The ambush on a convoy of the 46 Assam Rifles (AR) on November 13, a stone’s throw away from Sialsih, near Behiang on the Indo-Myanmar border, which killed five AR personnel including its commanding officer, Colonel Viplav Tripathi — and his wife and son — has rightly evoked nation-wide condemnation. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh joined PM Modi, Manipur CM Biren Singh and the nation in condemning the “painful” and “cowardly act” and affirmed the nation’s resolve to “bring the perpetrators to justice soon”. The fact that this ambush was mounted by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), one of the seven banned armed groups in Manipur, along with the Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF), speaks to the fragility of the peace fostered by India’s counterinsurgency (COIN) strategies. It also indicates the security dilemma in this conflict-prone borderland.
The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), arguably the most authoritative source on insurgency-related conflicts, was sanguine in its recent assessment. It noted that after having recorded single-digit insurgency-related deaths in 2019 and 2020, the state “is evidently going through a phase of deepening peace”. The Ceasefire Agreement that the Centre has entered with the NSCN-IM since 1997 and the series of Suspension of Operations with the various Kuki-Hmar-Zomi armed groups in place in the state since 2008 have considerably reduced the number of deaths — from a high of 496 in 2008 to single-digits in the past two years. This number has risen to 25 this year. Despite the criticism that the Army Doctrine — its yardstick for success was revised in 2004 from measuring the number of “kills” of armed insurgents to “winning hearts and minds” — has been ineffectual, there are signs that the new doctrine has improved the image of the Indian army, especially the AR. The COIN measures have laid down the ground rules for ceasefire and regimented the armed groups in “peace camps”. Colonel Tripathi and his regiment sought to reinforce this improved image of the AR by engaging in projects that involve imparting skills and vocational training to women, self-help groups and the insurgents in the “peace camps”.
The bloody ambush, however, underscores the precarity of the peace and the complex power dynamics that the AR and Indian COIN strategies have to navigate. A full-fledged police station was inaugurated in Behiang in June 2019. But an ill-equipped police force of 50-60 headed by an inspector, complemented by a company each of the Indian Reserve Battalion and AR, seems inadequate to maintain “law and order” as well as regulate cross-border trade and movements. It took almost five hours after the ambush for army reinforcements to arrive, although Behiang is located barely 25 kilometres from ground zero.
Although this virtual non-state space is seen to be largely under the operational control of the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA), a complex power-dynamic has unravelled as a result of the aggressive attempts by the Union Ministry of Development of the North Eastern Region and the state to promote the Behiang Trade Centre as the second major gateway to Southeast Asia. This has enhanced the desire of valley-based armed insurgent groups, such as the PLA, as well as hills-based outfits like the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) and ZRA, to consolidate their presence in this strategic and lucrative trading centre. The attempts by the KNO and ZRA to outdo each other have spurred the PLA to consolidate its power in the borderlands.
The PLA knows that the land-owning system in the hills is inhospitable to its interests in securing formal ownership rights — the Centre’s ban makes matters more difficult for it. However, the outfit has circumvented this constraint by consolidating its camp near Suangzang village in Myanmar, 15 kilometres from Behiang. Using its extortion rackets in Manipur and its control of local tribal businessmen and opium mafias, the PLA has cultivated extensive local conduit networks and consolidated its operational control along the Indo-Myanmar border. The regimenting of local tribal armed groups like the ZRA and KNO in “peace camps” has also enabled the outfit to consolidate itself.
The November 13 ambush could signal the arrival of the PLA as a major force in the complex power dynamics of the Indo-Myanmar borderlands. The outfit and its umbrella organisation, the Manipur People’s Liberation Front — this includes the United National Liberation Front, the oldest armed group in Manipur — have developed a military nexus with the Tatmadaw in Myanmar. They already operate with impunity across Bangladesh and Myanmar and are likely to secure cross-border safe-havens. The PLA and UNLF have refused to engage in dialogue with India unless New Delhi accepts plebiscite as a pre-condition. These outfits could become the Achilles’ heel of India’s COIN strategies to guarantee credible security in the fragile Indo-Myanmar borderland.
India needs to recalibrate its relations with Bangladesh and Myanmar to effectively deal with outfits such as the PLA and UNLF. There is also a compelling need to modernise intelligence gathering and military/police infrastructure. Indeed, only once these conditions are met, will Rajnath Singh’s resolve to “bring the perpetrators to justice soon” become meaningful. It also needs to be realised that the failure to bring the PLA and UNLF to the negotiating peace table will not only perpetuate the security dilemma and make the power dynamics in the Indo-Myanmar borderland more precarious, it will also have far-reaching implications on subverting existing tribal land-ownership and control of resources in the hill areas of Manipur.
This column first appeared in the print edition on November 19, 2021 under the title ‘An ambush, a warning’. The writer is professor and the Head of the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad