A deadly ambush near the Myanmar border in Manipur that killed five soldiers including a colonel, his wife, and their eight-year-old son on Saturday has brought China’s possible support to insurgencies in India’s Northeast back in focus, and the neighbour may be plotting to foment trouble in the region amid border tensions, China watchers and security officials said on Sunday.
This is not the first time that Chinese links with insurgent groups have come under scrutiny. Questions about Beijing’s involvement have been raised previously too including in October 2020 when China’s propaganda machinery warned India against a trade pact with Taiwan saying Beijing could retaliate by supporting Northeast separatists and stop recognising Sikkim as a part of India.
“The possibility of China fuelling insurgency in the Northeast exists. Insurgent outfits in the Northeast, including Manipur, have links with armed groups such as Arakan Army and United Wa State Army in Myanmar from where Chinese weapons are finding their way into the Northeast,” a senior official said.
China has also provided safe havens to insurgent leaders including United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) commander Paresh Baruah and National Socialist Council of Nagaland (IM)’s Phunting Shimrang who live in Ruili in Yunnan Province across the Myanmar border with China, said another official.
Armed militants ambushed an Assam Rifles convoy in Manipur’s Churachandpur district on Saturday when the commanding officer of the 46 Assam Rifles, Colonel Viplav Tripathi, and his quick reaction team (QRT) were returning from the Behiang border post and heading to the battalion headquarters at Khuga.
The Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF), a group under which the People’s Liberation Army Manipur operates, jointly claimed responsibility for the ambush along with the Manipur Naga People’s Front but said it wasn’t aware of the presence of family members in the convoy.
China may have re-established its links with PLA Manipur and other like-minded groups in the backdrop of the situation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), said Lieutenant General Shokin Chauhan (retd), who headed the Assam Rifles in 2017-18. “This may have been done to unleash mayhem in the Northeast and tie down the security forces,” he said.
The attackers first triggered an improvised explosive device (IED) and then brought the Assam Rifles personnel under heavy fire to inflict maximum casualties, bringing back memories of the June 2015 Chandel ambush in the state in which a Dogra battalion of the Indian Army lost 18 men.
The latest ambush came at a time when the security situation in the Northeast had improved significantly in the army’s assessment, and a planned and gradual drawdown of soldiers is underway there.
China may not have previously interfered directly but things could change amid tensions at the LAC as insurgent groups in the Northeast have Chinese links, said former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd), who commanded the Leimakhong-headquartered 57 Mountain Division in Manipur in 2009-10.
India and China have hardened their positions on LAC in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh going by increased military activities on both sides of the boundary, infrastructure development, surveillance and combat manoeuvres by their armies. The two sides have been locked in a border row for more than 18 months.
Given the situation on LAC, there is a possibility of China making attempts to wage a different form of warfare in the Northeast to put pressure on India, said Lieutenant General Konsam Himalay Singh, who retired in 2017 and is the first army officer from the Northeast to reach the three-star rank.
“Insurgent groups have access to Chinese-made weapons and some self-styled commanders are living in China. But the exact scale of Chinese support to these groups is hard to establish,” said a top official who specialises in security dynamics of the Northeast.
The Chinese link with Northeastern groups was raised by Indian national security advisor Shivshankar Menon with state councillor Dai Bingguo at the 15th India-China Special Representative talks almost a decade ago. Dai denied the Chinese involvement and instead accused India of training and funding Tibetan insurgents against China.
The latest attack is also an attempt by insurgents to re-establish their relevance at a time when violent incidents have come down, officials said. Security forces have launched a massive manhunt for the insurgents who carried out the ambush but they may have slipped across the border into Myanmar.
The aftershocks of the hit were felt in New Delhi, with the government vowing swift action against the insurgents on Saturday.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the attack and said the sacrifice of the soldiers and the family members will never be forgotten. Defence minister Rajnath Singh said the perpetrators of the attack would be brought to justice swiftly.