The ripple effect: Myanmar military coup of 2021 and its impact on Manipur and Mizoram

Laithangbam Kumarsanu Singh *

Myanmar’s geopolitical importance stems from its strategic location, rich natural resources, and its role as a crossroad between South and Southeast Asia. The military coup in 2021 significantly impacted the country’s political landscape, drawing India’s attention to the concern of border security in Manipur and Mizoram.

The country gained independence from the British in 1948. From that point on, a civil war erupted between the Myanmar military and the communist party of Burma. 1962 General Ne Win's coup led to a one-party military dictatorship. The year 1988 witnessed a pro-democracy uprising led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

The military responded harshly, resulting in significant loss of life. The State Law and Order Restoration Council emerged from within the military ranks to take control. They ruled with an iron fist, suppressing dissent, imprisoning political opponents, and restricting civil liberties.

The act of military dictatorship led to the emergence of many ethnic armed organisations to fight against tyranny, like the Karen National Union, United Wa State Army, Kachin Independence Army, Shan State Army, Arakan Army, Mon National Liberation Army, etc. It is estimated that there are now at least 21 Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs), along with many militia groups. Much of the heavy fighting between EAO and Government forces has occurred in the country's eastern and northern border areas, such as Karen (also known as Kayin), Kachin, and Shan States.

The Nation transitioned to democracy in 2008 under a new Constitution drafted by the military. The Constitution still granted wide powers to the military, and it maintained its influence by controlling significant parts of the economy. And Nationwide Parliamentary elections were held in 2015. The progress of democratisation was abruptly halted when the Tatmadaw seized power in the February 2021 coup, only three months after Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) achieved a landslide victory in the Parliamentary elections of November 2020.

The military cited widespread election fraud in the November 2020 general elections as the official reason for the coup. The Constitution of 2008 reserved a quarter of Parliamentary seats for the military and granted them key Ministries, giving them significant influence over the civilian Government. The military justified its intervention based on perceived threats to the Constitutional order. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's de facto leader, along with other senior members of the NLD, were detained, and the internet and social media were shut down.

The coup triggered widespread protests across Myanmar, with people from various segments of society expressing their opposition to the military takeover. The Civil Disobedience Movement emerged, with civil servants, healthcare workers, and professionals boycotting their duties. The scale and persistence of the protests reflected deep-seated dissatisfaction with military rule.

In April 2021, ousted NLD Members of Parliament, protest leaders, and activists from several minority groups established a parallel Government known as the National Unity Government (NUG). In September 2021, the NUG declared war on the military junta and formed an armed division known as the People's Defence Force. However, it is an umbrella organisation of the various militias.

The military's actions triggered international condemnation, leading to Myanmar's increased isolation on the global stage. The United States, European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea imposed sanctions on the military junta, targeting key figures and entities associated with the coup. Economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure aimed to influence the military's behaviour and restore civilian Government.

The political instability and international sanctions have taken a toll on Myanmar's economy. Economic activities, including trade and investment, have been disrupted. The decline in financial stability had repercussions for the general population, contributing to challenges related to poverty and unemployment.

The immediate effect of the political turmoil and violence in Myanmar following the February 2021 military coup has led to a significant influx of refugees seeking safety and shelter, particularly in Mizoram and Manipur.

The impact of the military operations was most severe in Chin State, Sagaing, and Kachin, which were home to armed groups resisting the military junta, resulting in significant displacement from these areas. The first wave of refugees started in March 2021. The refugees primarily consist of Parliamentarians, civil servants, anti-coup protestors, teachers, army personnel, and activists. Mizoram was the first State to welcome refugees predominantly from the Chin-Kuki ethnic community of Chin and Sagaing States.

As per the report from UNHCR, an estimated 54,100 people have arrived since the coup in February 2021. As of May 1, 2023, over 40,000 refugees from Myanmar were living in Mizoram, and 8250 were living in Manipur State. For Mizoram the State Government has registered over 30,000 individuals collecting biometrics and accommodating them in around 160 temporary camps.

In Manipur, the State Government initially failed to capture biometrics data, enabling individuals to cross freely through the porous Indo-Myanmar border. This has led to the emergence of small new villages in Kuki inhabited area of Tengnoupal, Churachand-pur and Chandel, with some residents engaging in poppy cultivation to earn easy money for survival.

Many of the refugees have close ties with the Kuki tribe of Manipur, creating a sense of marginalisation among the Meitei community. Meitei community already feels outnumbered by the significant influx of refugees, perceiving them as a threat to socio-political situation of Manipur.

In response, the State Government has initiated measures to identify refugees and send them back to dedicated and fenced shelter homes or camps. These efforts against ‘illegal encroachers’ from Myanmar are interpreted by the Kuki as actions against their own community because they identify the Chin refugees from Myanmar as members of their own tribe.

Tensions have risen between the State Government and Kuki community, leading to one of the causes of the ethnic conflict between Meitei and Kuki on May 3, 2023. This adds to the complexity and volatility of the situation of refugees from Myanmar in Manipur.

According to the UNHCR, since October 27, about 333,500 people have been displaced in Myanmar due to the intensifying conflict between the country's Military Army, Tatmadaw, and the Armed Ethnic Group known as the Three Brotherhood Alliances in the Shan State of Myanmar. The Three Brotherhood Alliance, comprises of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, and the Arakan Army, launched Operation 1027 in the northern Shan State bordering China.

The alliance, with the support of other small groups, has reportedly overrun more than 135 military positions, seized large caches of weapons and ammunition, and taken control of trade routes with China, including Kunlong town near Chin-shwehaw, the site for a proposed rail link with China.

It is reported that at least 50 civillians have been killed and over 100 injured, mostly by junta bombardments and airstrikes, in northern Shan State. The conflict spread near the Indo-Myanmar border, resulting in a fierce armed fight between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups of the Chin and Sagaing Regions.

Following the Myanmar Army's airstrike in Chin State near the Indo-Myanmar border, over 5000 Myanmar Nationals have crossed over to neighboring Mizoram. Around 75 Myanmar army personal who fled resistance attacks on their camps were “rescued” and repatriated by Assam Rifles. Apart from the recent influx of refugees to Mizoram, concerns are growing about a spillover of tensions into border areas of Manipur, which already face an ethnic conflict since May 3rd.

After the February 2021 coup, there is an evident rise in the flow of drugs from Myanmar to India. The political instabilities caused by the conflicts between Tatmadaw and ethnic militias have become conducive for drug cartels in trafficking narcotics through Manipur and Mizoram, spreading across India. The border between India and Myanmar is porous in nature, making the flow of drugs from Myanmar to India feaseable.

The most important route is the one which starts from Mandalay, continues to Monya and Kalewa and then bifurcates to enter India at two points. The first moves northwards, enters Moreh in Manipur through Tamu and travels to Imphal and Kohima via National Highway-39. The second branch moves southwards and enters Champai in Mizoram through Rikhawadar. Moreh, Champai, Dimapur and Guwahati have become hubs for drug trafficking.

However, after the ethnic conflict between the Meitei and Kuki, drug routes have almost changed to Mizoram. The distribution of drugs to India from Myanmar will have direct impact on the internal security of the country. It will challenge human security and social welfare of the North East region.

The porous Indo-Myanmar border has facilitated an increase in the movement of insurgent groups, arms smuggling, and illicit activities after the coup. Insurgent groups from both sides often find safe havens, leading to cross-border security concerns that impact the stability of Manipur. This region has experienced prolonged insurgencies, and the civil war in Myanmar can influence these dynamics.

Insurgent groups operating in the region frequently establish connections with factions in Myanmar seeking refugees, training, and resources. The cross-border nature of these interactions can perpetuate insurgent activities in both countries. The security challenge is also evident in the ongoing conflicts in Manipur. Armed militants from Kuki, based in Chin State, have illegally crossed the porous borders.

They have fueled the ongoing conflicts by supporting Kuki militants in Manipur through the workforce and supplying arms and ammunition. The Indian government had to intensify border surveillance and security measures to prevent the spillover of violence and insurgent activities in Manipur.

Additionally, economic ties between the affected regions were disrupted. The coup and the civil war prompted concerns over trade and economic relations, affecting businesses and livelihoods in Manipur and Mizoram connected to Myanmar. The uncertainty surrounding the political landscape in Myanmar impacted the flow of goods and services, hindering economic activities and development projects of routes like Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit and Transport and India Myanmar Thailand Trilateral Highway projects.

The impact of the 2021 military coup in Myanmar and its ensuing civil war has extended far beyond national borders, leaving an indelible mark on Manipur and Mizoram. The influx of refugees, flow of drugs, strengthening of insurgent activities, political instability and disruption of economic activities in the Border area are some of the issues facing Manipur and Mizoram.

As these States grapple with the socio-economic, cultural, and security implications, a concerted effort from State and Central Governments is crucial to steering the region towards stability and resilience. The unfolding narrative in Manipur and Mizoram is a stark reminder of the interconnectedness of Nations and the need for collaborative efforts to address the challenges posed by geopolitical crises.

* Laithangbam Kumarsanu Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is 2nd year student, Dept. of National Security Studies, Manipur University
This article was webcasted on December 05 2023.

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