When separatist rebels launched a lethal ambush in India’s northeastern state of Manipur on November 13, the shadowy attack acted to bring India and Myanmar’s hot-and-cold bilateral relations to a new boil.
Seven people including the commanding officer of an Assam Rifles paramilitary unit, his wife, their six-year-old son and four other riflemen were all killed when the convoy they were traveling in came under fire from People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF) rebels.
India shares a 1,600 kilometer-long, porous border with Myanmar and the mountainous terrain makes it easy for rebel fighters to slip back and forth undetected by authorities.
Ethnic Naga, Manipuri and Assamese rebels from northeastern India have for years maintained bases in Myanmar’s Sagaing Region, from where they often launch attacks on Indian forces and then fade back across the border.
Those sanctuaries have long been a heated point of bilateral contention, but Myanmar’s long-held policy of benign neglect appeared to shift when the Myanmar army, known as the Tatmadaw, overran one of the rebels’ main camps in January 2019.
That clearance operation, which drove Naga, Manipuri and Assamese rebels from their de facto headquarters at Taga in northern Sagaing, markedly improved India-Myanmar military relations.
Those ties and recent weapons deals are likely why India did not publicly criticize the Tatmadaw’s widely condemned February 1 coup.
Now, it seems that the Tatmadaw is not only again tolerating the presence of the rebel groups in Myanmar’s border areas, but is also using them to fight anti-military People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) resistance groups that have spread across the country since the coup.
Rebels from Manipur’s majority Meitei population are known to have attacked PDF units in the Tamu area of the Sagaing Region, opposite Moreh in India’s Manipur. In quid pro quo return, they have apparently been allowed to maintain safe havens on the Myanmar side of the border.
The Tatmadaw’s use of such proxy armies is bound to intensify, local sources say, as its manpower becomes increasingly stretched as even usually calm central regions of the country have become battlefields since the coup.
The PLA, the armed wing of the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF), has been active among the Meiteis since the 1970s. Its founders were originally trained by the Chinese in a military camp near Tibet’s capital Lhasa.
The PLA carried out a number of attacks in the Imphal valley, the Meitei-inhabited heartland of Manipur, before splitting up into different factions and the remnants retreated across the Myanmar border.
Besides the RPF/PLA, there are several other Meitei rebel groups, among them the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), the United National Liberation Front, and the Kangleipak Communist Party. All of the Meitei rebel outfits seem to combine a leftist agenda with demands for Manipuri independence from India.
The MNPF is a small group of ethnic Naga militants which operates separately from the main National Socialist Council of Nagaland (or Nagalim) followed by the various initials of their respective leaders. Those groups, too, have long enjoyed sanctuaries on the Myanmar side of the border.
Naga rebels from the Indian side have had bases in Myanmar’s Naga Hills since the Indian army drove them across the border in the 1970s. Those Naga groups also benefited from a supply of arms from China until Beijing’s policy of supporting them changed in the 1980s.
Myanmar’s inability or unwillingness to uproot those rebel sanctuaries has been a persistent thorn in the side of the two neighbor’s bilateral relations, contributing to mutual distrust and suspicion over the years.
Source: Asia Times