The Hindu Profiles | ‘Traffic light’ coalition, Manipur PLA, and Zhang Gaoli

Manipur PLA | Return of the militants

Rahul Karmakar 28 November 2021 00:24 IST
Updated: 28 November 2021 11:57 IST

The outfit which lost ground over the years is trying to make a comeback

An obscure extremist outfit called the Manipur Naga People’s Front made news when it claimed joint responsibility for an ambush on an Assam Rifles convoy on November 13 in Churachandpur district of Manipur, killing seven, including a Colonel, his wife and minor son. But the spotlight was on its older and more lethal partner-in-arms, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of Manipur, which had been in hibernation for more than half a decade.

Ethnic militancy in Manipur, with its roots going to the Naga-inhabited hills, reached the Imphal Valley, dominated by the non-tribal Meitei community, in November 1964 with the birth of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF). A faction of the UNLF led by N. Bisheswar Singh broke away from the mothership to form the PLA on September 25, 1978.

A year later, the PLA floated a political wing called the Revolutionary People’s Front. The PLA claimed to be a trans-tribal organisation and aimed at uniting the Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis — three main ethnic groups of Manipur — for the common goal of “independence”, but it remained essentially a Meitei group, one of the many that are referred to as valley-based insurgent groups (VBIGs).

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While the groups catering to Naga and Kuki-Zomi sentiments have been engaged in peace talks with the Government, the valley-based groups are yet to declare a truce. The PLA, the UNLF and three others — the Kangleipak Communist Party, the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup and the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak — formed a platform called the Coordination Committee (CorCom). This conglomerate carried out some subversive activities, besides helping another umbrella organisation, the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia, kill 18 soldiers in an ambush on the Dogra Rifles in Manipur in 2015.

Among the Imphal Valley-based outfits, which, according to intelligence officials have about 300 members, the PLA is believed to be the strongest in terms of manpower and firepower. However, sustained operations by the armed forces had forced the PLA and other anti-talks extremist groups into the jungles of Myanmar by the mid-2000s. These outfits tried to regroup by forming the CorCom in July 2011 but had limited success beyond odd strikes at armed personnel.

The Myanmar factor

The military coup in Myanmar on February 1 appears to have given them a fresh lease of life. The Myanmar Army, said to have let the Manipur-based groups stay on for payment in cash and kind, began demanding their services in combating the People’s Defence Force (PDF), the armed wing of the National Unity Government that claims to be the legitimate government of Myanmar. About 40 members of the valley groups, including of PLA, are reported to have died in the Myanmar civil war.

The November 13 attack by the PLA has raised alarms about the group’s changing tactics and growing capabilities. One narrative is that the PLA is keen on emerging from the shadow of the CorCom and re-establish itself as one of the strongest insurgent outfits n Manipur, capable of taking on the armed forces without help from other groups. Another one says the outfit wants its “homesick” cadres not to be disillusioned by or pressured into fighting someone else’s war and has turned its focus on its home turf. Some others argue that the PDF, which is fighting the Myanmar Army, could have pushed the PLA towards the Indian border.

Most of the operations of the PLA in the past had been in Chandel and Tengnoupal districts along the Myanmar border. The turmoil in Myanmar is believed to have pushed the PLA further south to Chin State of Myanmar, inhabited by the Chin people related to the Kuki-Zomi people. The Chin people have been the most affected by the conflict in Myanmar and at least 16,000 of them have taken refuge in Mizoram and Manipur.

Churachandpur district, close to Manipur’s border with China State, where the November 13 ambush happened, has been a stronghold of the Kuki-Zomi outfits. That the PLA struck in the area without “clearance” from the Kuki-Zomi groups could point to its desperate attempt to be counted again in a State where it began losing ground a few years ago, armed forces officials said.

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