What prompted militant ambush on security forces in Manipur leaving seven dead
The People's Liberation Army, possibly the best-trained, equipped and second largest among all separatist groups in the region, teamed up with a lesser-known Naga group named Manipur Naga People's Front to execute the latest ambush
The 13 November ambush of security forces that left the Commanding Officer of 46 Assam Rifles, his wife, son and four soldiers dead in Manipur, resembles in some ways the 15 June attack in which 20 soldiers of the Dogra Regiment were killed.
Like the attack seven years prior, it appears the operation in Churachandpur area of the northeastern state had been planned days in advance with the escape route to Myanmar through the hills also having been mapped out.
The People's Liberation Army (PLA), possibly the best-trained, equipped and second largest among all separatist groups in the region, teamed up with a lesser-known Naga group named Manipur Naga People's Front (MPNF) to execute the latest ambush.
The area where the ambush was staged is inhabited by tribal communities among which the PLA, which is dominated by the Meiteis from Manipur's Imphal Valley, is unlikely to have a large support base.
In 2015, the trigger for the June attack came from internal politics in militant camps in Myanmar and a rebel leader's compulsion to demonstrate before his Chinese handlers that he had the capacity to inflict damage on Indian security forces.
Was there a trigger for the latest ambush? Different theories are doing the rounds among security agencies and a section of so-called overground rebels, some of whom say Col Viplav Tripathi, the commanding officer of 46 Assam Rifles, had been hyperactive in managing the porous India-Myanmar border, unlike some predecessors.
His convoy came under attack when he was returning to the Khuga headquarters of 46 Assam Rifles after inspecting the Behiang Company post. Rebel groups active in the zone may have grown jittery with Tripathi's policies, which could have hindered the movement of men and material across the border.
There have been occasions in the past when commanding officers in charge of the border zones had reportedly arrived at an understanding with these groups not to disturb or confront each other. Such informal agreements were common in many regions across the northeast gripped by militancy.
It is also difficult to overlook the fact that these separatist outfits are now feeling more secure in Myanmar.
In 2015, the Indian army carried out two cross-border strikes on some temporary camps of the rebels after the ambush on the Doghra Regiment convoy.
Myanmar military role
The Myanmar government denounced the operation, which prompted National Security Adviser Ajit Doval to rush to Naypyidaw for damage control. Since then, Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) has demolished most rebel establishments in the Naga-inhabited zone in north Sagaing Division after a deal was firmed up following the visit of Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing to India in 2018.
Currently, the Meitei groups do not have any camps in the Naga zone but their camps in the southern region opposite Manipur and presence in other locations of Myanmar are still intact.
There is widespread speculation among some sections of the media in Myanmar that Tatmadaw has made use of these rebel groups against local militia or People's Defence Force (PDF) that has raised the banner of revolt against the military regime.
In particular, the rebels are believed to have been engaged in the army's offensive against the strongholds of the PDF in Sagaing Division and Chin State bordering India.
Tatmadaw and these groups may have developed a symbiotic relationship that could continue as long as the military regime survives, so cross-border strikes again on the rebel camps and training facilities may only embitter ties between the two countries.
The situation in Myanmar has undergone a drastic change after the coup in February. The military regime is tilting more towards China and India is certainly on the backfoot with a question mark over its ambitious initiatives such as the Act East Policy and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project.
Certainly, China would not like India to have a dominant presence in Myanmar given its long-term plans that include an outlet to the Indian Ocean.
So disturbances along the India-Myanmar border and a souring of ties between the two neighbours would be to China's liking. Beijing is adept in remote controlling groups and movements because its policies are pursued and implemented at different levels by the government, military and the ruling Communist party.
Rajeev Bhattacharya is a Guwahati-based senior journalist. Views are personal.
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