Sovereignty-seeking extremist groups specific to Manipur’s Imphal Valley are fighting the Myanmar army’s war against forces of its own civilians. A few have paid with their lives.
Manipur has seven active outfits the security forces call VBIGs, which expands to valley-based insurgent groups primarily comprising the Meitei community. The newest of these is the Pambei faction of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), the oldest VBIG formed in November 1964.
Social media reportage by an independent but underground pro-democracy newsgroup in Myanmar had on May 12 said the Tamu Public Defence Force (TPDF), a militia of civilians, killed 15 soldiers of the Myanmar Military Council in a two-day battle in Tamu town and Pan Thar village.
Tamu, in Myanmar’s Kabaw Valley, is about seven km from Manipur’s border town Moreh.
The piece of news also said four of the 15 killed were Kathe, the Burmese term for Meitei, the dominant community in Manipur’s Imphal Valley. There is a sizeable Meitei population in Kabaw Valley.
“The Kathe people had joined the Military Council,” the report said.
Indian intelligence agencies dived into this information and found the four were members of either one of the seven VBIGs or from at least two.
The VBIGs are UNLF (Pambei), UNLF (Koirang), People’s Liberation Army, People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak, PREPAK (Progressive), Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup and Kangleipak Communist Party.
The Pambei faction was formed in February after the UNLF expelled its former chairman Khundongbam Pambei.
Groups under pressure
“These groups together have 700-800 members. While they continue to carry out extortion in Manipur, they are mostly based in Myanmar. But maintaining camps there comes at a cost; each pays a hefty sum in US dollars to the junta,” a security force official currently based along the Myanmar border said.
Informants across the border have also revealed that each of the VBIGs has been under pressure from the junta to provide at least 30 members as extra hands for the internal conflict. These recruits reportedly operate in Myanmar army uniform.
On May 24, Myanmar military officials had a meeting with 14 top leaders of the VBIGs apparently to work on strategies against the armed pro-democracy activists.
“The VBIGs have been caught in two minds — whether to fight with the junta or stay aloof since they also need local support to survive. Uncorroborated reports said at least four conscripted VBIG members fled one of the military camps across the border,” the official said.
One of the reasons is said to be the Burma unit of Kuki National Organisation (KNO) helping the Myanmar civilians in the fight against the junta. Comprising several communities, the Kukis live on either side of Manipur’s border with Myanmar.
The Kuki and the related Zomi ethnic group have 25 extremist groups in Manipur that are split into two broader organisations — the KNO and the United People’s Front. All these groups have declared suspension of operations against the Indian armed forces.
The two-day battle between the TPDF and the Military Council happened less than a fortnight after the KNO (Burma) wrote to the country’s Ministry of Defence anticipating “efforts to restore democracy” for statehood to be granted to the Kuki people along with the Wa, Palaung, Lahu and Poah people. The organisation's president Letlam identified the Kuki homeland as the area bounded by the Nathalit and Chindwin rivers, and the borders with Chin State and India.
It has now transpired that armed constituents of the KNO (Burma) killed the four VBIG members in the battle in Tamu town and Pan Thar village.