Insurgents from India add fuel to fire in Myanmar’s restive north
AIZAWL/CHURACHANDPUR, India — Violence is spiraling in northern Myanmar, as ethnic Chin rebels fight not only the country’s military regime but also armed insurgent groups from India.
The situation in Chin, the poorest state in Myanmar, has escalated alarmingly. Raids and airstrikes by the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, have wiped out entire villages. Muddying the picture is the presence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Eastern Command of the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA), both from across the border in India’s Manipur. Some accuse them of collaborating with the Tatmadaw, though the groups deny the allegations.
The friction risks worsening Myanmar’s humanitarian crisis and exposes the complex politics in Chin, where more than 31 ethnic minorities are competing for territory and dominance. It also poses headaches for India.
A veteran of the Chin National Army, the armed wing of the Chin National Front that has been fighting for a federal union for ethnic Chins since 1988, told Nikkei Asia that the resistance has declared “war on the ZRA, PLA and the military.”
Both the ZRA and PLA “need safe havens in Myanmar as well as heavily draw support from the military in their arms and drugs trade,” said the fighter and refugee who wanted to be identified only by the pseudonym Sanga. He lives in the suburbs of India’s Aizawl when he is not on the front lines.
PLA forces, led by ethnic Meiteis native to Manipur, have taken shelter in Myanmar for years. Experts told Nikkei Asia that the Zomis, which have close ethnic ties to the Chins, are a new player, having formed their Eastern Command only last year, though they claim they started back in 2013. Their core leadership is based in Manipur and has been in peace talks with the Indian government.
Similar to the myriad ethnic minorities in Myanmar, these groups want an independent state built on ethnic nationalism. The ZRA imagines a federal state covering all of northeast Chin, where Zomi tribes live, though the group’s leaders are mainly from the Paite tribe, who are greater in number across the border in India’s Manipur and Mizoram states.
While the ZRA has been discreetly helping refugees at the border, the Eastern Command stands accused of aiding the regime forces.
“They [the ZRA] don’t have any camps in Myanmar and have been taking shelter in the military camps,” said Sanga. He said that the PLA and ZRA have also targeted civilian-led people’s defense forces — armed groups resisting the military regime. Both deny the allegations as “propaganda.”
A ZRA cabinet executive, who asked not to be identified, said that the group is not clashing with the Tatmadaw. “But that should not be taken as the ZRA collaborating with the junta against any other insurgent groups,” he told Nikkei Asia.
A PLA spokesperson, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said that there was “some kind of understanding” with the Myanmar authorities, but that this did not mean that they were working for them.
Experts said that Chin State has seen a resurgence of smaller ethnic militias and new groups like the ZRA Eastern Command since Myanmar’s military took over the country. “Some of the [people’s defense force] groups have risen very quickly and they’re getting more and more soldiers who are better armed,” said David Scott Mathieson, an independent analyst who has worked in Myanmar for two decades.
“For this reason, some of the insurgent groups operating in remote areas might have struck a deal with the military because they don’t want to end up competing” with the upstart civilian forces.
The region is home to an ethnic potpourri that makes resolving its conflicts difficult, and complicates efforts to resist the national military regime. The Chin National Army has an agreement with Myanmar’s parallel National Unity Government, formed by elected lawmakers who were ousted in the 2021 takeover. It has been training and arming local people’s defense forces in townships, with the veteran Sanga estimating that collectively they make up about 20,000 troops.
But members of smaller militias like the ZRA and the Chin National Defense Force (CNDF) — the armed wing of a new Chin National Organization led by the Falam ethnic group — say they do not accept the Chin National Army and its parent front as the representative of the “Chin nation.”
“Chin State has no common language,” said a high-ranking official from the CNDF’s Reh camp, near the Indian border. “This is why we can only be represented by a collaboration, not a single outfit.”
Gautam Mukhopadhya, a former Indian ambassador to Myanmar, was not surprised that the military takeover last year fueled intra-regional fighting. “Fraternal conflicts are often sharper than [those between] more central distant authorities,” he said. “I have seen this happen everywhere, as it is happening amongst the Shan parties also,” he added, referring to another war-torn Myanmar state.
Just as they distrust one another, the ethnic groups are wary of the underground National Unity Government and the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) of Nobel laureate Aung San Syu Kyi.
“The NLD was perceived by most ethnic parties to be [ethnically] Bamar, with all its prejudices, sense of superiority and Buddhist majoritarianism,” said Mukhopadhya. “They could have used their popularity to delegate power, even appoint chief ministers from ethnic parties doing well in Arakan or Shan areas. But they always chose NLD appointees.”
The National Unity Government “hasn’t done a very good job of demonstrating they are a government of national unity,” Mathieson agreed. “They are [hamstrung] by the NLD political culture, which is really off-putting to a lot of people who are extremely anti-SAC,” he said, referring to the military government known as the State Administration Council.
The turmoil on its eastern flank is a nuisance for India, meanwhile.
New Delhi has maintained a neutral stance on the Myanmar crisis, only expressing “deep concern” over the developments in the country after the military takeover.
National security concerns are a factor, as it seeks to maintain a relationship with Myanmar’s military brass. In December, India’s foreign secretary met Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the Myanmar regime, to discuss the killing of an Indian military officer along with his family and four other personnel in an ambush by insurgent groups taking shelter in Myanmar, including the PLA who claimed responsibility for the attack.
Prior to the February 2021 power change, the Indian and Myanmar armies reportedly undertook joint operations in the Sagaing region to flush out the PLA and other insurgent groups. In May 2020, the Myanmar army handed over 22 insurgents, including two from the PLA, to India, apparently after prodding by India’s national security adviser, Ajit Doval.
Yet Indian hopes that the Myanmar government can keep the insurgents in check may be misguided, according to analysts. They say Myanmar is incapable of controlling the situation.
“It’s a farce. There’s no such understanding between the Indian Army and the Myanmar military,” said Rameshwar Roy, a retired lieutenant general and defense analyst who has commanded forces in India’s northeastern states. “Myanmar has no capability to affect any of these dynamics in any manner whatsoever on their side of the border.”
Likewise, former Ambassador Mukhopadhya believes alliances between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups are unlikely to be fruitful — for anyone.
“The Tatmadaw’s use of underground groups is a futile attempt to stop the tide of popular opposition to it,” he said. “The groups that play this game out of short-sightedness will also get burnt in the process.”
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G Buffet Fund for Women Journalists.