Since the 2021 infamous coup in Myanmar that led to the incarceration of the National League for Democracy (NLD) chief Aung San Suu Kyi and the retake of the country by the Tatmadaw, the country is sinking into a veritable collapse. Besides the muddled political scenario, the country is eventually staring at a split.
At a high-level meeting, the President of the Myanmar State Administration Council (SAC), Myint Swe, said, “if the government does not effectively manage the incidents happening in the border region, the country will be split into various parts”. This comes in the wake of the takeover of several military posts and border trade towns along the Myanmar-China border by the Three Brotherhood Alliance (3BA) in the first week of November. The grave statement has an element of truth and should ring alarm bells for the countries in the neighborhood, especially India.
The military coup of February 2021 has enflamed a rebellion, which has picked up momentum since then. The (3BA), formed in June 2019, comprises of Myanmar Democratic National Alliance Army (MNDAA), Ta’ang National Army (TNLA), and Arakan Army (AA). After maintaining initial silence towards Junta rule and crackdown, the alliance openly declared their opposition by the end of March 2021. Following confrontations with the junta and suffering damages, the alliance partners agreed to a truce in November 2022. The groups used this peacetime to consolidate resources, regroup, arm, recruit, and train people.
Joining hands with the Ethnically Armed Organisations (EAOs), and Peoples Defense Forces (PDF) the alliance launched a massive counter-offensive on October 27, nicknamed Operation 1027, and captured the border city Chinshwehaw in the North Shan region. As per some reports, the alliance managed to seize control of 150 military outposts.
Brutal crackdown measures of the junta like carpet bombing, air strikes, and artillery bombardments have displaced several thousand after the ouster of the civilian government in February 2021. The rebellion counter-offensive which has now potentially assumed the interpretation of “second independence war” is now backed by extremely well-aligned and armed insurgent forces which are determined to overthrow the junta. Established ethnic armies like Kachin, Karen, Chin and Karenni have strategically allied with the National Unity Government (NUG) which has been at the receiving end of the Junta’s severe crackdown.
Myanmar's history is riddled with several resistance movements. But what makes the ongoing operation different is an uncanny collaboration between the various groups and waning support to the military junta even in its stronghold Barmar region. Despite the losses in terms of life and material and massive displacement, people are willingly supporting the rebel groups.
Coordinated attacks on the military junta across different parts of the country by various rebel groups are wearing out the junta. The multi-pronged attacks included- 3BA offensive in the Northern Shan, Karen National Union in the South East at the outskirts of capital Naypyitaw, occupation of highways and bridges by Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Sagaing and Magwe regions, and attacks by Chin National Army along the Indo-Myanmar border. Exhausted of resources and spread out too thin across the country, devoid of strategic depth the junta now finding it immensely difficult to regain the lost territories.
Junta is now additionally haunted by the scarcity of manpower and difficulties in redeployment and reinforcements with convoys subjected to ambushes. Junta has traditionally controlled the cities and towns. But the rebel groups are now stalling the movement of junta convoys by choking the roads and bridges.
China which wielded a restraining force on the EAOs is no longer averse to letting them loose. Given their frustration with the junta government’s inaction against the mushrooming of numerous scam centers targeting Chinese citizens close to borders. Internet Scam centers believed to be controlled by militia loyal to the junta are scamming the Chinese diaspora and have become the financial lifeline of the junta. The rebel groups that gained substantial control of the north Shan with key border outposts have promised to dismantle the scam center network. Scam centers have become a major embarrassment due to the brutal treatment of trafficked trapped victims.
Under pressure from China, the insurgent groups from Shan have handed over scamsters to Chinese police. Over 4000 people were sent over to the border. While attempts were underway to rescue and release the trapped victims, the guards of the scam centers reportedly shot dead several of them. It is in the aftermath of this event on October 20, 3BA launched a massive offensive. Though China has lent diplomatic support to the junta, their indifference to Chinese concerns, delays in BRI, and losses suffered due to the takeover of the border trade post by the 3BA have miffed Beijing. The 3BA has now taken over Laukkaing, a major township where an entire Myanmar battalion has surrendered and deposited arms.
Having made great progress, the rebel groups are in no mood to relent and agree to a ceasefire as they want to expand beyond their boundaries and consolidate their positions. They no longer see value in negotiating with a military government that doesn’t enjoy any legitimacy. To win constitutional recognition of statehood for their people within the new federal system, they are keen on striking a deal with a future elected government.
Chin National Army (CAN) captured Rihkhawdar and Khampat towns along the Indo-Myanmar border and this led to the crossing over of 42 Myanmar soldiers illegally into India. India has repatriated 39 of them back. In a similar instance two days ago, 29 Myanmar soldiers surrendered to Mizoram police. Amid this fresh offensive between the military junta and rebels along the Indo-Myanmar border, more than 5000 refugees entered Mizoram.
The major fallout of the rebels overpowering the military junta has serious repercussions for India especially in the Northeast. The insufficient military infrastructure along the 1600km porous Indo-Myanmar border has further exacerbated the issue. The Indo-Myanmar military cooperation which pivots on Myanmar’s military assurance of reining the NE insurgent groups has suffered a setback with the declining junta power. The insurgents, their supporters and even the people displaced due to the persistent gun conflict between the junta and rebellion groups are crossing over to India.
The undeniable link and the dubious role played by the NE insurgents in the wake of the political crisis in Myanmar since 2021 is becoming more pronounced. Insurgents have regrouped, rearmed and have become more active with the junta now training guns on the EAOs. Besides, the security angle, Myanmar is an important part of India’s Act East policy in terms of connectivity and to counter Chinese presence. A semblance of peace is crucial for the completion and operationalisation of the Kaladan Multi-Modal Project which can balance China’s Kyuakphu port.
Of the four Indian states bordering Myanmar, Manipur and Mizoram are witnessing a steady stream of illegal Myanmar migrants. As of July 2023, other than the still unregistered and unaccounted number of Rohingyas living in India, India is hosting 74,600 Myanmar migrants of which 54,100 have migrated after the 2021 February coup. Of them, 40,000 refugees are in Mizoram and 8,250 are in Manipur1. The unabated flow of refugees and the subsequent unrest in the state of Manipur which has been on the boil for six months has become an issue of major concern for India.
This issue is further complicated by the outright rejection of India’s government’s order to collect biometrics of the refugees by Mizoram state citing ethnic connection. Gearing up for the assembly election, the Mizoram Minister said, “Collecting the biometric data of Myanmar refugees would be discriminatory since they are like our own brothers and sisters”2. Indeed, the Mizoram government has forced the Meities who entered the state seeking shelter from rising violence to leave due to their ethnic solidarity with Kuki and Zo groups.
The Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF) of Manipur had tried to downplay the large illegal migration saying, “of course, some Kuki-Chin people have crossed over from Myanmar over the years due to hostile situation there, but that has never been in any alarming numbers at all” and even added, “immigration is being used as an excuse to drive Manipur’s indigenous Kuki population out of the land”. Ethnicity is of paramount importance to the various groups living in the North East. ITLF has opposed the screening of illegal migrants in Manipur terming it as “selective targeting”3.
The latest exodus of Myanmar refugees included the displaced from Chin, a region found to have the highest density of poppy cultivation as per the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drug and Crime) 2023 report. With the official ban on poppy cultivation by the Afghan Taliban in April 2022, cultivation in Afghanistan fell by 95%. But the cultivation of the same picked up pace in Myanmar and the “Golden Triangle” of the drug trade became more active.
Concomitant to these geopolitical changes, Manipur intensified a crackdown on poppy cultivation particularly in the regions bordering the Chin. Destruction of the poppy cultivation and the drug trafficking networks is among the main reasons for hilly Kuki angst against the government which has subsequently snowballed into a massive conflict between the Kuki tribes of hills and Meities in the valley.
Underscoring the damning impact of the Myanmar refugee in enflaming ethnic conflict in Manipur, the Home Minister on his visit to the state blamed them for the violence. He assured that the ‘Manipur-Myanmar border will be sealed as part of a permanent solution to the illegal influx’. Tensions in Myanmar have direct consequences on the fragile peace in the Northeast region. Emboldened by the latest gains of the EAO’s in the bordering Chin and Sagaing regions, the ITLF, an organisation of Kuki-Zo tribes has issued an ultimatum to the central government threatening to set up self-government if their demand for a separate administration is not accepted in the next two weeks. An FIR is now lodged against the ITLF leader Muan Tombing for ‘waging war’ against India since there is no constitutional or legal basis for a demand for separate administration.
In the meanwhile, Indian government expressed serious concerns over the situation in Myanmar with the junta carrying out airstrikes to regain control of the border regions. MEA spokesperson said, “There has been a movement of refugees to the Indian side. We are deeply concerned with such incidents close to our border. Our position on the ongoing situation in Myanmar is very clear. We want a cessation of violence and resolution of the situation through constructive dialogue. We reiterate our call for the return of peace, stability, and democracy in Myanmar”4.
India is closely monitoring the situation and recently announced to holding of Indo-US-Myanmar joint exercises in Meghalaya. Thus far, the military junta has adopted a divide-and-rule policy to wield its control. Reversing this strategy, the EAOs, People’s Defense Forces, and National Unity Government, the government in exile are trying to come together to bring an end to the military rule in Myanmar. The 3BA has been instrumental in bringing together these disparate groups of resistance coalition seeking autonomy and a democratic federal structure for Myanmar. Though differences and distrust still exist, the civil war seems to have attained a critical mass to topple the junta regime. But the tremors of the resistance are now deeply felt in India. New Delhi is seriously concerned with the conflict consuming the fragile peace of India’s North East.
Image source: Business Standard
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