Thursday, February 10, 2005

ASSESSMENT: Trouble on India's islands

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+ As the implications of the Andaman Islands situation sink in, Indian intelligence has inevitably come under scrutiny. In recent months, its fallibility has become evident. The inability to foresee in advance the assassination attempt on the pro-India political leader and former Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed last August 21 at a political rally in Dhaka, and the recent "coup" by Nepalese King Gyanendra dismissing his government and imposing a virtual absolute monarchy, are glaring examples of intelligence failure. +

Trouble on India's islands
Ramtanu Maitra

In early February, India charged 34 Arakan separatists from Myanmar with hiding in the Landfall Islands, part of the Andaman Islands group (see end note). These alleged members of the Arakan Army, the military wing of the National Unity Party in Myanmar, have been charged with illegal entry. It is likely, but not certain, that they will be deported to Myanmar.

But the news of the Arakan rebels is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to growing concern in New Delhi over the security of the Andaman Islands. Reports are circulating in the intelligence community that the Andaman Islands are not only thick with Myanmar rebels. It has also become an arms depot of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who operate almost freely in the Andaman Sea. Information pointing in this direction came to light after the December 26 tsunami, which took a heavy toll on the Andamans. Correspondents who flocked in to cover the tsunami found they also had another story - the miserable security situation surrounding the Indian navy's Far Eastern Naval Command, now being established along with India's "blue water navy".

Deteriorating security

Security problems in the Andaman Sea are not new, but they have deteriorated during the past few years, in tandem with a deterioration in the security situation in Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan, and particularly in the northeastern Indian states of Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura. While the Indian army has become rock-solid in the western front, and has developed the capability of withstanding any Pakistani adventure in that sector, it has become highly vulnerable in its eastern sector, where its enemy is not a national army but a multitude of secessionist, terrorist and drug-running militants operating between Southeast Asia and northeastern India through Bangladesh.

The Andaman Sea is a major conduit for this traffic, and the 572 large and small islands that constitute the Andaman and Nicobar group are a natural transit base. The drugs and arms travel in all directions. Since the "Sea Tigers" of the LTTE, better known as the Tamil Tigers, are the ones who rule the Andaman Sea: they carry the arms and drugs for their own use and also to deliver to rebels in Aceh and all along the east coast of Africa. It is old news that the Tamil Tigers have developed a strong network within South Africa.

This is not unknown to New Delhi. A recent report by a journalist from Port Blair, in the Andamans, quoted an unnamed official saying that foreigners from Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have permanently settled in the islands, using fake Indian ration cards, while citizens of Thailand, China, Indonesia and Malaysia have migrated temporarily to plunder the natural resources and leave. "Port Blair, Havelock Islands, Diglipur, Middle Nicobar, Campbell's Bay, Neil Islands and Rangott are mostly overrun by foreigners," he said.

An official estimate issued in 2003 suggests there are 50,000 "foreigners" in the Andaman Islands, but unofficial figures are much higher than this. A large number of them are Bangladeshis, who like millions of their countrymen have left their densely populated homeland to settle elsewhere. As most of them have few technical skills, and the Andamans have little demand for them in any case, they turn to smuggling and other unlawful activities. The presence of the Sea Tigers in the area with guns, cash and drugs makes the situation extremely dangerous.

Reports from Port Blair make it evident that New Delhi gets little on-the-ground intelligence, and the Indian Coast Guard is grossly unequipped to deal with the surge of illegal migrants to the islands. One unnamed naval officer was quoted saying, "Arms smuggling is a very profitable business in this region." Considering the islands' huge strategic importance, it is amazing how lax New Delhi has been. These islands sit aside the vital sea lanes of the Strait of Malacca, through which 300 tankers and merchant ships pass daily, bringing in oil for the Far East and Southeast Asia.

Intelligence lapses

As the implications of the Andaman Islands situation sink in, Indian intelligence has inevitably come under scrutiny. In recent months, its fallibility has become evident. The inability to foresee in advance the assassination attempt on the pro-India political leader and former Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed last August 21 at a political rally in Dhaka, and the recent "coup" by Nepalese King Gyanendra dismissing his government and imposing a virtual absolute monarchy, are glaring examples of intelligence failure.

With growing economic and military power, India will be dependent on smaller nations in the region increasingly to maintain regional security. Unless New Delhi does better in providing security to its own nationals against rebels, secessionists, drug runners and arms traffickers, it will not generate much confidence in the capitals of surrounding nations. In fact, it would tend to encourage more organized anti-India outfits, such as the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and outside-linked Maoists, to exploit these networks and weaken India's eastern flank.

Indian intelligence's lackluster performance in dealing with the LTTE is startling. This formidable enemy, which gave the Indian army a black eye in the mid-1980s, has been operating in northeastern India and in the Andaman Sea for a long time. In 2001, according to Indian army officials, security forces launched a wide-ranging operation in the 300-some inhabited islands neighboring Andaman and Nicobar, and found huge caches of arms. The arms were said to belong to the LTTE and "other terrorist groups". The search-and-destroy operation was carried out by the Indian government after repeated requests from Colombo.

In addition, LTTE activity in the Andaman Sea is well known to local observers. The biggest LTTE maritime disaster was reported in the now-defunct Asiaweek in 2001. A shipment of weapons, ammunition and explosives, believed to have been purchased from Cambodia and worth several million dollars, left the port of Phuket in Thailand in early February 2001 aboard the freighter Comex-Joux 3. As is LTTE standard procedure, the vessel changed its name at sea to Horizon. On its journey across the Bay of Bengal the freighter was tracked by the Indian navy and Orissa-based spy planes of India's Aviation Research Center; it was intercepted by Indian naval vessels off Sri Lanka's east coast.

LTTE arms-running

In 1997, the Thai navy reported the interception of a 16-meter boat after a chase off the Thai port of Ranong, and the confiscation of two tons of weapons and ammunition. Among the weapons intercepted were two rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, 20 assault rifles, M-79 grenade launchers and more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition. Four persons were arrested, reportedly belonging to the Manipur Revolutionary People's Front. Six crew members were from the Arakan region of Myanmar. The boat was heading toward Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh.

Until 1995 the LTTE maintained a base at Twante, an island off the coat of Myanmar, west of the Andaman islands. Subsequently, Phuket became the LTTE's main backup base. A Sri Lanka-born Tamil with a Norwegian passport was arrested by Thai authorities in 2000 for his links with the LTTE. At the time of his arrest, the suspect was allegedly involved in constructing a "submarine" in a shipyard on the island of Sirae near Phuket on the Andaman Sea coast.

Steady buildup

The real threat to the Andaman Islands is the steady building-up of ports and conduits that serve the Tamil Tigers and a host of less-strong militant groups. Over the past decade, Bangladesh has steadily moved into a state of lawlessness. A number of extremist groups, under the cover of the Islamist movement, have become active in drug trafficking, gun running and anti-Indian activities.

It is widely acknowledged that the Pakistani ISI has nurtured a number of extremist Islamist groups, such as the Harkat-ul-Jehad-al-Islami, in the port city of Chittagong, and put a number of secessionist rebels from India's northeast in touch with this terrorist network.

As a result, north of the Andaman Islands, Bangladeshi coastal areas have become a nest of terrorists involved in the shipment of drugs and arms. A pattern of arrests and seizures indicate that arms are brought by the LTTE from Laos, Cambodia and Thailand into Chittagong, from where they are transported northward by land to Bhutan. The route from Kalikhola in Bhutan to Cox's Bazar passes through northern Bengal, Assam and Meghalaya, and on into Chittagong.

Note

India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands comprise more than 500 islands lying 1,000 kilometers east of Sri Lanka in the Bay of Bengal. Stretching 750 kilometers from end to end, they reach from near the coast of Myanmar almost to Sumatra in Indonesia. The Ten Degree Channel divides the Andamans, which are the larger and more heavily populated northern islands, from the 20 or so Nicobar Islands in the south. On South Andaman, the most heavily populated island, is Port Blair, which is the capital and the only large town in the entire archipelago. Travel to the Nicobar Islands is forbidden to non-Indians, and they are also not allowed in some parts of South Andaman Island.

Ramtanu Maitra writes for a number of international journals and is a regular contributor to the Washington-based EIR and the New Delhi-based Indian Defense Review. He also writes for Aakrosh, India's defense-tied quarterly journal.