By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On July 29, 2020, a joint team of three militant groups – the Manipur-based People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF), and the Assam-based United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I) – killed three Assam Rifles personnel in an ambush at Khongtal village under Chakpikarong Police Station in the Chandel District of Manipur. Another five Security Force (SF) personnel were injured in the attack. The responsibility for the attack was claimed in a joint statement issued by Ruichumhao, ‘defense secretary’, MNPF; MM Ngouba, ‘chief of army staff’, PLA; and Paresh Asom aka Paresh Baruah, ‘chief of army staff’, ULFA-I.
The joint statement mailed by the militants to the media after the attack stated, “Internationally, the era of expansionism is over but not the Indian expansionism. As the entire world has made up its mind against expansionism, the people of WeSEA (Western South East Asia) are also countering against the expansionism of India. Therefore, the peoples of WeSEA are still fighting against colonial ruler India for our independence. As a course of independence struggle against Indian colonisation and expansionism, a combined force of Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF), Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF) [political wing of PLA] and United Liberation Front of Asom Independent (ULFA-I) had conducted a joint military offensive at Sajik Tampak area of Manipur.”
On July 31, during the wreath-laying ceremony organised by Assam Rifles at Bir Tikendrajit International Airport, Imphal, Manipur, Chief Minister N. Biren Singh warned, “Government will definitely hunt down the perpetrators and book them, as per the law. These terrorist groups will not be compromised with anymore.” He, nevertheless, appealed to the militant groups operating in and around the region to shun violence and give up their weapons and come out for a political solution.
This is the maiden attack on SFs in Manipur in which ULFA-I has been found to be involved. The group appears to have joined hands with the PLA-MNPF in order to register its presence in the State.
PLA and MNPF, however, have jointly attacked SFs on at least nine occasions in the past, near the Indo-Myanmar boundary. These attacks have resulted in the death of nine persons, including three militants and six SF personnel; six SF personnel were also injured in these attacks. Some of the attacks include:
January 7, 2020: PLA and MNPF militants attacked Assam Rifles personnel at Khongtal village in Chandel District. There was no casualty in this incident.
September 7, 2018: An Assam Rifles trooper and a PLA militant were killed in an encounter at Zouopi area of Chandel District. PLA and MNPF claimed that their cadres conducted the attack
November 15, 2017: PLA and MNPF in a joint ambush attacked two troopers of the Assam Rifles who were part of a road opening party and injured them on the Chamol-Sajir Tampak Road in Chandel District. Later one of them succumbed to his injuries. Two militants were also killed in the incident.
June 30, 2017: MNPF and PLA exploded an Improvised Explosive Device at an Assam Rifles check post, killing a trooper and injuring two others at Ramva in Lambui village of Ukhrul District.
March 11, 2014: PLA militants killed two Assam Rifles personnel at Kambang Khullen in Chandel District.
February 8, 2014: PLA militants killed an Assam Rifles trooper and injured three others near Nambasi village under Chassad Police Station in Ukhrul District.
The PLA and MNPF alliance forged in 2013 has thus been successfully attacking SFs at regular intervals in the bordering areas. The exact date on which this understanding was reached is not known. It is, however, a fact that the MNPF gains both battle experience and funding from the arrangement.
MNPF was formed on a June 28, 2013, with the merger of the Manipur Naga Revolutionary Front (MNRF) and United Naga People’s Council (UNPC). The top leadership of MNPF includes ‘chairman’ John Francis Kashung, ‘defence secretary’ Ahao Jajo, ‘home secretary’ SP Athing and ‘publicity secretary’ Thomas Numai. Since its formation, apart from the combined attacks mentioned above, MNRF has been involved in the killing of one civilian (data till August 2, 2020). During this period, 10 MNRF militants have been arrested by SFs. One incident of arms recovery linked to the outfit has also been reported.
The PLA, one of the oldest and well-connected Valley-based militant groups active in Manipur, appears to have chosen to collaborate with a minor hill-based group to gain local advantage in the bordering areas of the Hill Districts based on division of labour. According to the partial data collected by South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), between March 6, 2000, when SATP started compiling data on conflicts in the Northeast, to July 30, 2020, PLA has been found involved in 224 fatalities (27 civilians, 50 SF personnel and 147 militants). The SF fatalities include the combined attacks with MNPF.
PLA and MNPF have successfully been exploiting the weaknesses of Indo-Myanmar border management to carry out their attacks. Even though the State of Manipur has achieved relative peace in recent years, as reflected in declining fatalities’ data, there remains areas of substantial concern, especially the presence of militants across the Myanmar border. According to SATP, there were a total of five fatalities in 2020 (data till August 2), nine in 2019 and 23 in 2018.
Lately, Myanmar has woken up to address India’s security concerns. On May 15, 2020, Myanmar handed over 22 militants to India arrested during 2019 operations against Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs) in Myanmar. 12 of these militants belonged to the Valley-based militant groups – United National Liberation Front (UNLF), seven militants; two militants each of PLA and People’s Revolutionary Army of Kangleipak-Progressive (PREPAK-PRO); and one Kanglei Yowel Kanna Lup (KYKL) militant.
Such cooperation needs to be further deepened as the number of militants present in Myanmar is substantial. Se Gin, the Chairman of the Kuki Youth Network (KYN), a civil society group, confirms the presence of large Valley-based groups in Leshi, Homalin and the border town of Tamu in Sagiang, as well as the Mandalay Division of Myanmar. Reports also indicate the presence of these militants in the Chin State. The reported breakup of the strength of these militant groups are – UNLF, between 1,300 and 3,000; PLA, between 1,000 and 2,000; KYKL, less than a thousand; and PREPAK, around 40.
Both PLA and MNPF are fighting for the ‘restoration’ of a ‘sovereign’ Manipur and stress on maintaining cordial relations between Hill and Valley residents, thus negating ‘divisive politics’. Naturally, MNPF and the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) are on opposite sides, as the latter views itself as the sole group representing Nagas. On September 12, 2017, suspected NSCN-IM militants attacked and killed five militants belonging to the PLA-MNPF combine at Makan village in Ukhrul District along the Indo-Myanmar border.
PLA and MNPF have tried to capitalise on the fear of ‘demographic change’ in Manipur due to migration from other parts of the country. On November 21, 2019, in a joint PLA-MNPF statement warned,
…Government of India has been working relentlessly to accommodate their surplus population in Manipur with an intention to reduce the indigenous people to the status of minority in their own homeland… The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) is aimed at enabling illegal immigrants to settle in WeSEA lawfully. CAB is driven by a policy to enable illegal immigrants of India origin settle in WeSEA in the manner Jewish people settled in Gaza Strip and West Bank…
Pre-empting any such apprehensions, however, the Union Government has extended the Inner Line Permit (ILP) regime to Manipur, thus excluding the State from the purview of CAB/CAA 2019.
Meanwhile, it is to be noted that Manipur is expected to face the negative fallout of any breakdown of Government of India (GoI)- NSCN-IM talks. As both ranks and leadership of NSCN-IM are substantially drawn from Manipur, the State could witness outbreak of significant violence in case the GoI – NSCN-IM talks collapse.
PLA and MNPF, along with ULFA-I, may take advantage of any such situation. It is imperative, therefore, to heighten vigilance within the State and strengthen the security apparatus in areas along the Indo-Myanmar border, as well as to broaden security cooperation and border management with Myanmar to tackle the large number of militants present across the border.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management