Naga rebels in Myanmar's northwestern Sagaing Region in October 2018. Photo: Facebook

CHIANG MAI – When separatist rebels launched a lethal ambush in India’s northeastern state of Manipur on November 13, the shadowy attack acted to bring India and Myanmar’s hot-and-cold bilateral relations to a new boil.

Seven people including the commanding officer of an Assam Rifles paramilitary unit, his wife, their six-year-old son and four other riflemen were all killed when the convoy they were traveling in came under fire from People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF) rebels.

Both rebel groups are known to have sanctuaries across the nearby Myanmar border and reports indicate they may have retreated across the line after the deadly ambush was carried out.

India shares a 1,600 kilometer-long, porous border with Myanmar and the mountainous terrain makes it easy for rebel fighters to slip back and forth undetected by authorities.

Ethnic Naga, Manipuri and Assamese rebels from northeastern India have for years maintained bases in Myanmar’s Sagaing Region, from where they often launch attacks on Indian forces and then fade back across the border.

Those sanctuaries have long been a heated point of bilateral contention, but Myanmar’s long-held policy of benign neglect appeared to shift when the Myanmar army, known as the Tatmadaw, overran one of the rebels’ main camps in January 2019.

That clearance operation, which drove Naga, Manipuri and Assamese rebels from their de facto headquarters at Taga in northern Sagaing, markedly improved India-Myanmar military relations.

Those ties and recent weapons deals are likely why India did not publicly criticize the Tatmadaw’s widely condemned February 1 coup.

Indian troops on patrol in Manipur in northeastern India in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

Now, it seems that the Tatmadaw is not only again tolerating the presence of the rebel groups in Myanmar’s border areas, but is also using them to fight anti-military People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) resistance groups that have spread across the country since the coup.

Rebels from Manipur’s majority Meitei population are known to have attacked PDF units in the Tamu area of the Sagaing Region, opposite Moreh in India’s Manipur. In quid pro quo return, they have apparently been allowed to maintain safe havens on the Myanmar side of the border.

An obscure outfit known as the Zomi Revolutionary Army, presumably an ethnic Chin or Mizo outfit, attacked a camp set up by anti-coup forces in Tedim, Chin State, in late September.

The Tatmadaw’s use of such proxy armies is bound to intensify, local sources say, as its manpower becomes increasingly stretched as even usually calm central regions of the country have become battlefields since the coup.

The PLA, the armed wing of the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF), has been active among the Meiteis since the 1970s. Its founders were originally trained by the Chinese in a military camp near Tibet’s capital Lhasa.

The PLA carried out a number of attacks in the Imphal valley, the Meitei-inhabited heartland of Manipur, before splitting up into different factions and the remnants retreated across the Myanmar border.

Besides the RPF/PLA, there are several other Meitei rebel groups, among them the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), the United National Liberation Front, and the Kangleipak Communist Party. All of the Meitei rebel outfits seem to combine a leftist agenda with demands for Manipuri independence from India.

The MNPF is a small group of ethnic Naga militants which operates separately from the main National Socialist Council of Nagaland (or Nagalim) followed by the various initials of their respective leaders. Those groups, too, have long enjoyed sanctuaries on the Myanmar side of the border.

Naga rebels from the Indian side have had bases in Myanmar’s Naga Hills since the Indian army drove them across the border in the 1970s. Those Naga groups also benefited from a supply of arms from China until Beijing’s policy of supporting them changed in the 1980s.

Myanmar’s inability or unwillingness to uproot those rebel sanctuaries has been a persistent thorn in the side of the two neighbor’s bilateral relations, contributing to mutual distrust and suspicion over the years.

A map depicting where northeast India meets Myanmar. Image: Facebook

Much to New Delhi’s chagrin, Myanmar authorities often denied the existence of such camps.

Since the coup, Myanmar is again isolated and has few foreign allies. Russia is among them but its motivations are largely commercial as Myanmar is a major buyer of Russian-made military equipment.

China has vital geostrategic interests in Myanmar facilitated by its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and India’s reluctance to condemn the coup stems largely from its concern Beijing will leverage the crisis to consolidate its regional ambitions.

India’s chief of defense staff General Bipin Rawat stated that publicly at a July 24 military webinar on “Opportunities and Challenges in North East India.”

Rawat then stated that India needs to closely monitor the emerging situation in Myanmar where China, he said, is making further inroads after international sanctions were re-imposed on the country after the February 1 coup: “The BRI of China is bound to get further impetus with the sanctions on Myanmar.”

Immediately after the coup, India’s army chief, Manoj Mukund Naravane, stated that a “series of operations” together with the Tatmadaw “has witnessed growing cooperation and synergy between the soldiers on ground with reasonable operational dividends.”

Significantly, India was also among eight countries that sent a representative — its military attaché — to attend the Myanmar Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyitaw on March 27. The others came from China, Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.

It remains to be seen what consequences the Manipur ambush will have on future India and Myanmar relations. While India may be reluctant to return to the pre-2019 era of mutual suspicion, analysts say it will be difficult for India to ignore the new alliances recently forged between the northeastern rebels and the Tatmadaw.

Moreover, India’s security authorities are well aware of the presence those rebels still have in China. They may not be getting any direct support from China’s security agencies, but PLA, PREPAK and the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) do have informal representatives in Ruili and other border towns in western Yunnan.

Myanmar’s Tatmadaw flexes in an Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyitaw, March 27, 2021. Photo: Agencies

There is nothing to indicate that Chinese agencies encouraged the PLA and the MNPF to attack the Indian paramilitary convoy on November 13, but they must be following events closely and using their Indian rebel friends to collect intelligence. New vulnerabilities in India’s already volatile northeast would undoubtedly be in China’s wider strategic interest.

By staging the ambush, India’s northeastern rebels may have stirred up a hornet’s nest of intrigues.

But with the Tatmadaw’s current preoccupation with internal security and with Indian rebel groups given free rein in exchange for fighting PDFs, the situation on the India-Myanmar border appears to be returning to its “old normal” – though with dangerous new implications.  

For the first time, the Tatmadaw is openly cooperating with India’s northeastern rebels, a turn that could give rise to an entirely new security paradigm along what has traditionally already been a volatile frontier.