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 6-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.
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.
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 1970’s. Those Naga groups also benefited from a supply of arms from China until Beijing’s policy of supporting them changed in the 1980’s.
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. 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.
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.
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.
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point Military News 2021.