Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – Thirty-one of the 34 Arakanese and Karen rebels arrested in 1998 by Indian security forces on Landfall Island in the Andaman Islands were released from prison in Kolkata on Thursday.
Following recognition of the rebel fighters’ refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Indian government ordered the 31 prisoners released from detention in the Alipur Presidency Correctional Home prison in Kolkata.
The three remaining prisoners will return to Port Blair in the Andamans to clear pending court cases before joining their comrades in celebrating their liberty, sources said.
The government of India has agreed to provide the 34 Arakanese and Karen ethnic nationals with one-year residential permits for India.
In a press statement, the Arakanese and Karen rebels said, ‘We would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude and thanks to all those individuals and organizations, which have for the last 13 years worked for our freedom.With our freedom, we would like to reiterate our commitment that we will continue the struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma’.
Speaking of the remaining three prisoners, they said, ‘We believe that they will be able to join us soon in freedom’.
All 34 of the rebel fighters, 11 members of the Karen National Union (KNU), and 23 members of the (now defunct) National United Party of Arakan (NUPA), were finally recognized as refugees by the UNHCR last month.
Dr Tint Swe, a witness in the trial for the group and a minister in the exile National Coalition Government of Union of Burma (NCGUB), had sent a memorandum to Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh calling for the release of the rebels and for the UN to recognize them as refugees. He told Mizzima that it had been a victory for the Arakanese and Karen ethnic rebels, and that their release marked the difference between a real democracy and the situation in Burma,
‘It is very good news, and we really appreciate the government of India for that. You know it’s not a coincidence that inside Burma the so-called ‘amnesty’ announcement about the prisoners, and those detainees in India. So if we compare that, it definitely indicates the democracy and lack of democracy. We are thankful for the democracy (in India) as well as the freedom of the judicial system here. It shows that the people of Burma will have to try harder than before to achieve real democracy’.
The NUPA and KNU rebels spent more than 13 years in jail in Indian territories since their arrest on February 11, 1998, in what has become known as ‘Operation Leech’.
The covert operation allegedly orchestrated by an Indian intelligence official, Lieutenant Colonel Grewal, involved their mass arrest in which six leaders of the rebels were alleged to have been executed by the Indian military on their arrival at Landfall Island in the Andaman archipelago.
Initially 36 rebels had been detained but supposedly two who were also under custody escaped and have since ‘disappeared’. Whether their escape attempt was successful or whether they were also executed is unclear, according to sources.
Following their arrest, the 34 rebels spent eight years in detention in Port Blair, capital of the Andaman archipelago, before being moved to Kolkata on the Indian mainland. They spent six years in Port Blair before a charge sheet was filed against them by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
In October 2006, after work on their behalf by a group of human rights lawyers and politicians, they were transferred to prison in Kolkata and were given a trial.
Their trial began in January 2007 and ended in July 2010. The ethnic Arakenese and Karen rebels were defended by Nandita Haksar, a prominent human rights lawyer and activist in India.
Haksar has written about the case and of the involvement of Indian intelligence in capturing the Arakanese and Karen fighters in a book titled, ‘Rogue Agent; How India’s military intelligence betrayed the Burmese resistance’.
The case that was brought against the rebels by CBI based its claims on the original First Information Report (FIR) dated February 18, 1998, that charged the rebels with illegal entry into India and possession of arms and explosives bound for ‘terrorist militant outfits in north eastern states of India via Cox Bazaar and Bangladesh’ and also with waging war on the state of India.
India’s CBI has failed so far to complete their investigation into the deaths of the six rebel leaders, who, according to rebel supporters, were allegedly killed by the Indian military upon their arrival at Landfall Island.
The Arakanese and Karen rebels claim that they were set up by Lieutenant Colonel Grewal, who lured them to Landfall Island under pretences of a safe haven and a base from which they could continue their struggle against the Burmese military regime.
After 12 years in detention and nearly four years of being on trial, on May 12, 2010, the 34 detained members of NUPA and the KNU filed a plea bargain application under provision of Section 265-B of India’s Criminal Procedure Code. A plea bargain was reached and each of the 34 detainees had to pay a fine of 6,000 rupees and were sentenced to three years in prison (which was annulled because they had already been served).
The case brought against the NUPA and KNU members by the CBI was significantly weakened due to the fact that they failed to produce its primary witness, and alleged orchestrator of the operation, Lieutenant Colonel Grewal who had made initial contact with the group. He is thought to be currently living in Rangoon, with financial support from the Burmese regime paid to him in return for orchestrating the arrests.
The case of the detained rebels has been a source of irritation among Burmese exile groups, who had questioned India’s devotion to democracy. The criticisms reached new heights when former Senior General Than Shwe visited India last year.
Pro-democracy activists and human rights groups were outraged that India accommodated the regime strongman who they claimed was responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity according to international humanitarian law. India’s desire to compete with China for economic and strategic influence in Burma has led to an engagement policy with the Burmese junta and the newly elected government.
The 34 resistance fighters were identified as:
Thein Oung Kyaw
Aung Naing Win
Khin Mg Kyi
Khain Soe Lin
Min Thar Tun
Sa Toe Toe
Thein Kyaw Aung
Khaing Shwe Lin
Khain San Thein
Maung Nyo Sein
Yar Aye Thar
Moe Min Tun
Khaing Thar Mra
Aung Zar Min
Maung Khin Aye