India needs to start taking the Chin resistance more seriously

Policies formulated more than three decades ago are no longer serving India’s interests in Chin State or the rest of Myanmar

Over the past two and a half years, the political landscape of Chin State has been utterly transformed. Ethnic Chin nationalism has surged in response to the coup of February 2021, with a new generation determined to defend the state and its people from the predations of Myanmar’s military, exercise self-determination, and assert the sovereignty of their homeland.

In April 2021, youth groups founded the Chinland Defence Force (CDF) in parts of the state long associated with the Chin National Front/Army (CNF/A), an ethnic armed organisation formed in 1988 that has acted as a mentor to these younger freedom fighters. Ethnic Chin living in areas just outside of the state in neighbouring Sagaing and Magway regions have also joined the CDF to form the CDF-KKG, based in the Kabaw Valley and Kalay and Gangaw townships. (Sharing a 510km-long border with India, Chin State also has ethnic ties to the Mizo and Kuki people of the northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur.)

Originally acting as local defence teams, the various CDF groups have since come together, under a CNF initiative, to form a coordinating body, the Chinland Joint Defence Committee (CJDC). Holding sway over much of the state outside of its major urban areas, they have also established a bottom-up administration that provides social services such as healthcare, education, and justice.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s military is facing unprecedented losses, both on the battlefield and through defections, all over the country. In Chin State alone, regime forces suffered more than 1,000 casualties in the first year after the coup. In response, the junta has carried out countless airstrikes, indiscriminately killing resistance fighters and civilians alike.

Dr. Vum Suan Thang, Chin State’s regime-appointed chief minister, has acknowledged the many difficulties that his administration is facing. Eight of the state’s nine townships are under martial law. Only in Paletwa, the sole exception, do ward and village administrative offices remain open. But even there, they barely function, as more than two-thirds of the state’s civil servants continue to take part in the Civil Disobedience Movement against military rule.

A CNA member is seen at the group’s first dialogue on women’s affairs at Camp Victoria on May 22, 2022 (Chinland Information Center)

India’s stance on Myanmar

Even as dramatic changes unfold in Chin State and the rest of Myanmar, India continues to pursue policies towards its Southeast Asian neighbour that it formulated more than three decades ago. Since 1992, India’s foreign policy establishment has emphasised the need to counterbalance China’s influence in Myanmar. To this end, it has focussed mainly on building solid ties with the military while remaining silent on its many abuses.

Despite the current regime’s almost daily atrocities, India continues to provide it with military equipment, both directly and indirectly. India has also offered the junta technical assistance with its planned sham election. While it has expressed a broad interest in seeing Myanmar move towards democratic governance and spoken out in support of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ five-point plan to end the post-coup crisis, India has yet to declare any actions that it intends to take to help achieve these goals.

Meanwhile, India has also failed to achieve its own goals in Myanmar, even as it persists in following China’s example in cosying up to the country’s generals. In Chin State, it has been unable to complete bridges and a 109km stretch of highway forming part of its Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project due to political turmoil. This is in large part because the project was undertaken without adequate public consultation or collaboration with local stakeholders. Incidents such as the Arakan Army’s kidnapping of Indian workers in Paletwa also highlight a lack of attention to security issues.

Another major connectivity project that India has undertaken, the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, passes through parts of Chin State and neighbouring Sagaing Region where the CNF/A wields significant influence. If it wishes to restart its stalled projects in Myanmar, the Indian government would do well to safeguard its interests by considering the actual situation on the ground and the role of groups other than the junta.

Members of the CNF/A and CDF meet with community leaders in Thantlang Township, Chin State in March 2022 (Chinland Information Center)

Taking the lead

The CNF/A was the first ethnic armed organisation in Myanmar to back the resistance movement that emerged in the wake of the military’s overthrow of the country’s elected civilian government. It welcomed young people from Sagaing and Magway regions and beyond who were determined to fight back after facing deadly crackdowns on their protests against military rule, providing military training to some 3,000 new revolutionaries at its Camp Victoria headquarters. It also signed an alliance pact with the shadow National Unity Government and its People’s Defence Force (PDF) soon after it was formed to lead the nationwide anti-junta struggle.

Since May 2021, the CNF/A has engaged in more than a thousand clashes with regime forces. Initially regarded by the junta as too lacking in equipment and combat experience to be much of a threat, the Chin armed group has since proven to be a formidable foe. In April of this year, the CNF/A and its CDF allies wiped out an entire convoy of military vehicles near the state capital of Hakha. Despite its relentless airstrikes against the CNF/A and other resistance forces, the regime has clearly failed in its goal of bringing Chin State under its control.

Since the coup, the CNF/A has not only increased the number of military personnel under its command, but also strategically deployed them throughout the state, including border areas. In fact, the group now has effective control over territory along the border that is crucial for India’s interests in Myanmar.

One of the issues that India has engaged with the junta on is Indian insurgent groups operating on Myanmar soil. However, far from curtailing the activities of the Manipur-based Zomi Revolutionary Organisation/Army (ZRO/A), the regime has armed the group and given it free rein in Chin State in exchange for cooperation with its efforts to eradicate resistance forces. Since late 2021, the ZRO/A has carried out multiple attacks, including the assassination of a PDF leader in December of that year, prompting the CJDC to designate it a terrorist organisation.

On border security, India and the CNF/A have common interests. India does not want Myanmar providing sanctuary to groups like the ZRO/A or the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur, which has also joined forces with the junta (and is also notorious for cultivating poppy in Chin State); and the CNF/A, which has clashed with both groups, also does not want them in the state.

Time for change

India has also faced more direct threats from the Myanmar junta, which in January, during an aerial assault on Camp Victoria, dropped two bombs some 10km inside Indian territory. And yet, even as local civil society groups, particularly those in Mizoram, demanded action to safeguard the lives of ordinary citizens, the government in New Delhi remained silent.

That incident and others such as the killing of three Indian nationals in Chin State in March are a serious source of concern for India, as indeed they are for Chin resistance forces. For its part, the CNF/A has fully acknowledged the strain that the conflict in Myanmar has placed on relations with India. In a recent statement, it urged Chin people—many of whom have taken shelter across the border—to refrain from doing anything that might further harm this crucial relationship. With the help of the CNF/A, India has the opportunity to address a number of cross-border issues, including the trafficking of illicit drugs.

India has long based its engagement with Myanmar’s military rulers on the notion that it has to deal with whoever is in charge.   Under the current circumstances, however, it is far from clear how much of the country is still within the military’s grip. In Chin State, the growing strength of the resistance forces belies the regime’s claims that it calls the shots on matters of security. India’s stance on its ties with Myanmar therefore needs to be reconsidered to better reflect this reality.

It is time for India, which has long prided itself on being the world’s most populous democracy, to show its backing for the democratic forces in Myanmar, as it did after the 1988 uprising. Although this position was later abandoned in favour of one based on realpolitik, it is one that can now be adopted again at no cost to India’s national interests.

It is possible for India to secure its border with Myanmar, and to enjoy healthy trade with its neighbour, by working with local stakeholders, especially the CNF/A, to achieve these and other mutually beneficial goals.

By focussing on cross-border humanitarian activities in Chin State and Sagaing Region, India could also build goodwill that will serve it well in the future, when Myanmar has finally won its freedom from military oppression and established a federal democracy with a real prospect for peace and prosperity. While that day may still seem a long way off, India will soon see an improvement in its own position if it finally decides to start distancing itself from the losing side in this struggle.

Salai Van Bawi Mang is an ethnic Chin researcher living in Chin State.

Related Articles

Back to top button