Courtroom trial tells on India-Myanmar relations
Syed Ali Mujtaba
The trial of the infamous 1998 ‘Operation Leech’ in Kolkata court is turning out to be a public relations disaster for New Delhi. This is crucially at a time when several big business deals with Myanmar's military junta hang in the balance. ‘Operation Leech’ refers to Indian intelligence sting operation capturing 34 Myanmar nationals in Andaman’s Landfall Island on February 8, 1998.
The Army’s version says they captured an "international gang of gun smugglers" waging a war against the nation.
However, as the trial progresses now it’s becoming clear that the "international gang of gun smugglers" were none other than Karen National Union (KNU) and National Unity Party of Arakan (NUPA) rebels fighting the military junta and were helped by India with sanctuary and supply of arms.
According to the defendant, Indian military and intelligence officials had been clandestinely supporting them for years offering them storage facilities for the arms procured from third country to fight the military rule in Myanmar.
The defendant in its plaint say they had traveled overnight from southern Thailand, where they had procured arms from unknown dealers, to India's Landfall Island for a scheduled rendezvous with Indian military and intelligence officials.
The Indian army for some unknown reasons abruptly changed its plan and apprehended us on our arrival at Landfall Island, the defendants allege.
While 28 members were disarmed, shackled and held in different areas of the island, six NUPA leaders were whisked away to be killed in cold blooded manner, the defendant allege.
The rebels were detained for nine years in legal limbo with no formal charges framed against them. They were even denied even councilor access under detention.
However, due to pressure from human rights group this case was finally transferred to a sessions court in Kolkata in December 2004.
Many of the details as to what transpired on Landfall Islands on February 8, 1998, is yet to become clear but the version of the events narrated by the rebels seem gaining more credibility.
This is more so because the CBI due to lack of evidence was forced to drop one of the initial charges that accused the rebels of attempting to wage war against India.
According to Siddharth Agarwal, the rebels' lead lawyer, his clients' defense is simple: "They were called to Landfall Island by the Indian authorities with the promise that ... they would be armed by the Indian Army in their quest for freedom against the military junta" in Myanmar.
“The state prosecutors have reportedly failed to produce significant pieces of evidence requested by the defense, including the ammunition seized that evening,” says Agarwal.
He also complains that the court allowed three military officials allegedly involved in the sting operation to testify via video link without cross-examinations by the defense.
According to the court testimony of the witnesses, some of them had heard the gunshots sound from a distance and since then have never seen the six NUPA leaders.
The prosecution has denied the claims, insisting that the Indian military's only contact with either rebel group was for the purpose of conducting the sting operation.
"If the trial goes on in the right direction, the Indian military's contacts with Burmese rebels will be revealed ... That's why they killed the six leaders. It was because they knew too much," said a PUCL Lawyer monitoring the case very closely.
The revelations emerging from the ‘Operation Leech’ trial in Kolkatta, suggests, New Delhi's alleged past link with rebel groups in Myanmar. Indian intelligence operatives in the late 1980s and early 1990s spent years cultivating ties with rebel groups fighting Myanmar's military rule. They made several offers of logistical support to the Arakan and Chin insurgent groups operating in Myanmar's remote western border regions.
The Karen National Union (KNU) and National Unity Party of Arakan (NUPA) have both claimed in court to have received support from Indian intelligence operatives for years before ‘Operation Leech.’
So far these courtroom claims have not spread any further than the presiding court in Kolkata. It remains to be seen what impact it may make on the India- Myanmar relationship once the charges levied against the rebels are formally demolished.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai, India. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org