September 25, 2020
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The North-Eastern Neighbourhood

The army moved to the Myanmar border under cover for Indian elections, but an anticipated Bhutan-type operation against insurgents doesn't seem to be in the offing. The reason? Myanmar's military junta.

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The North-Eastern Neighbourhood

Amidst the din of the preparation for the recently concluded Parliamentary elections, a quite development was taking place in the Sajik Tampak area of Chandel district, bordering Myanmar, in Manipur. This stretch of territory had come to be locally referred to as a "liberated zone" for various underground organizations, most prominently the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), the Revolutionary People's Front (RPF) and the People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK). A year ago, militant morale was at an all time high when they successfully repelled a frontal assault by a large column of the Border Security Force (BSF) at Sajik Tampak.

Under cover of the preparations for elections, long convoys of fresh Army troops arrived in April-May 2004, and headed straight for Sajik Tampak, raising intense speculations that a military operation was imminent. The official explanation of the troop movement was 'election security', and this line was maintained for a long time, even after it became known that an encounter, with casualties in the Army, had taken place. 

Four soldiers, including an officer of the 7 Sikh Light Regiment, who were among the first troops to move into the Sajik Tampak, were killed in an ambush by cadres of the People's Liberation Army (PLA)/RPF, but the Army tried to keep even this information a secret, neither denying nor confirming reports on the incident. No First Information Report (FIR) regarding the deaths was lodged with the police. The postmortem was carried out at a civil hospital under close guard against the media glare late in the evening, and it was only after a week that the Army finally confirmed the fatalities.

In the meanwhile, a brigade (44th Mountain Brigade) had been deployed in the area. Over the succeeding days, though no major operations were conducted, the militants were pushed further into the interiors and area domination by the Army was complete. There have been no further casualties on either side, but the standoff so far has not been without a price. Many villagers from the total of 21 Kuki and Zou villages in the area have fled for fear of being caught in the crossfire. The Army has also restricted their movements, controlled their ration purchases so that none is passed on to the underground cadres, and some school buildings have also been converted into barracks, making many human rights organizations cry foul.

Contrary to wide media speculations, there is still no sign that there will be any large-scale military operations in the Sajik Tampak area. The Army brigade for the moment seems satisfied simply squatting at three strategic locations, a battalion each at Sugnu and Chakpikarong in the vicinity of Sajik Tampak and the third at Sajik Tampak itself, with field guns positioned towards possible insurgent concentrations. Villagers reported consistent pounding in the initial days of the Army's arrival, but today this has stopped and has subsequently been replaced by military public relations exercises, such as free medical camps for the villagers, and organizing periodic conducted tours for media personnel, national and local.

The Army's reluctance to go ahead with a flush-out operation seems to be on account of two factors. One, it lost the element of surprise that it obviously was looking for when it entered the area on the pretext of election security. Two, without active cooperation from Myanmar, it would be futile to chase the militants, who have in any case by now already either dispersed or receded deeper towards the porous international border. Unlike the Army, the militants can easily slip in and out of Myanmar, making it practically impossible to corner them. The much-needed cooperation from Myanmar's military junta has either not been forthcoming, or, perhaps, the Indian Government is reluctant to be seen as too close to the military Government, and this is stalling the process.

The pressure to remain aloof from the Myanmar military regime would be significant in view of the fact that the Western powers, particularly the European Union, openly align themselves with the pro-democracy leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. The Straffan summit in Ireland, where terms for cooperation between the EU and ASEAN, Japan, South Korea and China, were being thrashed out at about the time the military buildup was taking place in and around Sajik Tampak, made this adequately clear. Should the international community manage to force a democratic election in Myanmar, the overwhelming chances are, the military junta's opponent, Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, NLD, would come to power.

The long-term implications of a possible geopolitical shift in the region are too large to be summarized here, but its most immediate outcome may just be what has been witnessed at Sajik Tampak. Much as New Delhi may want a Bhutan-type operation there, it has been forced to rethink. If a regime change becomes imminent in Myanmar, it may not be prudent foreign policy to be seen to befriend the military junta too much.

For the moment, the Government will have to rest content with tackling the insurgents on its own. The strategy seems to be for the military to occupy the erstwhile militant stronghold, forcing them to disperse, and then catch them where they are most vulnerable. It is hardly likely to be a coincidence that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act was extended for another year, not long after the Army moved into the Sajik Tampak area. There has also been a sudden spurt in controversial arrests by the Army under the Act, as well as the killing of militant suspects all over the Valley districts, allegedly in encounters and attempted escapes.

For many in insurgency-torn Manipur today, normal day-to-day life has, indeed, been reduced to a multiple nightmare.

Pradip Phanjoubam is Editor, Imphal Free Press. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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