The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Going Rogue in the Andaman Sea

How international intrigue led to the deaths of six Burmese freedom fighters and nine years detention without trial for 34 others

Why did India, once a supporter of democracy for Burma, become a friend of the military regime? This is the question asked repeatedly in “Rogue Agent” by its author, the prominent Indian human rights lawyer Nandita Haksar.

Rogue Agent: How India’s Military Intelligence Betrayed the Burmese Resistance, by Nandita Haksar. Penguin Books India, 2009. P 242.

While telling the story of the Operation Leech debacle, in which Rakhine and Karen “sea insurgents” were fatally betrayed by an Indian intelligence officer, Haksar never loses sight of the larger context of Indian Ocean geopolitics and the crushing of Burma between two mega-states, India and China.

The aptly named Operation Leech was an obscure sideshow to turmoil in more well-known regions of Burma, but it serves as a metaphor for the corruption and marginalization of the entire armed struggle in Burma. In the late 1990s, the Rakhine rebels of the National United Party of Arakan (NUPA) were drawn into the web of Lt-Col. V.S. Grewal, a Burma-born Indian military intelligence operative, the “rogue agent” of the title.

The process is revealed through NUPA documents obtained by Haksar: Grewal demanded cash, lavish entertainment and “retail therapy” as he dazzled the Rakhines with an offer of their own refuge on Landfall Island, the northernmost of India’s Andaman Islands, directly south of Burma’s Coco Islands.

The Rakhine, operating by sea as well as in border mountains, found this island lair an irresistible lure. The chapter showing how they were conned out of “nearly $50,000” by Grewal should be required reading for all officers of anti-regime forces, and they should keep it in mind whenever they find themselves at an upscale karaoke bar buying bottles of scotch for a dodgy foreign intelligence “friend.”

In February 1998, the Rakhines arrived at Landfall, joined by troops of the Karen National Union (who should have known better, having been swindled repeatedly by foreigners in the past.) They were a mixture of seasoned officers, idealistic students and fresh recruits. Haksar describes the shock and confusion as the five leaders and a radio operator were massacred by Indian soldiers and 36 others were taken prisoner, and later labeled as “gunrunners” who supplied arms to rebels in Northeast India.

The Rakhine and Karen prisoners ended up detained for more than eight years in the Andaman Islands, most of the time without charges. Apparently, they were hostages to infighting between the Indian government and the military, and to India’s change of policy toward engagement with Burma’s military regime, a perverse expression of rivalry with China. Two of the prisoners either escaped or died trying.

Eventually Haksar and a legal team got the case moved to Kolkata (Calcutta), where a trial has proceeded in fits and starts since January 2007. The prisoners finally found some sympathy and support in Bengal. But they were still portrayed as gunrunning terrorists by Indian intelligence agencies.

Haksar’s story reads like a lawyer stating her case to a jury, which, for this book, is the largely indifferent Indian public. She views the long detention of the Rakhine and Karen as a shameful erosion of India’s judicial system and democracy. She lays out the facts clearly and methodically but doesn’t write as an investigative journalist, which would have led her to ferret out more details. I would have liked to know more about Grewal and his ties to Burma’s military regime. He is said to be living in Rangoon and dealing in gems. There’s also the issue of the 2004 murder of T. Vasantha, a lawyer based in the Andamans who worked on the case for many years. An Indian intelligence officer was arrested for her murder and acquitted. He received a speedy trial, unlike the Rakhine and Karen captives.

As of this writing, the Operation Leech trial continues, with recent testimony from witnesses representing the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma and the Ethnic Nationalities Council, who vouched for the prisoners’ identity as freedom fighters against the Burmese military regime.

There is some hope for the 34 Rakhines and Karens trapped for so long in a political-legal limbo, but given the possibility of a government appeal even in the event of acquittal, Haksar writes, “I do not know what the ending will be or whether there will be any ending at all.”   

Edith Mirante is the director of Project Maje and the author of “Burmese Looking Glass” and “Down the Rat Hole.”  She visited the Andaman Islands while researching her new book on Asia’s Negrito indigenous peoples.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |