The attack has led to a lot of speculation in mainland India on possible Chinese role.
Six years after the last such incident, a militant ambush in Manipur's Churachandpur district on Saturday claimed the lives of the Commanding Officer of 46 Assam Rifles, Colonel Viplav Tripathi, four of his men, and his wife and six-year-old son who were traveling with him.
Two Manipur militant groups, the Revolutionary People’s Front, the political wing of the People’s Liberation Army, and the Manipur Naga People’s Front, in a joint statement, claimed responsibility for the attack. Security sources, however, say the attack was carried out by a hit squad of a Manipuri militant conglomerate called CorCom, short for Coordination Committee, comprising seven militant outfits.
The attack has led to a lot of speculation in mainland India on possible Chinese links.
The name of the group, People’s Liberation Army, coincidentally a homonym for the Chinese military, is one reason. The increase in tensions between India and China along the LAC is another. And the history of Chinese assistance to Northeast militant groups, including the PLA, adds to doubts.
In 1975, a group of 16 men of the PLA led by its founder, N Bisheswar, had trekked to Tibet and received training from the Chinese. They were however sent back without arms. That was the last time a group of Northeast militants is known to have trekked to China for support. For decades now, there has not been any news of direct Chinese government support for Northeast militant groups beyond the provision of safe haven to one or two fugitive leaders such as ULFA chief Paresh Baruah, and the indirect sale of small arms on a commercial basis. The involvement of a Chinese hand, if there is one, would therefore be a significant change.
The outfits that have claimed responsibility, the PLA and the MNPF, represent two different ethnic groups.
The PLA is predominantly a group of the Meitei community of the Imphal valley while the MNPF is a Naga group from the hills. The CorCom includes other valley-based groups of which one in particular, PREPAK, is suspected of involvement in this attack.
The attack, however, took place in a part of Manipur which is dominated by the Kuki, Chin and Zomi groups of tribes.
Behiang, the village in Churachandpur district from where the Colonel and his convoy was returning, is adjacent to the Myanmar border. The road from there runs on to Tiddim in Myanmar. On both sides of the border, the population is predominantly from the Chin, Zomi and Kuki groups of tribes. These tribes, which share close cultural affinities, themselves are umbrella identities; there are several sub-tribes under each tribe. The main homelands of these related tribes are Mizoram, which lies adjacent to Manipur not far from Behiang, and Chin state in Myanmar.
Ever since the military coup in Myanmar, the situation in that country has slid towards civil war. There are thousands of Chin refugees in Mizoram at the moment who have fled the fighting there between the Myanmar military and the forces resisting it. The situation is perplexing, especially in northern Myanmar which borders India. No government of Myanmar in its history as a modern country has ever had full control of these areas, which are inhabited by many tribes. Each of these tribes typically has its own insurgent army. All of the major insurgent outfits from the Indian side of the border have also had a presence on the Myanmar side of the border for decades.
Money, polls and internal tussles
These insurgent groups have their own complex relationships of cooperation and competition. These intensify as large sums of money, generated from smuggling of various kinds of goods including drugs and arms, enter the picture. The groups have their internal politics with splits a frequent occurrence as leadership tussles, often encouraged by intelligence agencies, develop. Complexity increases as these outfits get involved in electoral politics, acting as the ‘strongmen’ for local politicians or political parties.
For example, during the last parliamentary elections in Manipur, Thang Lian Pau, the President of an influential Zomi outfit, the Zomi Reunification Organisation – which includes the Zomi Reunification Army - wrote a letter dated February 23, 2019 to then BJP chief Amit Shah requesting that the party’s ticket for the Outer Manipur Lok Sabha constituency should be given to Benjamin Mate; Mate was given the ticket but lost to the candidate backed by the Naga militant group NSCN(IM).
Thang Lian Pau, from the Guite sub-tribe, was a member of parliament in Myanmar. He has been living in Churachandpur in Manipur since 1995.
The border between India and Myanmar, which became an international one in 1937 when Burma was separated from British India, split several communities, mainly belonging to the Naga and Chin-Zomi groups of tribes, under administrations in two different countries. This has been a cause of protest from these groups for decades. The existence of a free movement regime that allows villagers on both sides to get on with their traditionally interconnected lives has kept support for the protests from gathering force, but it has also been a continuing problem for security forces on both sides of the border. Now, with Myanmar in a low-grade civil war, the problem has become more acute and complex, as refugees in relatively large numbers enter India and the junta in Myanmar confronts armed resistance.
Burmese dissidents have long found shelter in India, even as India has steadily maintained friendly ties with the military junta there. Northeast militants similarly have camps and bases in Myanmar, which the Myanmar army tolerates. Both Burmese and Indian agencies have used each other’s militant groups for their own purposes, and occasionally sold them out to the other side as murky deals were made. Smaller deal-making at individual levels between corrupt officers of security agencies and militants, on monetary matters related to smuggling, have also occasionally come to light. At times the deals, according to accounts of militants, extend to political or security forces helping one leader or faction of a group in an internal leadership tussle, a favour paid for with money. On their part, militant groups back one or another politician during elections.
Manipur is headed for assembly elections early next year.
Outfits engaged in peace talks
Zomi organisations such as the Zomi Council based in Churachandpur have condemned the attack on the Assam Rifles convoy in the strongest terms and demanded that the perpetrators should be “hunted down”. The Zomi militant outfits, like the main Naga militant groups, are currently engaged in peace talks with the government of India, unlike the valley-based groups. On the other side of the border, in Myanmar, however, fighting has broken out between pro-democracy groups and the military. A resistance outfit called the People’s Defence Forces has sprung up. The Myanmar army has shelled and burnt a town called Thantlang in the Chin Hills. While the majority of Chins appear to be opposed to the new regime in Myanmar, some factions have sided with the Myanmar military. The ZRA, which has had factional infighting over leadership in recent years, has been accused by Chin groups there of being one of these.
There is therefore a complex weave of factors and characters operating in the vicinity of Behiang where the Assam Rifles convoy was attacked, any of which could have led to the attack. While Chinese involvement cannot be ruled out, pending further information, it is only one possibility among many.
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