Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Assam: ULFA - Sympathy being replaced by fear

["The entire northeast of India has turned into sort of a police state, with troops armed with stringent anti-terror laws engaged in combatting the rebels," said Sunil Nath, a former official for the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom, a large rebel group that authorities blame for some of the weekend violence. Nath, who surrendered to authorities in 1991, said civilians have paid the highest price from the bloodshed.ULFA, which wants to create a homeland for the region's ethnic Assamese, is just one of myriad rebel groups, some of which have been fighting the government since the 1950s. Their names reflect the region's diversity: the National Democratic Front of Bodoland; the Hynniewtrep International Liberation Council; the Kuki Revolutionary Army. Some have just a few dozens members, while others have more than 2,000 fighters, well-stocked arsenals, secret training camps and spokesmen to craft press releases.]

Ethnic Fighting Flaring Up in India
In India's Remote Northeast, Dozens of Ethnic Groups Wage Bloody Separatist Wars

GAUHATI, India Oct. 5, 2004 — Across India's northeast, in remote mountain villages and heavily forested hills, dozens of ethnic militant groups are waging war. They're fighting for independence, or greater political autonomy, or in inter-faction battles. Some are so obscure they're barely known outside of a few towns.

But obscurity is no protection against bloodshed, and over the past decade more than 10,000 people have died in violence in the northeast, where seven obscure states wedged between Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and Myanmar dangle from India's edge by a narrow corridor of land.

Violence there has surged in recent days with a flurry of bombings and shootings. In the most recent attack, rebels on Tuesday opened fire on people in a market in the village of Jalabala, killing 10 people and wounding seven, according to police chief L.R. Bishnoi.

The attacks brough to 73 the number of people killed since Saturday, including victims torn apart by bombs or gunned down in markets, a railroad station even a tea plantation.

"How can anyone kill innocent civilians?" demanded Khesheli Chishi, who heads the Naga Mothers' Association, a group that has been in the forefront of peace efforts in Nagaland state, where a number of the attacks occurred.

India's northeasterners see themselves, in many ways, as the nation's stepchildren, isolated by geography, ethnicity and poverty.

The militants say the central government in New Delhi some 1,000 miles to the west exploits the region's rich natural resources, from oil to timber to tea, while doing little for the indigenous people, most of whom are more ethnically tied to Burma and China than to the rest of the subcontinent.

The result is a region with poor infrastructure, widespread unemployment and a bitterness that has nurtured dozens of militant groups.

After so many years of violence, it's also created a region that has suffered deeply from its own anger.

"The entire northeast of India has turned into sort of a police state, with troops armed with stringent anti-terror laws engaged in combatting the rebels," said Sunil Nath, a former official for the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom, a large rebel group that authorities blame for some of the weekend violence.

Nath, who surrendered to authorities in 1991, said civilians have paid the highest price from the bloodshed.

That, he said, has increasingly isolated the militants from the people they claim to be defending. In many regions, militants are known more for their extortion demands than for their fight against India's central government.

"Sympathy for them is being fast replaced by fear," Nath said in Gauhati, the capital of Assam state, where many of the recent attacks occurred. "The rebels will be the losers, as they cannot lead a homeland campaign without the support of the masses."

ULFA, which wants to create a homeland for the region's ethnic Assamese, is just one of myriad rebel groups, some of which have been fighting the government since the 1950s. Their names reflect the region's diversity: the National Democratic Front of Bodoland; the Hynniewtrep International Liberation Council; the Kuki Revolutionary Army. Some have just a few dozens members, while others have more than 2,000 fighters, well-stocked arsenals, secret training camps and spokesmen to craft press releases.

The most recent violence, which began Saturday, came amid peace overtures between the government and a number of militant organizations, including ULFA.

Government officials insist they still support peace talks, but they also face sharp criticism from political opponents, who accuse them of being soft on terrorism.

"We have not closed the doors for talks, but it is our duty to save human lives," federal Home Minister Shivraj Patil told reporters after visiting the violence-hit states of Assam and Nagaland.

At least 19 bombings and shootings have occurred in the two states since Saturday. The attacks particularly a Saturday explosion that ripped through a crowded railway station even angered some separatist leaders.

But on Sunday, the ULFA commander, Paresh Barua, reportedly claimed responsibility for four of the attacks, calling them "our answer" to cease-fire calls, according to the English-language newspaper The Sentinel. No arrests have been made.

AP 05/10/2004