Meghalaya: Dramatic Gains, Lingering Dangers

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By Giriraj Bhattacharjee
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management

On February 25, 2017, a Police team that included newly constituted Special Force (SF)-10 commandos, in an encounter, killed the ‘commander-in-chief’ of the now-disbanded United Achik Liberation Army (UALA), Singbirth N. Marak aka Norok. X. Momin, at a hideout located inside a forest near Thapa Matronggre village in North Garo Hills District. Marak, along with other cadres of the UALA had surrendered before the Meghalaya Government on June 9, 2016, and had started living a ‘normal life’ after the group was disbanded.

However, he reportedly escaped to the neighboring State of Assam after Meghalaya Police started looking for him following the arrest of one suspect, along with a cache of arms, on November 12, 2016, and surrender of three other suspects on November 13, 2016.These suspects subsequently disclosed that the arms were meant for the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) and they were working under Marak’s instructions to provide the weapons to this militant formation.

SF-10 is Meghalaya's new elite commando force; the first batch staged a passing out parade after completing six months of basic training and a three-and-a-half month special commando counter-insurgency course on October 5, 2016.

Earlier, on February 20, 2017, a commando team of the SF-10, killed a GNLA militant, identified as Walamdaria M. Sangma, in an encounter at Riangdim village in the Shallang area of West Khasi Hills District. A group of GNLA militants had gone there to extort ‘tax’ from coal dealers and exporters before being engaged by the SF-10 commandos.

The lone civilian fatality was recorded on January 19, 2017, when Kerok R. Marak (23) was accidentally killed in cross-fire between GNLA militants and SF-10 commandos in the remote Rongsu Agal area of South Garo Hills District. According to reports, GNLA militants opened fire on a Police team, which had reached the spot after receiving information about a hideout which was ‘used by’ GNLA ‘commander-in-chief’ Sohan D. Shira.

These were the only three insurgency-related killing incidents reported from across the State during the first 57 days of the current year (data till February 26, 2017).

Through 2016, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), Meghalaya recorded 26 fatalities, including 10 civilians and 16 militants as against a total of 61 fatalities, including 19 civilians, eight SF personnel and 34 militants registered in 2015. Thus, overall fatalities registered a steep decline of 57 per cent in 2016 as against 2015. In fact, insurgency related fatalities, which had been continuously rising since 2010, on year on year basis, first declined in 2015 and went down further in 2016. Such fatalities had touched a low of just five (one civilian and four militants) in 2009 peaked at 76 (23 civilians, six SF personnel and 47 militants) in 2014, the highest recorded in the state since 1992.

More importantly, the Security Forces (SFs) managed to further improve the security environment for the civilian population through 2016. Civilian fatalities which had risen to 28 in 2013, the second worst toll in this category recorded in the State since 1992 (there were 29 civilian deaths in 2002) had come down to 23 in 2014 and  fell further to 19 in 2015, declining further to 10 in 2016.  

Significantly, according to SATP data, 18 fatalities (69 per cent) in 2016 and 57 fatalities (93 per cent) in the State in 2015 were reported from the Garo Hills region, which consists of East Garo Hills District, West Garo Hills District, North Garo Hills District, South Garo Hills District and South West Garo Hills District. Moreover, incidents of abduction-for ransom, which have long been rampant, especially in the Garo Hills Region, remained a challenge, despite a decline in registered cases. Meghalaya accounted for 27 such incidents (24 in the Garo Hills alone) through 2016, in addition to 44 in 2015 (35 in Garo Hills alone).

Despite facing overwhelming reverses, GNLA remains the most potent groups among the multiple armed formations operating in the State. GNLA was responsible for five of the 10 civilian deaths that were attributed to identified militant group (five fatalities remain ‘unattributed’) in 2016.  Similarly, the outfit was confirmed to have been involved in five incidents of abduction-for ransom. During one audacious extortion attempt, two suspected GNLA cadres, identified as Borgen Sangma and Rankhu Momin, were arrested on December 8, 2016, for threatening to kill Superintendent of Police (SP) of South Garo Hills District, Anand Mishra. The duo was sending threat messages to Mishra's personal and official mobile numbers since October 20, 2016, including SMSs demanding INR five million. Sangma and Momin claimed they were the 'foreign secretary in charge' and 'public information officer' of GNLA and that they were keeping an eye on Mishra's movements. The arrested duo had threatened to raid the SP’s residence and shoot him.

GNLA’s ‘top’ leadership, including its ‘commander-in-chief’ Sohan D. Shira remain active. Worryingly, according to a November 27, 2016 report, GNLA sent an envoy to clandestinely procure more arms and ammunition from the dealers in Bangladesh to add to its already significant arsenal. An unnamed source claimed that the GNLA arsenal has "still enough fire power", adding that the arms deposited by surrendered cadres are simply the tip of the iceberg.  

Further, media reports suggest that, following the shortage of cadres, GNLA, is attempting to lure minors to join its ranks.

GNLA has long been associated with the Independent faction of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-I) and, on January 25, 2016, announced that it would join the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA). UNLFWESEA, created on April 17, 2015, and headed by S.S. Khaplang, ‘chairman’ of the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), was formed with the objective of setting up a ‘northeast government-in-exile’. Similarly, the Meghalaya based Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) and ULFA-I, are reported to have attempted to form a ‘united front’. In a statement to the press, HNLC ‘publicity secretary’ Sainkupar Nongtraw on May 15, 2016, revealed that the group wanted to blow up the High Court of Meghalaya and the State Secretariat. The plan was foiled as SFs arrested four militants belonging to HNLC and ULFA-I, and seized explosives, on May 13, 2016.

The security situation in Meghalaya has improved considerably, but a decisive end to its multiple insurgencies remains tantalizingly out of reach. As militant organisations across the region attempt to develop synergies for joint action against the State, the urgency of sustaining operational pressures can only grow, despite the tremendous gains of the recent past.

Significantly, according to SATP data, 18 fatalities (69 per cent) in 2016 and 57 fatalities (93 per cent) in the State in 2015 were reported from the Garo Hills region, which consists of East Garo Hills District, West Garo Hills District, North Garo Hills District, South Garo Hills District and South West Garo Hills District. Moreover, incidents of abduction-for ransom, which have long been rampant, especially in the Garo Hills Region, remained a challenge, despite a decline in registered cases. Meghalaya accounted for 27 such incidents (24 in the Garo Hills alone) through 2016, in addition to 44 in 2015 (35 in Garo Hills alone).

Despite facing overwhelming reverses, GNLA remains the most potent groups among the multiple armed formations operating in the State. GNLA was responsible for five of the 10 civilian deaths that were attributed to identified militant group (five fatalities remain ‘unattributed’) in 2016.  Similarly, the outfit was confirmed to have been involved in five incidents of abduction-for ransom. During one audacious extortion attempt, two suspected GNLA cadres, identified as Borgen Sangma and Rankhu Momin, were arrested on December 8, 2016, for threatening to kill Superintendent of Police (SP) of South Garo Hills District, Anand Mishra. The duo was sending threat messages to Mishra's personal and official mobile numbers since October 20, 2016, including SMSs demanding INR five million. Sangma and Momin claimed they were the 'foreign secretary in charge' and 'public information officer' of GNLA and that they were keeping an eye on Mishra's movements. The arrested duo had threatened to raid the SP’s residence and shoot him.

GNLA’s ‘top’ leadership, including its ‘commander-in-chief’ Sohan D. Shira remain active. Worryingly, according to a November 27, 2016 report, GNLA sent an envoy to clandestinely procure more arms and ammunition from the dealers in Bangladesh to add to its already significant arsenal. An unnamed source claimed that the GNLA arsenal has "still enough fire power", adding that the arms deposited by surrendered cadres are simply the tip of the iceberg.  

Further, media reports suggest that, following the shortage of cadres, GNLA, is attempting to lure minors to join its ranks.

GNLA has long been associated with the Independent faction of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-I) and, on January 25, 2016, announced that it would join the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA). UNLFWESEA, created on April 17, 2015, and headed by S.S. Khaplang, ‘chairman’ of the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), was formed with the objective of setting up a ‘northeast government-in-exile’. Similarly, the Meghalaya based Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) and ULFA-I, are reported to have attempted to form a ‘united front’. In a statement to the press, HNLC ‘publicity secretary’ Sainkupar Nongtraw on May 15, 2016, revealed that the group wanted to blow up the High Court of Meghalaya and the State Secretariat. The plan was foiled as SFs arrested four militants belonging to HNLC and ULFA-I, and seized explosives, on May 13, 2016.

The security situation in Meghalaya has improved considerably, but a decisive end to its multiple insurgencies remains tantalizingly out of reach. As militant organisations across the region attempt to develop synergies for joint action against the State, the urgency of sustaining operational pressures can only grow, despite the tremendous gains of the recent past.

This article was originally published in South Asia Intelligence Review on 27 February 2017:
http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/sair/Archives/sair15/15_35.htm#assessment2

 

JULY 2017

Vol. 11 - No. 12










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