New Cambodia? Conflict-ravaged Manipur turns illegal arms trade hub
The security forces could recover only 1,195 weapons and 14,322 ammunition till August 5 | Representative image

New Cambodia? Conflict-ravaged Manipur turns illegal arms trade hub

Over 4,000 weapons and 6 lakh rounds of ammunition have been looted from police stations and armories since violence broke out in the state

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The worst apprehension of the Indian security establishment, that Manipur would turn into a “new Cambodia” as a hub for illegal arms trade, seems to be coming true.

The security apparatus was faced with the emerging reality following the recent arrest of an important functionary of the NSCN (IM) accused of “gun-running”. “The arrested functionary has been identified as Shiningson Chilhang, a self-styled captain of the NSCN (IM),” Public Relations Officer (PRO) Defence, Kohima-Imphal, said on Thursday.

Shiningson Chilhang, a self-styled captain of the NSCN (IM)

He said the arrest was made earlier this week after an operation was launched by a joint team comprising columns from the Assam Rifles, the Army and Manipur police, based on specific intelligence in Sawombung area of Imphal East district. One 9 mm carbine with five live rounds was recovered from him, the PRO added.

Looted weapons on sale

During interrogation, Chilhang disclosed that he had procured the carbine and ammunition, which were looted from the police armory, for Rs 3 lakh from a valley-based person, another officer told The Federal, sharing his video statement. However, the identity of the seller has not been divulged.

The Assam Rifles was “discreetly monitoring and tracking” his movement as he had a past record of gun running, informed the defence sources. The police and the central forces operating in Manipur have been getting tip-offs about looted arms being sold to various militant outfits active in Manipur as well as other northeastern states, they further revealed.

According to them, last week’s arrest and recovery were just the tip of the iceberg. The volume of trade is much bigger. Over 4,000 sophisticated weapons and six lakh rounds of ammunition have been looted by mobs from police stations and armories since ethnic violence broke out in the state on May 3.

The security forces could recover only 1,195 weapons and 14,322 ammunition till August 5, according to a Manipur police press note. The number of weapons available with the civilians is enough to raise an army brigade.

Unprecedented scenario

“The situation in Manipur is unprecedented and we have never faced anything of this kind. The biggest challenge has been the large number of weapons with both communities — Meiteis and Kukis. The society has been weaponised,” Director General of Assam Rifles Lt Gen Pradeep Chandran Nair told media in Shillong on Friday (September 1).

“The conflict-ravaged Manipur has turned into a hub of illegal arms trade. In that sense it has almost become a new Cambodia,” observed Lt Gen (retired) John Ranjan Mukherjee, who had commanded a brigade and a division in the North East. He is currently the president of Kolkata-based security think tank Centre for Eastern and North Eastern Regional Studies Kolkata (CENERS-K).

Cambodia for long had been the most important market of a wide range of illegal munitions in Southeast Asia until the source dried up following massive destruction of “firearms for peace” as part of a European Union project launched in the late 90s that exchanged arms for development projects chosen by villagers, security experts say.

The project succeeded in destroying an estimated 2,08,000 weapons from 1999 to 2006, the Phnom Penh Post, Cambodia’s oldest English-language newspaper, reported a few years ago.

Chinese ordnance factories

The interrogation of a Thai arms dealer, Wutthikorn Naruenartwanich (Willy Naru), by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in 2015-16 revealed the direct involvement of Chinese ordnance factories in supplying arms to Indian rebels through middlemen.

Willy had struck a $2,00,000 deal with the NSCN (IM)’s then foreign secretary Anthony Shimray in 2009. As per the deal, he was to supply 1,000 pieces of arms, including AK series automatic rifles, light machine guns, pistols, RPGs, rocket launchers and 5 lakh rounds of ammunition. The deal also included cost for transshipment, procurement of End User Certificate (EUC), engagement of the shipping company and loading of the goods.

The loading port was Beihei Port of South China and the delivery would be at Cox’s Bazar in the high sea in Bangladesh, as per the NIA’s chargesheet. The arms were to be procured from Chinese company TCL International, the chargesheet said.

Notably, in his bail petition, Willy claimed that the alleged transaction was sought to be conducted by “purely legal means, through appropriate government approvals and with proper End User Certificate (EUC) based on licence acquisition and transport.” Licensed acquisition, transport and trade of arms with EUC is conducted across the globe and the industry is worth billions of dollars.

Arms for rebel groups

The North China Industries Group Corporation (NORINCO) is another Chinese ordnance factory often accused of selling arms to rebel groups in South East Asia through middlemen. To cover exports of weapons by state-run manufacturers, the EUC often lists the Lao Defence Ministry as the recipient of the consignment, intelligence sources said. The arms dealers also at times procure fake EUC to sell weapons to rebel groups, the sources added.

Another way around is to label arms as non-military equipment. An EUC shows the origin, type and destination of arms being sold. The destination is the ‘end-user’. If the end-user is on a banned list, then the sale cannot occur. The certificate is usually issued by ministers of defence, commanders of armed forces, government arms purchasing officials and embassy military attaches.

The NSCN (IM) did not go for any major arms shopping ever since its failed attempt to get munitions from China through Willy, according to Indian intelligence agencies. The outfit now meets its “weaponry requirements” by going for small purchases from “ragtag players”, sources added.

Considering this strategy, the weaponisation of Manipur society perfectly fits the bill for it. “There is now a market for the looted weapons among militant groups,” said Gautam Mukhopadhyay, former Ambassador of India to Myanmar. Clearly this new dimension in the Manipur conflict has heightened the concerns of the security establishment.

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