Manipur Terror Attack and Beyond

The recent terrorist ambush in Manipur is a clarion call for the government to revisit and seriously review the security challenges India faces on its northeastern border. The government needs to prioritise - holistic appreciation of northeast insurgency and action plan to tackle it, border management of the Indo-Myanmar border and its foreign policy vis-à-vis Myanmar

Opinion

By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

The terrorist ambush on the Assam Rifles convoy in Churachandpur District of Manipur on November 13, killing five soldiers including Colonel Viplav Tripathi, CO 46 Assam Rifles, his wife and 6-year old son shattered the peace of the state and the northeast. The last major terrorist attack in Manipur was in 2015 on an Army convoy, which had resulted in Operation ‘Hot Pursuit’ by the Indian Army against terrorist camps inside Myanmar.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of Manipur and the Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF) claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack. In a joint press release both stated they were not aware that the CO was being accompanied by his wife and son, and that security forces should not bring their families to places declared disturbed area. This is crap to divert public outrage; terrorists have well-knit surveillance before an ambush, the ambush was in broad daylight at 10 am and families of security forces are allowed in disturbed areas for valid reasons since past decades both in J&K and the northeast.

China has been providing weapons to the Manipur PLA since years and has also organized training for PLA cadres. Killing of the CO’s wife and son in the ambush was downright heinous, suspecting Chinese hand for multiple reasons albeit the barbarity in this case exceeded the surprise attack on our troops at Galwan using clubs with barbed wire wrapped around them. But was China the sole reason behind the ambush and what beyond?

According to local sources, the ambush was sprung by some 16 terrorists (though the number could be more) who later crossed over to Myanmar. The Chief Minister of Manipur tweeted: “The perpetrators will be brought to justice.” Security has been tightened in the state and the border and two persons were reportedly arrested from Thoubal area.

The fight between Nagas and ethnic Meiteis in Manipur has been over the demand of Nagalim (Greater Nagaland) to subsume parts of Manipur into Nagalim. The MNPF emerged from the Naga Peoples Front (NPF) but joined hands with PLA who are pure Meitei because:

  • MNPF dislikes the NSCN (IM) who it views has been given undue preference by the Indian Government; allowing them to set up camps without disarming, which enables them to collect taxes.
  • MNPF doesn’t support demand for Nagalim but wants sovereignty of Manipur like PLA. The PLA-MNPF joint statement had also said, “We are not going to sit silently till we get our rights and our sovereignty.
  • MNPF is about 200-strong as per ground sources. Joining the 500-strong PLA makes it a potent force.

In 2017, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) informed  Parliament that 35 underground groups were operating in Manipur, of which 23 groups were under umbrella organizations of United Progressive Front (UPF) and Kuki National Organization (KNO) who signed a ceasefire agreement in 2008 (valid till February 2022).

According to MHA, following insurgent groups are presently active in Manipur: PLA; Revolutionary People’s  Front (RPF) – political wing of PLA; United National Liberation Front (UNLF);  Manipur People’s Army (MPA) – armed wing of UNLF); People’s Revolutionary Party Kangleipak (PREPAK); Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP); Kanglei Yaol Lup (KYKL); Coordination Committee (Cor-Com); Alliance for Socialist Unity Kangleipak (ASUK), and; MPLF. Except for the Imphal Municipal Area, rest of Manipur is designated as “disturbed area” as per the report Parliamentary Committee report in 2018.

We need to acknowledge the following:

  • Our border with Myanmar is still not fully settled and demarcated.
  • The border belt is forested with undergrowth that makes it easy to avoid designated crossing points.
  • Cross-border narcotics trade is flourishing with patronage on both sides. Influx of narcotics from Myanmar is almost equals that coming through our western borders. Narcotics from India are sent to Myanmar for refining and back for financial dividend.
  • Terrorists too are involved in drug smuggling and same routes are used for border crossings and arms smuggling.
  • Little has happened over the years in terms of infrastructure development for border management including accessibility, surveillance and monitoring in the difficult terrain along the international border.
  • Common cross-border ethnicity lends itself more to routine patrolling rather than aggressive opportunity ambushes unless there has been a terror attack or information about terrorist movement. This is also related to manpower availability on forward posts, which is limited.
  • How seriously have we addressed improving border management with most terrorist camps in Myanmar beyond Congress wanted the border to be handed over to BSF and present government wants to merge Assam Rifles and ITBP to guard this border? This appears more to capture the drug trade rather than to improve security.
  • The Centre has been working on ceasefire piecemeal agreements with insurgent groups but holistically to tackle northeast terrorism/ Is there lack of effort at the Centre and State level? Some Chief Ministers are inclined to talk to insurgent groups but the problem is same as in the Maoist belt – low-level politicians dependent on vote-banks influenced by insurgents.
China-Pakistan are arming and supporting multiple terrorist groups in India. In Myanmar, China has created powerful proxies like the United Wa State Army (USWA) straddling the ‘Golden Triangle’ on the Myanmar-Thailand-China border.

Chinese media has periodically said that China can destabilize our northeast and even liberate Sikkim (sic). China-Pakistan are arming and supporting multiple terrorist groups in India. In Myanmar, China has created powerful proxies like the United Wa State Army (USWA) straddling the ‘Golden Triangle’ on the Myanmar-Thailand-China border. In 2015, Chinese intelligence established the United Liberation Front of Southeast Asia (ULFWSEA) bringing together nine insurgent organizations of northeast India.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in Myanmar headed by Ata Ullah (Pakistani national) is linked to Chinese intelligence, Pakistan’s ISI and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). ARSA also receives financial aid from Saudi Arabia. About a year back, a Chinese delegation visited Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh and offered money to Rohingyas for returning to Myanmar.

Recent reports indicate that all Rohingya refugee camps in  Bangladesh have become hubs of ARSA who killed Rohingya leader Mohib Ullah and six Rohingyas in October 2021. Bangladesh authorities deny ARSA presence in these camps but according to Rohingya sources, “ARSA operatives are engaged in a wide array of crimes in the camps. They take absolute control of the camps at nighttime.”

Most importantly, the China-supported military takeover of Myanmar has brought a major change in the cross-border security environment in our northeast coupled with an all round aggressive stance by China including the standoff in Eastern Ladakh and along the 3,488-km long India-Tibet border, plus China’s new border law to legalize areas under its illegal occupation. The ambush in Churachandpur ‘could’ have been by the PLA-MNPF to show their presence but China too sees a unique opportunity to exploit India’s strained relations with Myanmar’s Caretaker Government; Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has appointed himself as Prime Minister and promised elections by 2023.

On October 27, India’s Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Limited announced it would withdraw its investments in the military-owned Ahlone Port by June 2022. Other nations like Singapore and Japan too have cut aid and investments in Myanmar but they do not share a border with Myanmar and security implications that India has.

Post the military coup, China has made the following investments In Myanmar: $2.5 billion in the Mee Lin Gyaing LNG project; $1.5 billion in Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (KPSEZ); $1.5 billion in New Yangon City project; $22.4 million in Kanpiketi CBECZ; $180 million in Kyaukphyu power plant, and; $1.3 billion in Kyaukphyu deep sea port. Concurrently planning is being expedited for the Chinshwehaw CBECZ – new border crossing in Northern Shan State for which Chinese investment will follow.

The global pressure on Myanmar’s caretaker government has worked to China’s advantage with the military junta shedding its previous inhibitions over Chinese intentions. Myanmar may get less foreign investments but it will be drawn further into China’s strategic sphere. Where does all this leave India?

The ASEAN wants Myanmar to implement its 5-point agenda as conveyed by the ASEAN-appointed special envoy. The US and western nations continue to maintain pressure on Myanmar and some half-hearted attempts were made to vandalize China-owned entities which were quickly quashed. But with China having its way in recent months despite the Western hullabaloo, one can be certain that Myanmar’s Caretaker Government will in all probability continue in the same vein given China’s  support.

The global pressure on Myanmar’s caretaker government has worked to China’s advantage with the military junta shedding its previous inhibitions over Chinese intentions. Myanmar may get less foreign investments but it will be drawn further into China’s strategic sphere. Where does all this leave India?

Opinions are being aired that India will take revenge for the November 13 ambush against the terrorists, Myanmar and China. But by cold shouldering Myanmar’s Caretaker Government, India can hardly undertake joint operations with Myanmar Army against terrorist camps inside Myanmar, even if it means NSA-level coordination, as prior to Indian Army’s Operation ‘Hot Pursuit’ in 2015. In contrast, recent reports indicate Myanmar military is using Indian insurgents to advance their own interests.

Political leaders and governments globally are employing all possible means to extend their rule. Why would Myanmar’s military junta give up power whether elections are held in 2023 or not. But should we allow our foreign policy to be dictated by the US or ASEAN sacrificing own national interests?  Should we allow China to make our western flank the most vulnerable with its illegal claim on Arunachal Pradesh?

What is stopping us from re-invigorating defence ties with Myanmar and resume joint operations against terrorist camps – is it the plank of ‘democracy’? But which democracy is a real democracy today?

Russia and Myanmar are deepening their defence ties as Moscow’s military supplies continue to pour into that country. Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander visited Myanmar in March 2021 and met General Min Aung Hlaing. What is stopping us from re-invigorating defence ties with Myanmar and resume joint operations against terrorist camps – is it the plank of ‘democracy’? But which democracy is a real democracy today?

If we can invite the Pakistani NSA for a dialogue in New Delhi despite Pakistan’s proxy war and talk to rogue China what stops us from talking to the caretaker government in Myanmar? As it is, we have no answer to China’s proxy war because we have shied away from building requisite deterrence.

Finally, the government needs to seriously review the following: foreign policy vis-à-vis Myanmar; border management of the Indo-Myanmar border, and; holistic appreciation of northeast insurgency and action plan to tackle it.

 

The author is a veteran of Indian Army. Views expressed are personal.