India: Breathing Space For Rebels In Manipur? – Analysis
By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On November 13, 2021, five Security Force (SF) personnel, including the commanding officer of 46 Assam Rifles (AR), also known as Khuga battalion, Colonel Viplav Tripathi, were killed after their convoy came under heavy attack by militants near S. Sehken village under the Behiang Police Station, close to pillar number 43, on the India-Myanmar border, in Churachandpur District. Colonel Tripathi’s wife and son, who were accompanying him, were also killed in the attack. Another five troopers were injured in the attack. According to official reports, Colonel Tripathi visited his Behiang Company operating base on November 12 and stayed there for the night. The convoy was attacked when he was returning to his battalion headquarters in Khuga.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF), jointly claimed responsibility for the attack saying, “We are not going to sit silently till we get our rights and our sovereignty.”
This is the worst incident targeting SFs in the State, in terms of overall fatalities, since June 4, 2015, attack. On June 4, 2015, militants ambushed a military convoy of 6 Dogra Regiment of the Indian Army killing at least 18 Army personnel and injuring 11 others, at a place between Paralong and Charong villages in Chandel District. The Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) had jointly claimed responsibility.
In between, on May 22, 2016, six personnel of 29 AR, including one Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO), were killed and another seven personnel were injured in an ambush laid by militants at Hengshi village near Joupi under the Tengnoupal Police Station in Chandel District. The Coordination Committee (CorCom), a conglomerate body of several underground outfits, had claimed the ambush.
Significantly, the November 13, 2021, attack is the 10th on SFs by PLA and MNPF since 2013, when the two groups allied. Both PLA and MNPF are fighting for the ‘restoration’ of a ‘sovereign’ Manipur and stress maintaining cordial relations between Hill and Valley residents.
The last such incident was reported on July 29, 2020, when a joint PLA-MNPF team, linked up with the Assam-based United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I) and killed three AR personnel in an ambush at Khongtal village under the Chakpikarong Police Station in the Chandel District of Manipur.
The principal cause for the latest attack is most likely an effort by the PLA leadership to retain its fast-waning influence. The Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF), the political wing of PLA, has acknowledged the weakness of the present armed movement and blamed ‘materialism’ and pursuit of a ‘luxurious life’ by its cadres for the scenario. These have led to ‘desertion and divide’ in the outfit, and the leadership is ‘taking steps’ to halt this trend.
Indeed, on August 16-17, 2021, two unidentified PLA militants were shot dead by their comrades for trying to desert their ranks in the Nanyang Wakathan camp of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang-Yung Aung (NSCN-KYA), in the Sagaing Region of Myanmar. On August 18, however, the outfit issued a statement accusing Indian SFs of killing their cadre in a covert operation. Earlier, on August 10, six PLA militants from ‘Strategic Command-I’ were killed in a ‘factional clash’ at an undisclosed place. The deceased were identified as ‘Major’ Boycha aka Elangbam Birmani, Keisham Somen aka Suresh, Thangjam Nanao aka Lanthoujam, Chabungbam Chaoba aka Angamba, Thokchom Johnson Meitei aka Leimaba and Adhikarimaum Kiran Sharma aka Tomcha.
An unnamed official observed, “There is a strong discontentment over meager payments and poor living conditions of the low and mid-rank cadres, while the leaders have access to a range of facilities. Fights are breaking out in the outfit over sharing of the funds raised through extortion.”
Meanwhile, as feared, northeast-based militant groups, including PLA, are making efforts to exploit the changed political environment in Myanmar after the February 1, 2021, coup. According to reports, Tatmadaw troops may be using these outfits to fight those opposing the junta regime in Myanmar. On the other hand, some reports also claim that PLA is selling weapons to the Myanmarese rebels fighting Tatmadaw.
According to a September 27, 2021, report, Tamu Security Group (TSG), one of the anti-Tatmadaw groups had warned Manipuri rebel groups against cooperating with Tatmadaw.
An unnamed TSG member stated, “They [Meitei rebels] have given trouble to various people and are working together with the regime to fight the PDF [People’s Defense Force]. So, we request and warn the rebel Manipuris in Tamu not to support and cooperate with the regime.”
Earlier, in May 2021, militants of the Myanmar branch of the armed Kuki National Organisation (KNO-Burma) killed four unidentified Indian Meitei militants in Tamu town and Pan Thar village. Kuki/ Zomi groups also inhabit the Hill Districts (including Churachandpur) of Manipur and Mizoram.
Significantly, the cooperation between Tatmadaw and Indian SFs had dealt a body blow to these outfits in the past. Forces from both sides had jointly conducted two major operations – Operation Sunshine 1 (February to March 2019) and Operation Sunshine 2 (May 16-June 8, 2019). Since the launch of Operation Sunshine 1, districts along the Indo-Myanmar border in Manipur have recorded 11 fatalities (three civilians and eight SF personnel) in three attacks, excluding the November 13, 2021 attack (data till November 14, 2021). Of these three, on was a major attack (involving three or more killings), which took place in Chandel District on July 29, 2020, and resulted in three fatalities (all SF personnel). In the preceding period corresponding, this region had recorded 20 fatalities (12 civilians and eight SF personnel) in 13 incidents. None of these attacks were major.
After the November 13, 2021 incident, Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh disclosed, “The incident took place when the armed men infiltrated four kilometers into our area from the border with Myanmar.”
The changed security situation in Myanmar had given the Manipur Valley-based groups some operational leverage due to the reported cooperation between these militant groups and local Tatmadaw units. Reports of emerging linkages between these groups and armed forces opposing the junta regime add a further complexity to the problem. The conflict in Myanmar has the potential to feed chaos in Indian territories along the India-Myanmar border.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management