Following Shimray's interrogation in India , Willy’s involvement in the deal with the Norinco subsidiary surfaced. Norinco is China's leading state-owned ordnance firm.
India and Thailand signed in May 2013 a treaty for extradition of fugitives wanted for terrorism, trans-national crimes and economic offences. That was one of the successes of Manmohan Singh's quiet diplomay in the neighborhood, though the soft-spoken economist did not brag about it .
After that, India got a red corner notice issued against Willy through the Interpol and the Thai 'trader' was arrested in September 2013 from his home in Bangkok.
The NIA says Shimray paid an advance of $ 800,000 in April 2010 to a Bangkok-based company run by Willy to source rocket launchers, grenades, assault rifles and ammunition for the NSCN and its allies from a weapons supplier in mainland China.
It says Shimray had been frequently travelling to Beijing to seal the arms deal.
A senior NIA official said the agency has got hold of emails exchanged between NSCN (I-M) leaders and Willy about the proposed deal to bring in the huge consignment in 2010 that include more than 1000 AK series rifles , machine guns and rocket launchers .
The NIA says it also has evidence of $700,000 paid to a Chinese firm by Willy for the deal.
The middleman who introduced Shimray and other leaders of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland to Willy is now a witness in the case after turning approver.
According to NIA chargesheet, Willy put the NSCN leaders in touch with one Yuthna, a representative of Chinese firm TCL.
TCL was a go-between for Chinese defence giant Noricno, the NIA suspects.
For the deal, Shimray had paid $100,000 to Willy in May, 2009. Later more funds were sent to TCL through Willy.
The NIA has electronic receipt of the payment. Shimray also received $800,000 in Bangkok from NSCN , out of which $ 700,000 was paid to TCL via Willy.
Rest of the sum was paid to Thai shipping agent Kittichai of Intermarine Shipping Company of Bangkok for transporting the weapons to Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh.
NIA officials say that a definite money trail exists as payment to Chinese firm was made through normal banking channels via a leading private bank's branch in an African country.
NSCN has parked its funds in bank accounts across several African nations, they say.
The several separatist rebel groups in India's troubled Northeast have sourced their weapons from the black markets of South-East Asia in the aftermath of the Vietnam War until they turned to the Chinese in the last decade.
But the Chinese arms have been brought by sea and off-loaded in the Bangladesh coast before the separatist rebels from India's northeast would carry them on their shoulders into the region through the hilly terrain, evading Indian forces.
In April-May 1995, the Indian army launched a successfdul operation against such a large rebel column after they had picked up a huge consignment of weapons at Bangladesh's Wyakaung beach south off Cox's Bazar.
The operation christened "Golden Bird" led to the arrest of 118 rebels by the Indian army, even as 38 of them were killed in a series of encounters in the northeast Indian state of Mizoram.
The interesting thing about the Shimray plan is that the Naga rebel leader was planning to use the Bangladesh coast to smuggle in the weapons into northeast India even after the government of Sheikh Hasina had come to power in Jan 2009 and started a crackdown against northeast Indian rebels.
Senior rebel leaders like ULFA chairmnan Arabinda Rajkhowa, his foreign secretary Sasadhar Choudhury , deputy military wing chief Raju Barua, UNLF chief Raj Kumar Meghen, NDFB chief Ranjan Daimary and ATTF chief Ranjoit Debbarma were all nabbed by Bangladesh agencies and quietly handed to India to stand trial.
Only Paresh Barua, now sentenced to death with 13 others in the 2004 Chittagong arms cases, managed to escape from Bangladesh.
"The fact that Shimray managed to line up the armsdrop in the Cox's Bazar region in late 2010 much after the crackdown by Hasina government indicates the northeastern rebels still had sufficient contacts and resources in that area to plan the drop," said former Indian DIA deputy chief Major-General Gaganjit Singh.
" Our boys are trying to dig out those links and once we have them , we will inform our Bangladesh counterparts. They will be surely interested," the official said.
So, despite the tough verdict of the 2004 Chittagong cases, in which two former ministers and two former intelligence chiefs were sentenced to death alongwith Paresh Barua , Indian intelligence says it has reasons to believe the northeastern rebels still have a covert network in the Cox's Bazar region.
"Or else why would Shimray plan his armsdrop there a year after Hasina's government has started the crackdown," Gaganjit Singh said.
He said his agency suspects Islamist radicals in Bangladesh could be involved with Shimray-- as they were possibly involved with Barua -- in sharing the inducted weapons on premium payment.
The Willy extradition is a clearly a feather in the NIA's cap and a resounding success for our cyber-intelligence . Good that no one bragged about it .
(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. )