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IDSA COMMENT

The Ambush in Manipur: New Dimensions to Militant Violence in the Northeast

June 11, 2015

On June 4, insurgents ambushed and killed 18 personnel of 6 Dogra Regiment who were on a Road Opening Patrol (ROP) on the Tengnoupal-New Samtal Road. Three insurgent groups – the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang [NSCN (K)], the Kangleipak Communist Party [KCP] and Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup [KYKL] – claimed responsibility for the attack. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) confirmed the involvement of the NSCN (K), especially that of its self-styled chairman Khaplang Pangmi of Myanmar, General Secretary Kughalu Molatonu from Nagaland, and Information Secretary Alezo Chakesang of Nagaland, amongst others. Thereupon, on June 9, Indian security forces launched an operation against the known bases of the NSCN (K) in particular ‘across the India-Myanmar border. This, an ongoing operation as of now, has resulted in the killing of 22 insurgents. Among those who may have been killed are self-styled finance minister of the NSCN (K), Starson Lamkang, who was involved in the June 4 attacks as well as cadres of Meitei insurgent groups.

A key question is whether the June 4 ambush by the NSCN (K) could have been predicted and thereby averted. If one were to go by the actions of the NSCN (K) in recent months, it seems clear that the armed group must have been planning such an attack. In March, the group had unilaterally abrogated its cease-fire with the Government of India and had threatened to escalate attacks on security forces. In April, it followed up on this threat and attacked a convoy of the 4 Rajput Regiment in Tirap district of Arunachal Pradesh, killing three Army personnel and injuring four. On June 7, just a few days after the June 4 ambush, suspected NSCN (K) insurgents targeted the 1 Assam Rifles camp at Lazu, in Tirap district of Arunachal Pradesh. There were no casualties in this attack.

What is, however, new and perhaps could not have been predicted is the NSCN (K)’s presence and use of violence in Manipur, an area in which it has traditionally not made its presence felt. Usually, armed outfits like the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) operate in areas that are inhabited by their respective ethnic communities. For example, rarely would one hear of ULFA activities in Nagaland or NSCN (IM) actively establishing a presence in Sibsagar or Jorhat districts of Assam.

This new trend of operating outside of traditional areas could be linked to the CorCom (Coordination Committee), an umbrella organization of six insurgent groups in Manipur – KCP and KYKL (both of which have claimed responsibility for the June 4 attack), People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), Revolutionary People's Front (RPF), United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and United Peoples Party of Kangleipak (UPPK). CorCom outfits have established base areas and training camps in Myanmar’s Naga Self-Administered Zone where the NSCN (K) has been granted administrative autonomy by the Myanmar government and allowed to remain fully armed. At the same time, the NSCN (K) has been losing ground in Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, its traditional operating areas, after an internal split in March when two of its senior India-based leaders, Y. Wangtin Naga and P. Tikhak were expelled from the outfit and went on to form the NSCN (Reformation). The NSCN (Reformation) now claims to represent Konyaks in Nagaland, who were earlier represented by the Myanmar-based Khaplang. Hence, it is realistic to assume that Khaplang has negotiated for an operating space in Manipur with the Manipur insurgent outfits within the framework of CorCom, in exchange for base areas in Myanmar. His purpose in doing so is to carry out attacks and to continue to demonstrate his group’s visibility and influence in Northeast India.

That said, there is another dimension to this issue that needs emphasis. There have been reports about Indian intelligence carrying out successful telephone intercepts between Chinese PLA officers and Khaplang. Indeed, a former PLA colonel, Muk Yan Pau Huang, had actively helped arm the NSCN (K) and is also credited with helping Khaplang clinch the cease-fire with the Myanmar government in April 2012. A former member of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), Huang enjoys considerable influence in Northeast Burma close to the Chinese border and with the Myanmar government.

This further reinforces the most significant long term connection that northeast insurgents have enjoyed, that with the United Wa State Army (UWSA) which is closely aligned with China. UWSA is the largest source of weapons for Northeast insurgents including the NSCN (K). UWSA is the military wing of the United Wa State Party (UWSP) founded in 1989 with members of Wa National Council (WNC), which represent the Wa ethnic group as well as former members of the CPB. UWSA declared its own Wa State Government Special Administrative Region within Myanmar on January 1, 2009, but this has obviously not been recognized by the Government of Myanmar. Wa territories are completely under the Chinese radar. Because of the absence of a written script, the Wa State government conducts its official activities in Chinese. Most commodities in Wa State are from China and the currency of exchange is the Renminbi. The Chinese Phoenix TV is very popular and the cellular phone network is dominated by China Mobile. Even Chinese postal codes are used for mail delivery in Wa areas. For China, its linkage with the UWSA is a strategic priority, even more so than its relationship with the Myanmar government which is gradually democratizing and opening up the country.1 The arms manufacturing unit in the Wa territories is supported by Chinese factories in Yunnan. A majority of the weapons manufactured in this unit are machine guns, pistols, rifles and revolvers. The fact that some UWSA members were earlier members of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) reinforces the connection with China.

Figure I: UWSA Territories and Arms Network

Source: Namrata Goswami, IDSA, 2013.

Breaking these covert Chinese connections with insurgent groups like the UWSA with the help of Myanmar is a priority for long term stability in the Northeast. In counter-insurgency, along with strengthening of governance, breaking the insurgent sources of weapons is also critical. Besides, intelligence on the Moreh-Imphal route, especially near Tengnoupal which is infested by armed groups, should include clear profiles of the insurgent groups, not only of those permanently based in that area like the Kuki National Army (KNA) but also those that transit regularly. This is critical for security as this route falls within the rubric of the Asian Highway. Finally, while the ongoing Indian military operations sends a firm message to insurgent groups that Myanmar does not offer a safe haven, India needs to be prepared for insurgent counter-attacks in the coming weeks and months.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India