Myanmar’s Civil War Blowing Up India’s Act East Policy – Analysis


By Kalinga Seneviratne

After the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, India has accelerated its ‘Act East Policy’ (AEP) to link more closely with its Southeast Asian neighbours to consolidate its geo-political power through trade and infrastructure development that reflects China’s Belt and Road Initiative. But, with civil war in neighbouring Myanmar spilling over the porous 400km long border into India’s north-east state of Manipur, it has seriously hampered this policy.

The 30-month-old civil war in Myanmar is fanning ethnic conflict in Manipur. Majority Meitei and minority Kuki communities in the state have clashed with each other since early May, leaving more than 150 dead and thousands displaced.

On 4 December, India’s oldest paramilitary force—Assam Riffles[1]—was rushed to a border area in Manipur where 13 dead bodies of men were found, and a major investigation has been launched to find the culprits.

During a no-confidence motion in India’s parliament in New Delhi in August over the government’s handling of the Manipur conflict, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said the violence was triggered by an influx of Kukis from Myanmar into Manipur, which “created insecurities among Meiteis”.

The Meitei community, who make up a little more than half of the state’s 3.2 million population, is mainly confined to around 10 per cent of Manipur’s area in the valley districts surrounding the state capital Imphal. The remaining population—mostly from the tribal Kuki and Naga communities—inhabits the hilly terrain covering 90 per cent of the state.

Border areas with Myanmar

State’s BJP leader, Manipur’s Chief Minister Biren Singh, a Meitei, has blamed illegal migrants and drug lords from Myanmar for the lingering violence, claiming such forces were trying to “destabilise the state”.

It is no secret that the hill areas are havens for poppy cultivation, and so are the Kuki-Chin dominated border areas within Myanmar. Thus, drug trade and overlords are part of the growing border security problem India is facing.

As of 2023, India was hosting over 74,600 refugees from Myanmar, more than an estimated 54,100 of whom arrived since the coup in February 2021. Most of them have fled to the border states of Mizoram and Manipur from Chin State, where some of the worst fighting is taking place[2].

With various parties arming the rebel forces to fight the Myanmar army, the fleeing “refuges” have also carried arms into India, fuelling violence in the state. According to reports from the ground, this includes both drug turf wars and ethnic clashes between Meities and Kukis.

In a breakthrough, Manipur Police, in a joint operation with the central armed forces personnel, seized multiple weapons, ammunition, drugs and cash from Myanmar-based militant group Chin Kuki Liberation Army (CKLA) in late October.

“Today’s apprehension of CKLA cadres and the recovery of weapons has yet again underscored a transnational plot aimed at destabilising both Manipur and our nation,” the CM Singh said on a statement posted in X (formerly Twitter) on 24 October. He also added that the National Investigation Agency (NIA) is investigating cases of a “transnational conspiracy” by terrorist outfits in neighbouring Myanmar to wage war against the Indian government by exploiting the unrest in Manipur.


New Delhi has been reluctant to send the full force of the Indian army after these armed groups that are set to have infiltrated from across the border.

There are a number of armed underground groups that operate in Manipur with many of them having bases across the border in Chin State where the Myanmar army is reported to have lost control.

In a historic development, 8 Meitei militant groups—called the valley-based insurgent groups—signed a peace accord with the state  government of Manipur on 29 November that provided some respite to the residents of Imphal who fired fire crackers in celebration. They have all been banned under the government’s “unlawful association” anti-terror laws.

Among them was the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), a six-decade-old Manipur liberation front that has called for secession from the Indian Union. However, a major component of UNLF are believed to be operating out of bases across the border in Myanmar and they are reported to be unhappy with the deal.

In July, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar met his counterpart from Myanmar U Than Swe, on the sidelines of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) meeting in Bangkok, where they are reported to have discussed joint efforts to restore order to the region. He has mentioned the need to “expedite” the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway and proposed “people-centric initiatives” in Myanmar.

The trilateral highway project, envisioned years ago is a flagship of India’s eastward connectivity push to ASEAN (Association of South East Asia Nations) area. Manipur is a crucial link in the proposed highway, which is now a tense flashpoint of ethnic conflict. 

Over the centuries India have had a strong cultural influence in the Southeast Asian region that has been badly disrupted during the European colonial era.


Jaishankar has not hidden the fact that India is concerned about the Manipur conflict blowing up this ambitious infrastructure and regional connectivity project. In September on the sidelines of an ASEAN Foreign Minister’s meeting in Jakarta, he told the media, “India’s most ambitious infrastructure projects are with Southeast Asia, but they are facing big challenges because of a breakdown in Myanmar’s internal security system.”

Military commentator retired Major General Ashok K Metha writing in The Hindu following Jaishankar’s comments argued that Manipur is the pivot to India’s AEP, which requires immediate treatment, “even if it is akin to shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted”.

“The Central and State governments allowed Manipur to bleed, permitting the seeds of new insurgencies to be sown and putting the Army, Assam Rifles and other security forces in unsavoury predicaments that challenged their impartiality,” he noted.

“In such a turbulent context, one wonders how New Delhi plans to resume its connectivity endeavours along its eastern frontiers without finding a permanent resolution to the Manipur crisis. How can it open the door when its threshold is in flames?” asked Angshuman Choudhury, Associate Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, NewmDelhi writing in the Frontline recently.

He warns that the Manipur conflict could drag in sympathetic elements from Kuki and Meitei communities in neighbouring Mizoram, Assam, Nagaland, Tripura, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. The 1,643 km long Myanmar-India border covers these states.

Mehta argues that with the civil war stalemated and the prospects of conflict resolution bleak in view of a divided ASEAN, Delhi should review its policy of putting ‘all eggs in the junta basket’. “Indian agencies should cultivate (Myanmar-based) Chin National Front and Arakan Army to facilitate the construction of its infrastructure projects,” he argues.

The Union Home Ministry, in its 29 November statement, sounded a more optimistic note, pointing out that the “development is likely to encourage other Meitei underground outfits to join the peace process and pursue their demands in a democratic manner”.

[1] Assam Rifles is one of six central armed police forces under the Ministry of Home Affairs. It safeguards Northeastern regions and the Indo-Myanmar border and assists the Indian Army in maintaining law and order.



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