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New ULFA strategy challenges Bangladesh foreign policy

Source : HOLIDAY, Google Image

M. Shahidul Islam


ULFA Commander-in-Chief Paresh Baruah posed with his soldier in a recent video footage.

Much like the sinking stock market, our foreign policy parameters too have hit the precipice. Those who wanted to write off the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) by allowing Indian secret service members to capture and whisk out of Bangladesh the outfit’s leading personalities now find themselves boxed up and faced with a protracted dilemma involving major foreign policy implications.
Amidst a series of debacles since late 2009, the ULFA’s military command has re-organized its structure and strategy, posing enormous challenge to Bangladesh’s regional foreign policy pursuance and creating bitter acrimony with Delhi, despite the latter having succeeded so far in securing most of its desired concessions from the AL-led coalition regime.

Video footage
The re-organized senior command of ULFA, which that has been fighting a war of cessation since 1979 to liberate the Indian state of Assam from Delhi’s tutelage, has released on January 21 a video footage of its fighters from a remote hideout in Myanmar. Present among the guerrillas was their Commander-in-Chief, Paresh Baruah, who posed himself in battle fatigue to let the world know the group’s ability to outsmart Delhi and to carry on with its struggle to liberate Assam.
The orchestrated showmanship also had a lot to do with a series of decisions made by the AL-led coalition government since coming to power in early 2009. According to one source within the government, “process is underway to deport the outfit’s political guru and general secretary, Anup Chetia, from Bangladesh.” He seemed as yet unaware of the availability of the video footage of the outfit’s Commander- in- Chief.

ULFA political guru & General Secretary Anup Chetia

The source said the decision to handover Chetia to Indian authorities received a final nod during the recently concluded Home Secretary level meeting in Dhaka of the two neighbours.
Although much of what happened to the Dhaka -based ULFA leaders never got exposed to the public over the last two years. In December 2009 all hell broke loose following a spate of mysterious events resulting in the controversial apprehension from Dhaka – alleged by Indian law enforcers – of ULFA’s founding member, Arabinda Rajkhowa, his family members and a number of other leading personalities of the outfit.

India's notorious secret service Research and analysis wing (RAW) logo

Despite the uproars, Bangladesh authorities never confessed to carrying out those raids, resulting in Indian secret service members being blamed for forays inside Bangladesh, causing considerable embarrassment to a regime that has, by then, piqued enough suspicion of being blindly pro-Indian.
Besides, Bangladesh being a signatory to a number of international Conventions relating to the status of refugees, and, Chetia and his colleagues having applied for asylum pursuant to those conventions, the incidents spurred a number of legal complications.

Legal minefield
The issue began to degenerate into a major crisis during the army-backed caretaker (CT) regime when the Indian influence peddling multiplied and the CT tried to deport Chetia to India. In desperation and treading through a legal minefield, his counsel, Advocate Mohammad Abdus Sattar, formally applied to the UNHCR to have his client recognized as a convention refugee. Addressed to Antonio Guterres, head of the UNHCR, Chetia’s counsel wrote to the UNHCR, “Not only his prayer for asylum in Bangladesh did not make any headway, he was being detained beyond the statutory 7 years limit for illegally entering Bangladesh. He therefore needed UNHCR intervention as a person in need of protection.”
There is evidence to prove Chetia indeed had endured inhumane torture. He was first arrested in March 1991 in Assam, tortured in custody, but was later released by political intervention of then Chief Minister of Assam, Hiteswar Saikia. Fearing further arrest and threat to life, he fled to Bangladesh where he was again arrested on December 21, 1997 under the Foreigners Act and the Passports Act of Bangladesh. Sentenced to seven years of imprisonment, he was supposed to be freed in 2004, but still rots in Bangladesh prison without any justification.

Poisoned relations
Meanwhile, the Chetia factor had poisoned bilateral relations almost intermittently and the Indian request to extradite him remained stalled due to (1) his yet-to-be-disposed asylum application in Bangladesh court, and, (2) There being no extradition treaty between the two countries.
“Unless the court takes a decision denying Chetia’s claim for refugee status, or he himself withdraws his petition, the matter may not move further,” said a concerned source within the government. The crisis has meanwhile morphed into a major foreign policy headache, involving the compulsion to comply with international Conventions on one hand, and, adhering to the request of a friendly neighbour, on the other.
Sources say, Chetia is being approached and pressurized by mandated representatives of the Indian government to withdraw his asylum application in return for promise not to be harmed. But other ULFA leaders are not convinced.
Sensing an imminent danger to the outfit’s very existence, Paresh Barua, the military chief of the outfit, decided to re-cast the outfit and its stratagem from the mountain ranges astride Myanmar-China border. The latest video snapshot comes from one of those encampments where the temporary leadership of the outfit is currently based.
Curiously, Delhi never exerted the kind of pressure on Myanmar or China as it has been exerting on Bangladesh. This smacks of duplicity and dubiousness. May be the China factor is playing a major role in Delhi’s imbalanced attitude toward its smaller neighbours.
Be that what it may, our investigation shows, the 54-year-old Baruah has an anchor in China’s Yunnan province bordering Myanmar, and he often frequents between northern Myanmar’s Kachin areas and the Yannan of China. India’s external affairs minister, S M Krishna, had informed the Rajya Sabha last month that India had taken up with China the issue of Baruah’s presence in that country.
Meanwhile, a seemingly desperate Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, had said his government has received ‘encouraging signals’ from the ULFA for holding peace talks, something ULFA leadership never confirmed as yet.
All these prove one thing for certain: The Assam factor has internationalized to the level where a lasting peace with ULFA can only be achieved with cooperation from Bangladesh, Myanmar and China. Bangladesh is particularly pivotal to any peace deal due to the outfit’s political chief being inside Bangladesh prison and, Assam being sandwiched between China and Bangladesh.


BSF arrogance
Delhi may not be unaware of such realities, but its border force, the BSF, seems too haughty to acknowledge their ramifications. According to the Guardian newspaper (Jan. 23), killing of Bangladeshi citizens at the Indo-Bangladesh border ‘is endorsed by Indian officials.”
Any official endorsement of a policy makes that policy an official one, period. The Guardian report carries further evidence of that being the case; at a time when Indo-Bangladesh border shooting incidents created serious uproar in the global media outlets, especially since the brutal killing of a Bangladeshi teenager, Felani, last month.
Guardian reporter Brad Adams wrote, “India has the right to impose border controls. But India does not have the right to use lethal force except where strictly necessary to protect life. Yet some Indian officials openly admit that unarmed civilians are being killed.” The report adds, ” The head of the BSF, Raman Srivastava, says that people should not feel sorry for the victims, claiming that since these individuals were illegally entering Indian territory, often at night, they were “not innocent” and therefore were a legitimate target.” Even if one is goaded to accept such an illegitimate, foolhardy argument, can anyone show other example of unarmed civilians being shot to death in any other bordering areas of the world; in such huge numbers, so often, for so long?
That the government had failed to challenge Delhi on this particular count remains a matter of unmitigated shame and despair. It’s also a blot that can not be easily erased from the litany of undoing of a regime that knows not how to fashion a sustainable foreign policy.

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