In a move with potentially far-reaching international repercussions, Chin State’s foremost ethnic armed organization, the Chin National Army (CNA), has launched an attack beyond its traditional area of operations in its home state where, alongside local People’s Defense Forces, it is already locked in clashes with Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw.
On Jan. 14 a unit of the CNA, the armed wing of the Chin National Front, moved into neighboring Sagaing Region to attack a base run by Indian insurgents of the Manipuri People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — an operation calculated both to hit a group collaborating with the Tatmadaw but also to nudge India from the delicate junta-centered balance it has sought to maintain in the unfolding crisis in Myanmar.
A well-placed ethnic source with detailed knowledge of the operation revealed to The Irrawaddy that the dawn assault struck the PLA’s “general headquarters,” from where the group had been launching cross-border raids into the Indian state of Manipur.
Housing an estimated 120 guerrillas of the PLA and at least one other allied Manipuri rebel faction, the base was situated near the village of Senam some 10 kilometers inside Myanmar territory south of the border town of Tamu. Between 10 and 20 Manipuri insurgents were killed in the engagement, which lasted several hours and also left one CNA fighter dead, according to the source, who had access to CNA field reports.
The operation, which was reported last week in the Indian media, was described by at least one publication as a cross-border strike conducted by Indian Army special forces rather than the CNA. On Jan. 17 the Indian military formally dismissed speculation that it had been involved — which in any case appeared unlikely given Indian Army capabilities and the relatively low number of casualties inflicted on the insurgents.
By contrast, a targeted CNA operation against Indian insurgents enjoying sanctuary inside Myanmar, evidently with Tatmadaw concurrence, suggests strongly that the Chin group is seeking to leverage its position to coax Indian authorities into a more accommodating relationship. Any such improvement in relations would have potentially significant implications for the war in Chin State, where the CNA and allied Chin PDFs are facing an escalating Tatmadaw campaign to crush resistance. Having begun last September, Tatmadaw operations backed by airstrikes have escalated sharply in recent weeks.
The CNA’s own Camp Victoria headquarters are situated on the Chin State border with Mizoram, west of the town of Thantlang — now largely deserted after it was sacked and looted by Tatmadaw forces. Camp Victoria has served as a center for PDF training and as a refuge for civilians fleeing Tatmadaw columns pushing into the state from Sagaing and Magwe regions.
To date, however, there has been no indication that Indian border forces have been willing to turn a blind eye to the smuggling of munitions from the Indian black market to the Chin resistance. Indeed, the paramilitary Assam Rifles border forces have announced a string of seizures of munitions on the Indian side of the border apparently headed for Myanmar. The largest involved the seizure of a massive consignment of 2,500 kg of explosives and 4,500 meters of detonating cord interdicted in Mizoram’s Saiha district on Jan. 20.
Vigilance along the border has been one important element of New Delhi’s post-coup policy of maintaining correct if no longer enthusiastic ties with the military junta, a stance clearly driven by a reluctance to see the Naypyitaw regime falling further under the economic and geostrategic influence of China.
For India’s security establishment, however, the presence of a string of camps providing sanctuary inside Myanmar for a smorgasbord of insurgent factions from across India’s turbulent northeast has been a longstanding source of frustration. Recent estimates indicate that at least 3,000 and possibly as many as twice that number of rebels are camped inside Myanmar.
Notwithstanding repeated high-level assurances from Naypyitaw that the problem would be dealt with, sweetened by occasional cosmetic gestures in that direction, many if not all the insurgent camps are understood to have been paying off local Tatmadaw commanders to leave them in peace. More recently, the relationship has reportedly extended to an operational level involving the Indian groups being provided with weapons by the Tatmadaw and fighting with, or on behalf of, the junta against local PDFs, becoming in effect another regime militia.
In November 2021 Indian frustration turned to raw anger when PLA guerrillas operating out of Myanmar ambushed vehicles of the Assam Rifles in Manipur’s Churachandpur district killing a colonel, his wife, their 4-year-old son and four other military personnel.
It remains to be seen how far the CNA will succeed in turning growing Indian distrust and anger over perceived Tatmadaw duplicity to its advantage. But the stakes are undoubtedly high. Any tacit understanding between Indian border forces and the flagship Chin resistance group could have a significant impact on the conflict across Chin State and potentially beyond in Sagaing and Magwe regions.
At the very least, Indian border forces might be inclined to relax the vigilance displayed to date in interdicting a still limited flow of black-market munitions.
India along with Thailand has also been mentioned amid growing international concern led by the US over the need to channel humanitarian assistance to alleviate an increasingly dire situation inside Myanmar, which the coming months of dry season fighting will only exacerbate.
Over the past year both Bangkok and New Delhi have been at pains to avoid openly antagonizing the Tatmadaw. But as irritation in New Delhi turns to anger, India—a leading democracy that is already a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) grouping and enjoys growing military ties with the US—is arguably emerging as the more promising candidate on which to anchor an aid corridor. The QUAD groups the US, India, Japan and Australia.
By contrast, Thailand’s military-backed government, constrained by rising Chinese influence and its dependence on Myanmar natural gas, has evinced no interest in involving itself further in US-led efforts to alleviate the humanitarian disaster unfolding across its western border.
Beyond the geopolitical realities, Chin State, where local resistance forces are broadly united, arguably offers a wider and more secure bridgehead for an aid corridor than Karen State on Myanmar’s eastern border, where chaotic military fragmentation and border clashes are the order of the day.
At the military level, the CNA’s march into Sagaing and its Jan. 14 attack on the Indian insurgent camp was a largely unnoticed battle in a spreading war. Its wider implications for how New Delhi calibrates its response to Myanmar’s security meltdown may prove far more consequential.
Anthony Davis is a regional security analyst and consultant for the Janes defense publishing group.
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