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The Indian Express
May 9, 1999
In a prison in Port Blair, lies the Government's can of worms
NEW DELHI, May 8: Next Tuesday, 73 Burmese and Thai nationals arrested on
charges of gun-running may walk out of Port Blair's Protharapur prison and
kick off what could be a messy controversy and a major diplomatic
embarrassment for the Government.
Most of these prisoners are rebels fighting the Burmese junta. They and
their weapons had been apparently promised safe passage by the Indian
government. And human rights groups representing the prisoners allege that
they were arrested and six of them shot in cold blood all senior leaders --
in the remote Landfall Islands on the northern tip of Andaman and Nicobar.
In fact, one of those killed was the key person negotiating with a senior
Military Intelligence officer.
It was treachery, say representatives of these prisoners, accusing New
Delhi of first striking a deal with them and then -- for reasons still not
clear -- double-crossing them by cosying up to the Myanmar Government.
All this would have remained unknown for quite a while had it not been for
themud flying around the Fernandes-Bhagwat war, some of it sticking to what
is called Operation Leech. But more of that later.
First, the story of Leech, based on official records and an eyewitness
statement obtained by The Indian Express. According to the FIR lodged in
Port Blair by R. S. Dhankar, Deputy Naval Provost Marshall, the story is
pretty straightforward: On February 11, 1998, at Landfall Islands, 73
foreign nationals were captured for alleged gun-running. Six tried to
escape and fired on Indian troops who retaliated. The six ``were seen
disappearing in the sea and are presumed dead.'' On May 11, 1998, with no
charge-sheet in sight, the 73 men were detained under the National Security
However, records show that in this case, these prisoners aren't just gun
runners. Out of the 73, almost half are from the Arakan Army, the armed
wing of the Myanmarese National United Party of Arakan (NUPA) which has
been fighting a long war with the Myanmarese junta. There were also 37 Thai
andMynarmarese fishermen who were ``hijacked'' by the Arakans en route
NUPA claims that senior Arakan officers began talks with New Delhi as early
as April 1993. And were soon discussing the possibility of India providing
a safe passage of arms from Thailand to Myanmar via Bangladesh.
The first tangible ``breakthrough'' came in 1996 when an official of the
Joint Intelligence Committee and Lt Col V.J.S. Grewal, a Military
Intelligence official met the Arakan leaders at their Mizoram headquarters
at Parva. The Arakans were represented by one Major Saw Tun. Grewal wasn't
available for comment.
Soon after the talks, Tun told his bosses that Grewal had ``suggested'' a
payment of Rs 5 lakh for New Delhi to clear the ``plan.'' The Arakan Army,
therefore, sent $20,000 via a messenger who returned with the Operation's
code name, maps and photographs of the site: the Landfall Islands. NUPA
officials claim they have photographs and copies of air tickets to show
that Grewal was in constant touch.According to the plan, the landing was
scheduled for May 21, 1997, with Grewal and Tun scheduled to reach the
islands via Chennai to ``receive'' the expedition.But a cyclone blew the
plan away. Until January, 1998, more than six months after the initial
scheduled date, when Grewal was given the names and photos of those Arakan
men who would be on board and another $10,000.
NUPA says the expedition began on February 8, when the Arakan flotilla --
two high-speed gun boats and two trawlers -- set sail from the Deeva camp
in Thailand. It reached the Landfall islands around noon on February 10,
picking up along the way 35 Burmese and two Thais who were fishing
illegally. The first batch of Arakan personnel, including senior leaders,
was received by Grewal and Tun. More than two hours later, the rest of the
expedition landed. There was a reception in the evening and by next
morning, the balance had tilted.According to one eyewitness, Dynyalin, who
is in prison right now and whose statement is part of a petitionsent to the
NHRC this is what happened:
At first, Khaing Raza, an Arakan leader, reached the island and met Tun,
Grewal and another Indian Army officer. They had a ``party'' on the beach
while the rest of the crew waited for instructions. The next morning, Raza
asked the crew to unload their weapons for ``inspection'' by an Indian Army
officer. They were then asked to fall in line while Raza, Tun and four
other Arakan leaders -- all unarmed -- were led away by Grewal.
``Soon, another Indian Army Colonel and another Army Officer ordered
us...to `hands up'....our hands were tied and we were blindfolded. I told
them we wanted to take orders from our leader Raza. We were then ordered to
lie down on the sand. Around 10 minutes later, we heard a sound of gun
shots from the direction in which our leaders had been taken. The number of
shots we heard may have been around 20 to 30...'' ``We are confused,
scared, we do not want the remaining 73 to be killed,'' says a Myanmarese
refugee.The Government, for its part,is not keen to explain. In fact, when
a Madurai-based lawyer, Henri Tiphagne, allowed by Port Blair's Chief
Metropolitan Magistrate to meet the prisoners, was recording his first
interview, the Union Government obtained a stay from the Madras High Court
and Tiphagne was asked to leave the prison.
Tomorrow: Operation Leech and Fernandes vs Bhagwat
Copyright © 1999 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.
V.J.S. Grewal is called U Myo Myint (Bohmu Myo Myint) who returned from
Burma to India in 1960s. He is also the one who deceived 11 soldiers and a
Burmese student, Ko Ko Naing (Pegu) and handed over to MIS through
Moreh-Tamu border in 1996. He was paid by MIS in all cases. He took a sum
of money from Burmsese activists too. He has an Indian wife and two
daughters living in New Delhi. He has been forced to resign from Indian MI.