Tamu, a town bordering India in Sagaing Region in Myanmar’s west, used to engage in lively trade with India, but is now in a state of rebellion against the military regime.
After the Myanmar military’s February 1 coup, Tamu was one of the first towns to take up arms against the junta, following a bloody crackdown on anti-regime protesters. Tamu is now the site of competing armed forces, with local civilian resistance fighters facing not only junta soldiers, but groups of Pyu Saw Htee – a militia armed and trained by the regime – and Meitei rebels who are cooperating with the Myanmar military.
Meitei people are an ethnic group native to Manipur State in northeastern India, and are also known as Manipuri people. Myanmar is home to a sizeable community of Meitei, who are called ‘Kathe’ in Burmese.
Some Meitei rebel groups have been fighting the Indian government from bases along the Myanmar-India border including in Tamu Township, which shares a 78-mile-long border with Manipur State.
The Tamu Security Group (TSG) recently released a statement warning Meitei rebels who support or work with the regime not to fight the local People’s Defense Forces. Later, the TSG released another statement clarifying that it was not referring to the entire Meitei ethnic group.
“They [Meitei rebels] have given trouble to various people and are working together with the regime to fight the PDF. So we request and warn the rebel Manipuris in Tamu not to support and cooperate with the regime,” said a TSG member.
There are at least six Meitei rebel groups, according to local civil society organizations, spread across Leshi, Homalin and Tamu townships in Sagaing and Tonzang Township in Chin State, as well as Mandalay Region.
Those groups include the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur (PLA-MP), 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 also have ties with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) in the Naga Self-Administered Zone of Sagaing Region. The NSCN-K is an ethnic Naga armed group pushing to establish a sovereign Naga homeland. Some of the groups own businesses in major towns in Sagaing, including Monywa and Kale.
Observers say that since their coup, Myanmar’s military has forced Meitei rebels to share information and work together with it to crush anti-coup protests and armed resistance, as well as driving away Myanmar civilians attempting to flee to India.
Since March, Meitei rebels have been involved when junta troops cracked down on protesters in Tamu. Five Meitei rebels were killed fighting alongside regime soldiers in separate clashes on May 11 and July 24, said the TSG.
Indian newspapers have been reporting the Meitei rebels’ cooperation with the regime since April. They have quoted Indian intelligence officers as saying that the PLA-MP and the UNLF were involved in the lethal crackdown in Kale and Tamu in which 12 civilians were killed.
Myanmar’s military regime met with some Meitei rebel leaders in May, which led to the Meitei rebels agreeing to work for the military regime in exchange for cash and a base in Sagaing Region, according to Indian media outlets.
Locals told The Irrawaddy that it was no coincidence that the commander of the Myanmar military’s North Western Command was in Tamu at the time of the talks.
“Underground Manipuris have been involved in every clash we have fought. In some cases, they were hired by the regime on a daily basis [as mercenaries]. People from Manipur don’t blame us when [Meitei] rebels die in the fighting,” said a Tamu civilian resistance fighter.
The coordination committee of Indian separatist groups, including the PLA-MP and the UNLF, denied the reports that they have fought for the junta. The groups said it was Indian government propaganda designed to smear them.
Despite widespread reports of Meitei rebel groups cooperating with the regime, not every Meitei rebel is willing to fight for the regime, said ethnic Naga observer Ko Aung Tun.
Two young Meitei rebels who fled in August after refusing to fight the local PDF were captured by their group and tortured to death, he said.
“Many of the PLA-MP fighters do not want to fight for the regime. But Myanmar’s military always pressures them into fighting for them or returning to India,” added Ko Aung Tun.
Many young Meitei rebels operating on the Myanmar side of the border do not even have a cell phone to entertain themselves, but have only been used by their leaders to extort money from businessmen at the border. Human rights organizations based in Manipur have kept silent on the issue, said another local observer who wished to remain anonymous.
“I have interviewed some PLA-MP cadres and learned their many terrible stories and how they were coerced by their military leaders,” he said.
Separatist Meitei rebel groups have been operating along the Myanmar-India border since the time of the former State Peace and Development Council junta in the 1990s. The two sides have mutual business interests, said locals.
Despite Delhi’s complaints about continuing insurgent activity by the separatist groups based along the border, Myanmar military leaders have always denied sheltering foreign armed troops in the country. But the military attacked Meitei rebels in 2019 when the military itself, and the then National League for Democracy government, wanted to improve ties with the Indian government, following the fighting with the Arakan Army in Rakhine State in western Myanmar.
The Myanmar military’s North Western Command raided the headquarters of the NSCN-K in the Naga Self-Administered Zone in 2019, and arrested and imprisoned Meitei rebels based there. In May 2020, the Myanmar government handed 22 captured Meitei rebels over to the Indian government.
There have been fewer clashes in Tamu lately, although the TSG said that some 100 junta soldiers have been killed in clashes with resistance forces in the town. Local resistance fighters operate three units in Tamu. The military regime has deployed artillery and extra troops in the town, along with Pyu Saw Htee fighters and Meitei rebels.
“There is a Meitei group operating in the area. They cooperate with the regime and fight and extort money from the people. So we request and warn that group not to be disruptive while we are fighting for democracy,” said a TSG member.
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