The Attack in Manipur May Have Been A Fallout of Unity Talks Between Insurgent Groups from the Northeast

Members of the cadres of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and the People’s Republican Army of Kangleipak–Progressve [PREPAK(P)] after a combined parade at a camp in Myanmar, Sagaing Division in December 2011. Rajeev Bhattacharya
07 June, 2015

In the biggest attack on the Indian army in recent years, armed militants ambushed a convoy on 4 June 2015 in Manipur’s Chandel district, which borders Myanmar. At least 18 soldiers were killed, while 11 were injured. The attack has forced the government to redraw its strategy to contain militancy in the state.

A combined group comprising the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K)—a Myanmar-based insurgent group also active in the northeast of India—the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and a faction of the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), both of which are insurgent groups from Manipur, have claimed responsibility for the attack in a joint press release that was sent on 4 June 2015.

The involvement of the KYKL in the act has raised eyebrows since it has never been a part of any large-scale armed operation since its inception in 1994, when Namoijam Oken, its chairman walked out of the United National Liberation Front—an insurgent group based in Manipur. He went on to form the KYKL with senior functionaries from two other outfits from Manipur. The organisation's focus has always been to rebuild Manipuri society by ridding it of vices such as immoral activities, drug trade and corruption. It has primarily been known for its role in cultural policing in the state.

According to a middle-rung functionary from a rebel outfit in the northeast, the KYKL’s participation in the attack was one of the developments catalysed by a series of meetings in Myanmar between the rebel groups of the northeast in April. These meetings had been held to discuss the formation of the UNLFW, a coalition between the NSCN-K, the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) which is active in North Bengal, along with the anti-talks factions of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), both of which have a presence in Assam.

The objective of the UNLFW, according to a press release that was sent out by the anti-talks faction of ULFA on 4 May 2015, was the “unified and total struggle” for the liberation of “ancestral homes” in the northeast and contiguous Naga areas in Myanmar.  As reported earlier in Vantage, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) of Manipur, which is the largest underground outfit in the northeast, had demanded that its chairman RK Meghen be appointed the chief of the UNLFW. However, since Meghen is currently serving time in jail in Guwahati, the demand was rejected and S S Khaplang—the Myanmar based chief of the NSCN-K — was chosen instead. UNLF retorted by refusing to sign on the document and the rest of the five Manipuri groups followed suit, since they had formed an alliance among themselves called Coordination Committee (Cor Com) in 2010.  They did, however, according to a functionary from a Manipuri outfit who spoke to me, agree to offer “moral support for the time being.”

The hesitation displayed by the Manipuri organisations to be a part of the alliance appears to have rattled the other groups, especially NSCN(K), who are part of UNLFW. The KYKL’s close ties with the NSCN(IM)—the other faction of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland, headed by Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah—which is engaged in a peace process with the Indian government for a negotiated settlement had also been a cause of concern for the newly formed alliance. According to a senior leader from a rebel outfit in the northeast, the KYKL was asked by the Naga leadership to spell out its stand and take a final decision on its ties with the NSCN(IM).

None of the Manipuri groups can afford to lose their bases in Myanmar as they would be left with no place to retain their camps and training facilities. In Myanmar, all the rebel organisations such as the KYKL depend on the protection of the NSCN(K) since it enjoys a cordial equation with the army after  a ceasefire agreement that was signed between NSCN-K and the army in Myanmar on 9 April 2012. But Khaplang’s writ does not run everywhere in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division, and there are a few regions in which some of these Manipuri groups have managed to retain their camps through an understanding with the army. There is a greater presence of the Myanmar government in these regions that are contiguous to Manipur, and if the army were to decide to evict the rebels, it is most likely that the action would begin from these areas while the region in which the NSCN-K is active would remain untouched for some years more.

To counter the NSCN-K’s prevailing mistrust, last month the KYKL agreed to take part in the operation that was executed in Manipur. Subsequently, the UNLFW decided that the ambush should be conducted in an area in which functionaries from the KYKL would be able to pass through without any hindrance. Chandel was chosen as it would allow the KYKL to take advantage of its proximity to other rebel groups—both under and over the ground—that are active in the area. Additionally, it was also known that the UNLF had shifted camps across the border less than a decade ago but still active in the region. In fact, in 2005, the UNLF had taken a group of journalists to its camp along the same route at which the ambush had taken place.

Incidentally, before the camp was relocated, a small part of the district had also been declared a “liberated zone” by the UNLF. It was a place at which even the Indian Army was unable to conduct operations for at least two years. In a sense, Chandel is a channel into the UNLF’s camps and must be kept quiet and peaceful. An ambush in Chandel would serve the purpose of creating pressure on the UNLF as it would lead to the Indian army to increase its deployment and intensify operations in the area. The middle-rung functionary told me that, “It is possible that UNLF would have to depend more on its bases in Khaplang’s region for survival. Then there will be no option but to accept whatever Khaplang and UNLFW says.”

The senior leader added that around ten members of the KYKL led by a captain had arrived at the spot in Chandel as early as 28 May for a quick survey.  They then retreated to a safe location and awaited the arrival of more members of the cadres with weapons. An officer from an intelligence agency told me that the size of the group had increased to more than 40 people by the day of the operation, all of whom were heavily armed.

This may just be the tip of the iceberg. Another official from an intelligence agency engaged in gathering details about the incident, claimed that Khaplang has drawn up long-term plans that included the creation of a regular army in northern Sagaing Division in Myanmar and fixed sources of income. It appears that his goal is to retain autonomy in Myanmar, draw closer to the Myanmar army and remain prepared for any kind of eventuality. To achieve these objectives, it would be crucial for Khaplang to maintain unity amongst the rebel groups without any disagreements.

Rajeev Bhattacharya is a senior journalist in Guwahati and author of Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India's Most Wanted Men.