NAYPYITAW—The Myanmar government handed 22 ethnic Assam and Meitei rebels over to the Indian government on Friday at Hkamti Airport in Sagaing Region, military spokesperson Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told The Irrawaddy, as the rebels belong to groups that are fighting the Indian government from bases along the Myanmar-India border.
According to the spokesman, the 22 rebels were among those who the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, arrested in a military operation last year.
“They belong to different groups declared [by the Indian government] as insurgent groups,” he told The Irrawaddy.
The Northwestern Command of the Myanmar military raided the headquarters of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) in the Naga Self-Administered Zone of Sagaing Region in January last year. The NSCN-K is an ethnic Naga armed group pushing to establish a sovereign Naga homeland. The military arrested 24 Assam and Meitei rebels in the raid, according to the military spokesperson.
Last May, the Hkamti District Court in Sagaing Division sentenced the detainees to two years in prison under Article 17 (1) of the Unlawful Associations Act.
Twenty-two of them were released in the presidential amnesty in April of this year. It remains unclear whether the other two are still in prison.
President U Win Myint granted the amnesty in response to the Naga Literature and Culture Association’s appeal to the president and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, said government spokesperson U Zaw Htay. The spokesman was not available for further comment regarding the amnesty on Monday.
“Myanmar police handed all of them over to the acting consul general of India to Myanmar at 11:40 a.m. on May 15 at Hkamti Airport. It is not [true] that one of them died in prison. We handed over all 22,” U Zaw Htay told The Irrawaddy during the weekend.
According to the President’s Office, the government transferred custody of the detainees to the Indian government because the rebels are Indian citizens. The rebels belong to the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur (PLA), it said. The ULFA and PLA are both allied with the NSCN-K.
The government also detained five NSCN-K leaders who harbored the Indian fighters for a short time but later released them.
The Myanmar government and military began to arrest Metei rebels after the Arakan Army (AA) launched military operations along the Indian border in 2019, according to political analyst U Maung Maung Soe.
By giving the Assam and Meitei rebels over to the Indian government, Myanmar wants to show that they do not accept those who are staging a rebellion against the Indian government, he said.
“So we can assume that by doing this, Myanmar in return wants India to not help the AA. But the question is whether India will be satisfied with handover of just 20 rebels while the Meitei rebel force has increased to some 2,000 people since 2000 and has been active along the Tamu border area,” said U Maung Maung Soe.
Some military sources told The Irrawaddy that the Myanmar government and military are trying to improve ties with India because the military has received some technical assistance from Delhi in its military operations in Rakhine State, where it is fighting the AA.
“We have said that we won’t accept those rebels in Myanmar’s territory. India has said the same. This is because of good bilateral relations,” said Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun.
According to Se Gin, chairman of local civil society group Kuki Youth Network (KYN), there are at least six Meitei rebel groups based in Myanmar: the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), the People’s Liberate Army of Manipur (PLA), the United National Liberation Front of Manipur (UNLF), the United People’s Party of Kangleipak (UPPK), the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and the Kanleipak Communist Party (KCP).
The groups are spread across Leshi, Homalin and the border town of Tamu in Sagaing, as well as Mandalay Region.
According to data collected by The Irrawaddy, the six groups have combined forces of over 2,000 fighters. The UNLF, the biggest of the groups, has a force of over 1,300 fighters. The PLA has nearly 1,000 fighters and the PREPAK, the smallest group, has around 40.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.
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