A dawn visit to Moreh, Manipur, could yield many surprises. Majority of the local population in this border town are from the Kuki tribe, and most of them are Presbyterian Christians. There are also a few Hindus—mostly Tamilians, Nepalis and Marwaris. Just like the Christians in Moreh, the Hindus, too, have marked Sunday as their preferred day of worship.
Around 5km from the Myanmar border—closed since March 2020, because of the pandemic and the growing tensions in Myanmar—there is a tunnel, which looks like a huge manhole with concrete steps leading inside. A large number of people could be seen stepping out of the tunnel in single file. All of them were from Myanmar. Some have come to India to buy and sell goods, some just wanted to pray in peace, while a few made the cross-border trip to visit their loved ones.
Maw Maw, a young girl from Tamu, a border town in Myanmar, said she had come to India to meet a friend and also to pray. “I am a Christian and I find this place safer,” said Maw, as she disappeared into the tunnel. She was carrying a basketful of stuff purchased from Moreh.
In Maw’s country, there seems to be no end to the turmoil, and it has worsened after the junta overthrew the democratically elected government last February. Myanmar Air Force has bombed targets that are not too far from the Moreh border. Cities are burning and people are dying. Stray bullets sometimes hit houses on the Indian side as well. Most tribes in Moreh, such as the Kukis, Nagas and the Meiteis have relatives in Myanmar and therein lies the challenge for the Indian Army and its oldest paramilitary force, the Assam Rifles, which guards the Myanmar border. Most people on the border consider Indian forces as occupiers and let their kinsmen from Myanmar come and go as they please.
“We can fix the problem in seven days if we get help from the locals. But unlike in Jammu and Kashmir, where border villagers help the Army, here we get no help. At the same time, we cannot be harsh with them as they are Indians,” said a colonel serving with the Assam Rifles. “They even bring arms, drugs and ammunition. We need to punish them, but the state government wants to be lenient with them.”
Local people in Moreh believe that the refugees from Myanmar are worried more about the growing violence in their country than about other concerns such as religious persecution. Ali Hussein, another Tamu resident who came to Moreh through the tunnel, said that neither the Myanmar army nor the People’s Defence Force (PDF, the resistance fighters) stopped him from visiting the mosque. “But we are afraid to go because many have died inside the mosque or while on their way, often caught in the crossfire between the two groups,” he said.
Hussein’s friend Thonnai Sheikh was killed a few weeks ago while cycling to the mosque. “The security forces asked him to stop. He panicked and refused to stop. The soldiers shot him dead,” said Hussein.
The incident sparked huge outrage. PDF activists clashed with the security forces, who retaliated by raiding houses, during which many innocent people were arrested and tortured. The high-handed response persuaded more people to join the PDF. So far, according to Indian estimates, around 10,000 people have died in Myanmar clashes.
Hussein fears that the Indian Army might force him back one day, although the Army said it had no such plans as of now. “At the same time, we would not allow them to stay here for long. They would be convinced to go back. We are in touch with the Myanmar army at different levels,” said an officer of the Army’s Eastern Command.
About two kilometres from the mysterious tunnel is Moreh’s biggest dry fish market. Interestingly, the municipal administration here is dominated by the Kuki Students’ Organisation (KSO). Philip Khongsai, who serves as vice president of the group, said cross-border infiltration was not a major issue. “It will happen because they are our own people. They would come and go. Also, you must understand the issue of human rights. The Indian government and its security forces may turn a blind eye to what is happening [in Myanmar]. But we will not,” he said.
The Moreh fish market is full of people from across the border and they enjoy the support of people like Khongsai. India and Myanmar have a free movement regime (FMR) which allows people from both countries to travel across the border without visas for up to 16km, by submitting their identity documents at border checkpoints. The FMR was frozen when the border was closed on March 5, 2020, but that has not stopped the movement of people.
“There are clear instances of political and ethnic nexus,” said the colonel from the Assam Rifles. “We have only a limited role to play. It is not possible for us to get into every house and find foreigners. Still, we try to fulfil our promise to the nation.” He said the Assam Rifles had convinced a good number of refugees to return.
Meanwhile, China's offensive in Ladakh and along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has forced India to move a huge chunk of its forces from the northeast to those areas. Many of the Eastern Command’s infantry units have been withdrawn from Assam, Manipur and Nagaland and deployed along the LAC.
While it is important to respond to the Chinese aggression along the LAC, there is fear that India might have underestimated the challenge China is posing in the northeast. Of the 46 battalions of the Assam Rifles, only 19 are engaged in border management, while the remaining 27 are fighting 52 insurgent groups in the northeastern states.
With fewer battalions of the Assam Rifles available for manning the borders and because of the lack of adequate police support—there are only 29 police stations along the 1,643km-long India-Myanmar border—the task of maintaining security cover has become difficult.
The scaling down of troops was one of the reasons behind the fatal ambush that killed Colonel Viplav Tripathi, commanding officer of 46 Assam Rifles, his wife, Anuja, their six-year-old son, and four other soldiers on November 12. Terrorists of the People's Liberation Army were behind the attack in Manipur’s Churachandpur district. The lack of troops also played a role in the Army’s botched operation in Nagaland’s Mon district, in which 14 civilians were killed.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah has discussed the situation with the defence ministry, including the possibility of filling up the vacuum caused by the shifting of many of the Army units to the LAC. The Assam Rifles has demanded the raising of ten new battalions, and sources have confirmed that the home ministry is likely to sanction at least five. The paramilitary group, which has been active in the northeast for more than 185 years, is a name trusted by the local people.
Although officers of the Assam Rifles are drawn from the Army, local people could differentiate between the operating styles of the two. With five new battalions in the offing, more Assam Rifles jawans could be made available for the Eastern Command to run its counter-insurgency operations.
While the raising of more battalions is a step in the right direction, the lack of coordination between the state forces and Assam Rifles is a major concern for security planners. More than a month has passed since the death of Colonel Tripathi, but the police are yet to nab the perpetrators or even name all the accused, despite the fact that the PLA had claimed responsibility for the ambush. And now, with the death of the civilians in Nagaland, most of the northeastern states have asked the Centre to repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.
“There is no help from the state government. A uniform command structure is also absent. As a result, insurgent groups camping in Myanmar could come in, operate here, recruit people, launch an offensive and even do drug business,” said the colonel from the Assam Rifles. “One state (Mizoram) even went against the orders of the Union government and opened camps for refugees from Myanmar.”
Chief Minister of Manipur N. Biren Singh conceded that the command structure was missing. “One of the reasons for its absence has been the peace that prevailed in our state because of the Army's Operation Sunrise (a coordinated operation by India and Myanmar, targeting insurgent groups). So, there was some lethargy,” he said. “But we have decided to revive it. I am in talks with Assam Rifles and also officials of the Eastern Command to put that back in place.”
Indian intelligence agencies, meanwhile, are wary of the growing Chinese role in fomenting trouble in the northeast. Sources have confirmed that after the success of Operation Sunrise, China has been desperate to revive the insurgent network in the region. The Chinese strategy is to destabilise the northeast so that the Indian military will be tied up there instead of facing the Chinese challenge on the LAC. China is also keen on developing a trade route to the Bay of Bengal via Myanmar and Bangladesh, while keeping India out.
China is said to be behind sending narcotics and illicit liquor to the northeast from the notorious Golden Triangle (the area where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers), and has been supplying the Myanmar army as well as rebel groups like the PDF to keep the region volatile.
In the Kachin state in Myanmar, where the Kachin Integrated Force (KIF) fights the army, China is financing both. China has also reportedly facilitated the infiltration of Kachin tribals into northeast India. Most of them have entered India carrying drugs and other contraband. “Meanwhile, in southern Myanmar, China finances the PDF to create disturbance in India,” said a colonel with Military Intelligence, under the Indian Army’s 3 Corps. Chinese arms were recovered from the ambush site in Churachandpur.
The colonel from the 3 Corps said China wanted to keep Myanmar unstable and turn it into a hub of anti-India activity like it did in Pakistan. He said China might even have had a hand in the military coup in Myanmar. “It is quite possible after seeing what the Chinese are doing in the aftermath of the fall of the democratic government,” he said.
The flow of drugs into the northeast continues unabated, posing another major challenge. At Moreh, THE WEEK met Haopur Haokip, a reformed drug addict, who now runs a rehabilitation centre supported by the government and Assam Rifles. There are 105 inmates in his centre and most of them are young.
“The numbers are increasing by the day,” Haokip said. “If five inmates are released, ten more would come. I have requested the government to help me construct more buildings and rooms. Even the pandemic did not cause any drop in the numbers. We have no clue how these people get banned drugs from China.”
He said the most popular drug is the ‘World is Yours’ tablet (a combination of methamphetamine and caffeine) coming from China. It is followed by heroin and brown sugar from the Golden Triangle; consignments have found their way into cities like Kolkata, Patna, Bhubaneswar, Bhopal and Lucknow. Marijuana is the third most popular drug.
An internal report of the Army revealed that Colonel Tripathi was successful in cracking down on the drug menace in Mizoram, when he was posted there last year. “His battalion in Aizawl intercepted Chinese drugs worth 080 crore in one month. When he was posted to Churachandpur, he told local people that he would take harsh action against the drug trade. He had to pay a heavy price as villagers who were part of the racket tipped off the PLA, which ambushed him,” said a senior officer of the 3 Corps.
Indians living near the Moreh border, however, still refuse to believe that China poses a threat. “We don’t have a border with China. So where is the threat?” asked Khongsai. “We have relations with Myanmar, which have to be continued. The Indian armed forces and government must understand that.”
The unflinching support of local residents has given confidence to people like Sewa Hangoi, a fish-seller from Myanmar, to open a shop in Moreh. “Our land is burning. People are getting killed every day. Who is going to feed us? It is only India. If India refuses, then we are finished,” said Hangoi. Her husband, Nain, said people were dying without food in Myanmar. “India is silent and so is China. We are caught in the crossfire,” he said. “One of my family members was killed. Would you not have escaped had you been in a situation like this?”
THE WEEK tried to visit the place where people like Sewa and Nain are staying, but Khongsai did not even consider the request. “That is none of your business,” he said. “We are not bothered whether China comes closer to us. But we will never allow you to sneak into our houses unless you accept that what is unfolding in Myanmar is the biggest human rights crisis in the world.”