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E-Pao! Opinion - Arms Supplies for Asia's Forgotten Wars

Arms Supplies for Asia's Forgotten Wars
Thousands of lives have been lost in the ongoing armed conflict in India's North East

By Stefan Mentschel *



The world's largest conference on "Control Arms" recently concluded in Nairobi. Nearly 200 activists from 75 countries gathered for a three day conference in the Kenynian capital to discuss, debate and strategise ways for combating the massive proliferation of small arms and light weapons in the world. There are over 600 million small arms and light weapons in circulation worldwide. Small arms are responsible for over half a million deaths per year, including 300,000 in armed conflict. Even as debate continues thousands of deaths have happened in India's Northeast.

In April 2004, Bangladeshi authorities seized in the port of Chittagong weaponry worth around 7 million US-Dollar. The consignment is known to have included 2000 automatic and semi-automatic weapons, 150 rocket launchers, 25.000 hand-grenades as well as nearly two million rounds of small-arms ammunition. This assignment was destined for a conflict-ridden region the world does hardly know anything about - India's North East.

More than 220 ethnic groups live in Northeast India that is strategically sandwiched between Bhutan, the People's Republic of China, Myanmar (Burma) and Bangladesh. Since the end of British colonial rule in 1947 the diverse and multi-faceted North East were made to merge with Union of India. And over the years after independence came the seven states known as - Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Arunchal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur came to constitute the "Northeast".

Many refer to these states as "Seven Sisters". However, rebellion started in this region. Already before independence and later, Naga rebels first took up arms to fight against the new "occupying forces". In neighboring Manipur - officially since 1949 a part of India - movement erupted that resisted the "forced accession" of their land, which has a 2000 year old cultural history.

Today experts have counted more than 70 armed rebel groups in the North East region that inhabits just 3,6 percent of India's one-billion-people population. For the most part the motivations of the rebelsare diverse. In the state of Manipur, major armed groups like the People's Liberation Army or the United National Liberation Front still fight for independence.

In Mizoram and Tripura there are groups that want to enforce an end of migration and banishment of all refugees. Since partition of the sub-continent over two million people have crossed the border from Bangladesh (until 1971 East Pakistan) to India, what lead especially in the North East to social frictions and ethnical that motivated unrests. Apart from that ethnic groups in the west of Assam fight for more autonomy.

"No other region in the world has seen the emergence of so many rebel groups as it is in Northeast", Binalakshmi Nepram, who also attended the recently concluded Control Arms Conference in Nairobi explains. "And almost of all the groups use armed struggle to further their goals." Ms Nepram, an author and activist herself from the state of Manipur, has been working with youth and women in the area and has also researched some of the routes in which arms reach the North East. According to her research the main part of the April 2004 seizure originated from China.

From Hong Kong the consignment was shipped to Singapore where more weapons - mainly from Israel and the US - were added. The shipment was then transported up north through the Malakka Street to be transshipped in the Bay of Bengal to two trawlers which ferried the arms to Chittagong. From there the weaponry was supposed to be smuggled overland, through the impassable borderland between Bangladesh and India, to reach its destination in the conflict area.

The Indian security forces seem to be powerless against the international arms dealers whose supplies have been reaching Northeast. However, as the fragile North East is of tremendous strategic importance, the Central Government is doing everything to defend India's territorial integrity.

But the price is high. New Delhi has deployed over 40,000 soldiers and para-military forces in the region. And more then 10,000 people have died in the past five decades in the ongoing armed conflict. Not to forget that the operations of the state as well as the non-state are partly shadowed by a massive violation of human rights.

"For half a century small arms from all over the world have been fueling the conflicts in the North East", says Binalakshmi Nepram. "Generations have grown up with violence." But however paradox it might sound, in this long history of armed struggle lies hope that a solution can be reached to bring peace in the region.

Many people are tired of this conflict, she explains. And more and more voices from the civil society are demanding an end of the violence. But she also knows that it will be a long, difficult road to peace. The good news is that the process has already started. Small committed steps done by committed individuals, groups, organisations, especially women groups will go a long way to bringing peace in this region.

It is also time that the world, especially world bodies like the United Nations and international civil society organisations wake up to one of Asia's most important forgotten wars, before further lives and futures are lost.

(*) Stefan Mentschel is a journalist based in Berlin and author of a recently published book, "Right to Information: An Appropriate Tool Against Corruption".
This article was first published under the title "Nachschub für Asiens vergessene Kriege" in the German newspaper "Neues Deutschland" on April 15, 2005.
He can be reached at s.mentschel@nd-online.de


PS: You can read the full German version here.

(**) Binalaksmi Nepram has recently attended a meeting at Nairobi which was focused on looking at ways to end gun violence in the world. 75 countries participated and it was the largest gathering in the world on "Arms Control".
Her contribution in these conference has lead to the publishing of an editorial column in one of the leading newspaper in Germany, "Neues Duestcheland" , dated 15 April, 2005.

The newspaper covered the Nairobi event and did an extensive interview of the conflict in Manipur and other Northeast States.


This article was sent by Dr. Biswajeet Elangbam, Coventry, UK
Binalaksmi Nepram is working with http://www.saferworld.com , to free Manipur from mindless gun killings, fake encounters and arbitary arrests!
This article was webcasted on Apr 07th , 2005.


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