Guest Column

Indian rebels now brothers in arms with Myanmar military

By Jayanta Kalita 27 January 2022

If anything, the ongoing civil war in Myanmar triggered by the February 1 coup last year has exposed the vulnerabilities of the junta forces. Despite superior firepower and troop strength, the Myanmar military is facing a stiff challenge from the People’s Defense Forces (PDF) across most of the country, as well as from the ethnic armed organizations (EAO) in the various ethnic regions.

The PDFs, which comprise hundreds of civilian resistance groups, are the armed wing of the parallel National Unity Government, formed to challenge the military regime’s legitimacy.

Branded as terrorist groups by the junta, the PDFs have launched numerous hit-and-run attacks on junta forces, besides bombing military targets and killing regime-appointed officials and collaborators. In addition, EAOs such as the Kachin Independence Army, Karenni Army and Chin National Army frequently attack regime forces.

Hell-bent on tackling the PDFs, the Myanmar military is now mobilizing northeast India’s separatist insurgents as a force multiplier. The move comes after the junta apparently reached an understanding with a few rebel outfits from the northeast Indian state of Manipur who operate inside Myanmar, according to people familiar with the development.

India shares a porous, 1,643km long border with Myanmar. Cross-border insurgencies have remained a major security threat to India’s northeast region for several decades. The rugged terrain makes it easy for the rebels to slip back and forth between their camps and ambush sites on the Indian side of the frontier.

Myanmar Military’s Secret Pact

It is believed that the Myanmar military has made an informal pact with at least two Manipur-based insurgent outfits, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) recently. While the PLA has been fighting for secession from India since the 1970s, KYKL is a relatively newer outfit, founded in the 1990s.

As part of the quid pro quo arrangement, these groups will assist junta forces in their operations against PDFs in the so-called ‘liberated zones’ such as Chin State and Sagaing Region. Sources said a section of Manipuri insurgents had moved to Chin State long back.

Incidentally, there were media reports claiming that India’s special forces launched a surprise attack on a PLA camp in Senam Village in Chin State on January 13, in which two PLA militants and one Indian soldier were killed. While the Indian Army rejected these reports, saying no such incident took place, the rebel group as well as local sources provided details of the alleged operation.

Nevertheless, the reports about the Myanmar military’s secret pact with Manipuri rebels has raised concerns in the Indian capital of New Delhi, according to The Indian Express newspaper. Although the Indian government has not made any official comment on the matter, it wants to send out a message that it cannot be business as usual until democracy is restored to Myanmar.

India’s frustration is understandable given that Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Myanmar only last month, during which “both sides reiterated their commitment to ensure that their respective territories would not be allowed to be used for any activities inimical to the other”, as India’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Brothers in Arms

However, this is not the first time that the Myanmar military has reached an understanding with northeast India’s insurgents. The Manipuri PLA, for instance, is believed to have maintained some ties with the Myanmar military for a long time, which facilitated their expansion, training camps and investment in different parts of the country.

Similarly, an informal pact existed between the military and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) or NSCN (K) since 2001, until they signed a formal ceasefire agreement in 2012 to reduce hostilities.

This bonhomie came as a boon not only for the NSCN (K), but also for various northeast Indian insurgent outfits such as the United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent and the now disbanded National Democratic Front of Bodoland from Assam, as well as Manipuri outfits which were running camps along with the Naga group.

Things started going south when New Delhi put pressure on the Myanmar military to take action against these groups in the wake of attacks on Indian security forces. An ambush on an Indian Army convoy, which resulted in the death of 18 soldiers in Manipur on June 4, 2015 was the turning point. In response, Indian special forces reportedly conducted a surgical strike in Myanmar, but its outcome is still shrouded in mystery.

Nevertheless, the Myanmar military did succumb to pressure from India and agreed to a launch a crackdown. Operation Sunrise was conducted jointly by the Indian and Myanmar militaries between January and May 2019 in the border areas targeting rebel groups from Assam, Manipur, and Nagaland. There were at least 50 rebel camps belonging to these militant groups in Myanmar until 2018, The Hindu newspaper had reported quoting security officials.

Later, some of these groups moved to other regions, including Sagaing and the area occupied by the Pangmi Naga people.

The 2021 coup has changed the situation in favour of the Indian rebel groups. With the Myanmar military fully occupied with fighting the PDFs and EAOs, some of these outfits have started regrouping and hiring new cadres. A senior Indian government official confirmed this development to The Diplomat.

The Myanmar military regime is looking to make optimum use of resources, so they may have zeroed in on northeast India’s rebels. And hence an informal pact with friendly Manipuri rebel groups, who can be deployed to fight PDFs.

For its part, India is likely to keep a close watch on these developments and work out a new strategy to deal with rebel activity in border areas. As the situation in Myanmar remains fluid and the junta looks unreliable, the possibility of surprise attacks by the Indian military could also be an option.

Jayanta Kalita is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi. He writes on issues relating to India’s northeast and its immediate neighborhood. The views expressed are his own.

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