India will ignore the Myanmar angle to its own peril   

By P.K.Balachandran

The ongoing violence in the North-Eastern Indian State of Manipur may appear to be rooted in local concerns, but there is an external factor that cannot be ignored. The insurgencies in Myanmar are adding, and will continue to add, to the troubles in Manipur.

The northern areas of Myanmar, bordering Manipur and other North-Eastern Indian States, are a hotbed of ethno-based insurgencies against the regime in Yangon. The insurgent groups operating in those areas have links with similar ethno-based insurgent groups in Manipur and adjacent tribal areas.

Such links are causing concern in New Delhi’s security establishment.

While the immediate need in Manipur is to address the local issues underlying the unrest and violence there, there is a need to look at the cross-border links and also the policy towards the regime in Yangon.

Unless peace returns to Myanmar through a settlement between Yangon and the Myanmarese insurgents, there will be no lasting peace in Manipur and adjacent areas. India should neither support nor remain neutral but join other interested nations to bring about either a solution or a ceasefire between the Yangon government and the insurgents. This is no walk in the park, but a beginning needs to be made if India is to have a meaningful ‘Look East and Act East’ policy.  

Manipur Insurgents    

Valley Based Insurgent Groups (VBIG) is a term for groups comprising people from Manipur’s Imphal Valley populated by the Meiteis. Six of these groups, including the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF), often operate together. Significantly, these groups are aligned with the Yangon military regime.

In December 2022, the VBIG came under attack by anti-Junta groups. The three pro-democracy outfits that carried out the ambush against the VBIG are the 1 Battalion of the People’s Democratic Force of the Tamu region near Manipur’s border town of Moreh, the Kuki National Army (of Burma) and the Kabaw Chin National Defense Force. These groups mostly comprise the communities belonging to the Kuki-Chin ethnic group.

The Kuki-Chin group is against the Meiteis.   

Earlier, on May 12, 2021, it was reported that 15 soldiers of the Myanmar Military Council were killed in Tamu town and Pan Thar village. Four of the 15 killed were “Kathe”, the Burmese term for the Meitei. There is a sizeable Meitei population in Myanmar’s Kabaw Valley of which Tamu is a part.

Indian Security officials were quoted in a publication as saying that the VBIG have about 700 members. “Each group pays a hefty sum in US dollars to the Myanmar junta for maintaining the camps besides.  On May 24, 2021, Myanmar military officials had a meeting with 14 top leaders of the VBIGs apparently to work on strategies against the armed pro-democracy activists,” the publication said.

A paper published by the Indian Center for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) this year, warned that cross-border migration could lead to a resurgence of insurgencies in Manipur. Author Anuradha Oinam says that there is danger lurking in the increased migration from Myanmar to North-East India.

Currently, more than 16,000 Myanmarese have taken refuge in the North Eastern States. A Reuters quoted an Indian official as saying “It is a genuine worry that if rebels cross over, it will give oxygen to Naga and Manipur insurgents”.

The internal ethnic fissures in Manipur aggravate the external threat. Historically, the Meiteis and the Hill tribes, including the Kukis, had been living in cultural harmony with a sense of brotherhood. But the coming of ‘Hindu Vaishnavism’ in Manipur changed the situation. With Sanskrtiization/Hinduization came the concepts of Pure/Impure, the distinction between the Caste Hindu Meiteis and the animist/Christian Kukis and other hill tribes. The traditional Manipuri “brotherhood” became a thing of the past.

However, the Meiteis had their share of grievances too and these were against the Indian State of which Manipur became a part in 1949.  The merger was opposed by many Meiteis. Then came the Indian reservation policy which favored the tribal Kukis and Nagas.  

The Meitei United National Liberation Front (UNLF) was established under the command of Samrendra Singh in 1964. The Revolutionary Government of Manipur (RGM), separated from the UNLF, under the command of Oinam Sudhir Kumar.  The People’s Liberation Front (PLF) came up in 1978, the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) under R.K. Tulachandra in 1977 and Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) in 1980.

Though most of these Meitei groups are now defunct, a few are operating to this day.

The Kukis and Nagas also had grievances against the Indian State. They wanted independence or an exclusive territory within the Indian Union. The hill tribes’ insurgent groups were the National Socialist Council of Nagaland—Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) in Naga inhabited areas, the Kuki National Army (KNA), and the Kuki National Front (KNF) in the Kuki areas.

The tribal groups contend that in terms of representation in the Manipur State Assembly, the hill tribes have only 20 members, despite their occupying 89% of the geographical area of Manipur. But there are 40 Meitei legislators though the valley in which the Meiteis live, occupies only 11% of the total land area.

The Pangals or Manipuri Muslims also formed their own groups after the Meitei-Pangal clash in May 1993. The People’s United Liberation Front (PULF), the North East Minority Front (NEMF), the Islamic National Front, the Islamic Revolutionary Front (IRF) and the United Islamic Liberation Army (UILA) are Pangal insurgent groups. The Meiteis consider the Pangals to be Bengali Muslim immigrants and therefore non-Manipuri.

Clashes between different ethnic groups in Manipur were common, though these had come down in recent years. According to published data, 2117 terrorists/insurgents/extremists had been killed. 329 and 349 were killed in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Five were killed in 2019 and three in 2020. In 2021, the number of terrorists killed was seven with zero civilian deaths.

However, insurgencies could occur again due to the current crisis in Manipur as well as the continuing problem posed by educated unemployment and local economic backwardness. Absence of connectivity with other regions in India is also at the root of Manipuri under-development..

Then there are the problems posed by events in neighboring Myanmar. There is an open border between Manipur and Myanmar to facilitate communication and trade with kindred tribal communities in Myanmar. But the open border has also opened the doors to insurgents and drug peddlers from Myanmar.

The Indian authorities cannot take decisive action because the governments of Myanmar, whether military or civilian, have been incompetent. Their kinetic actions have been counter-productive.

Indian think tanks have recommended that India cease to be neutral in the conflict and join other groups like ASEAN to get the Myanmar junta to work for an understanding with its alienated and rebellious tribal and ethnic groups in the northern regions bordering India.