Opinion Columnists 16 Nov 2021 Wasbir Hussain | Mya ...
The writer, a political commentator based in Guwahati, is editor-in-chief of Northeast Live, the region’s only English and Hindi satellite news channel. The views expressed here are his own.

Wasbir Hussain | Myanmar the key factor in Manipur’s ‘hot’ insurgency

Published Nov 17, 2021, 2:36 am IST
Updated Nov 17, 2021, 2:36 am IST
The key question that arises is why the security forces in Manipur have been taking such big hits
 The site of Saturday’s ambush is among the three listed drugs trafficking, more precisely heroin smuggling, routes through which the contraband articles are brought from Myanmar into Manipur for onward supply to the rest of India and outside. (AP)
  The site of Saturday’s ambush is among the three listed drugs trafficking, more precisely heroin smuggling, routes through which the contraband articles are brought from Myanmar into Manipur for onward supply to the rest of India and outside. (AP)

With around 40 active insurgent groups, armed with relatively cheap Chinese-made military hardware, besides weaponry from other sources, Manipur continues to be not just India’s but one of Southeast Asia’s hottest insurgency theatres. That this state of 27 lakh people is still caught in a whirlpool of insurgent violence was proved yet again on Saturday (November 13) when a heavily armed rebel hit squad of the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur (PLA) and the little-known Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF) ambushed and killed an Indian Army colonel, of the 46 Assam Rifles, his wife, six-year-old son and four other troopers of the force in Churachandpur district.

Now, this has been the deadliest attack on the security forces after the June 5, 2015 ambush on the 6 Dogra Regiment of the Army in the nearby Chandel district, where 18 soldiers were killed and more than ten others were wounded. The key question that arises is why the security forces in Manipur have been taking such big hits. One of the reasons is the state’s geographical location, being Myanmar’s immediate Indian neighbour. One cannot miss the fact that the site of Saturday’s ambush was near the village of Behiang T, barely 10 km from the border with Myanmar.

 

It is possible that the rebel hit squad stealthily crossed the unfenced and heavily wooded border, carried out the operation and sneaked back to their jungle hideouts in Myanmar.

Therefore, tackling the insurgency in Manipur has been a huge challenge to the security establishment despite the fact that the stringent Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is in force in the state that gives the security forces near sweeping powers to deal with anyone they suspect to be an insurgent.

The situation in Myanmar after the February coup in that country could also be a factor behind the rise in insurgent activities in Manipur. The military junta in Myanmar has been battling a coalition of rebels of the Chin National Army (CAN) and civilian resistance fighters who formed what is called the Chinland Defence Force (CDF). In September, this anti-military coalition had killed 12 Myanmar government soldiers, escalating violence in the areas along the border with India. The prevailing situation in Myanmar also could have forced Northeast Indian insurgent groups like the PLA, MNPF and many others to shift base and operate from mobile bases close to Indian states like Manipur.

 

Another possible reason for the rebels targeting the security forces in Manipur could be the state’s war on drugs smuggling and trade. Manipur’s proximity to the infamous Golden Triangle, a region in Southeast Asia (parts of Lao PDR, Myanmar and Thailand) known for high opium cultivation and drug trafficking, makes the state a drugs trafficking epicentre. In fact, Myanmar remains the main producer of illicit opium, accounting for nearly 95 per cent of the total opium produced in the region.

Most significantly, the site of Saturday’s ambush is among the three listed drugs trafficking, more precisely heroin smuggling, routes through which the contraband articles are brought from Myanmar into Manipur for onward supply to the rest of India and outside. The routes are Kheiman-Behiang-Singhat; New Somtal-Sugnu-Churachandpur-Imphal; and Homalin-Kamjong.

 

Reports trickling in over the past few days after the ambush indicate that Col. Viplav Tripathi, the commanding officer of the 46 Assam Rifles, was directly supervising the anti-drugs operation in the area, a known drugs smuggling hotspot. There is, however, no official input or communiqué on this aspect.

But when I asked Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh on Sunday whether the ambush could be an act of retaliation by the rebels against the government’s campaign to choke drugs trafficking, he said: “I have to carry on with the war on drugs and other illegal activities.” Apart from Manipur, the other Northeast state which is currently at the forefront of the war on drugs is Assam.

 

If New Delhi has not yet succeeded in taming the Manipur insurgents and if neither the state government nor the Centre has been able to bring the rebel groups, particularly the Imphal Valley-based Meitei insurgents, to the negotiating table to talk peace, it is largely because these militants have safe hideouts and staging areas right across the border in Myanmar. This is where India’s Myanmar policy becomes very important, and more so because China has set its eyes on Myanmar and would love to convert it somehow into one of its satellite states.

 

Myanmar actually is the only Southeast Asian country that shares a land border with Northeast India, stretching some 1,624 km, and therefore it is geopolitically important to India as it stands at the centre of the India-Southeast Asia geography. In fact, Myanmar is the only country that sits at the intersection of India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy and its “Act East” policy. Without doubt, therefore, Myanmar is key to the pursuance of India’s regional diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific region.

India is obviously conscious of its ties with Myanmar and there have even been joint military exercises between the two nations. But why has New Delhi not been able to push the military junta to adopt a consistent policy against India’s Northeast rebel groups operating out of its territory? Myanmar’s flip-flop in acting against the Manipuri and Naga insurgents is among the reasons why the insurgency continues to thrive in the Manipur-Nagaland region. Could it be that Myanmar does not want to annoy China? It is well known that Chinese entities, through outfits in Myanmar like the United Wa State Army, a rebel force, sell a huge quantity of weapons and ammunition to the Northeast Indian insurgents?

 

While New Delhi grapples with these issues, the government of chief minister N. Biren Singh in Manipur has challenges in hand, particularly because the Assembly polls are less than six months away. He has said on more than one occasion since Saturday’s ambush that the perpetrators would be brought to book. The big question now revolves around as to how the rebel hit squad can be neutralised if they have sneaked back to their Myanmar hideouts. Elections in Manipur have almost always been held under the shadow of the gun. Will it be any different this time around? That’s the question that everyone would like to ask.

 

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