India came to the unexpected aid of the Myanmar military earlier this week, on the night of November 12, when it allowed 46 soldiers of the Burmese junta to enter neighbouring Mizoram. The Myanmarese soldiers were trying to escape from Chin pro-democracy militias who overran their camps in Myanmar’s Chin state, on the other side of the Mizoram border.
The unusual SOS request from the Myanmarese junta first came to the Indian embassy in Naypidaw, which in turn conveyed the urgency of the request to Delhi.
Soon after, instructions went out from New Delhi to security officials in the North-East to allow the Myanmarese soldiers to enter Mizoram.
The Mizoram state police took charge of the soldiers early Monday morning. One day later, they were airlifted to the Moreh border in Manipur. From Moreh, 39 soldiers were sent across, via the established border crossing point, to Tamu on the Myanmar side. Seven more soldiers were expected to return on Wednesday.
This is perhaps the first time that India has rescued soldiers of another country’s army fleeing the fighting on their own soil. It signals New Delhi’s increasing willingness to collaborate with the military regime in Myanmar in the protection of its own national interest despite the junta’s shaky hold on the country.
Coming on the heels of the Myanmar military’s defeat in the Shan state on the country’s north-east border with China, the incident is a further embarrassment to the junta, which has been struggling to establish its writ since seizing power in a coup in 2021.
It has certainly not been easy. Armed pro-democracy militias, called the People’s Defence Forces (PDF), have taken back large parts of the country from the Myanmar military. The PDF has declared its allegiance to the National Unity Government, which handsomely won the February 2021 election, which was soon after voided by the military.
This is the second time this year that fighting between the junta and pro-democracy forces in Myanmar has spilled over into India. In January, the junta bombed the pro-democracy Chin National Front (CNF) headquarters called Camp Victoria, located on the border with Champhai in Mizoram.
Shrapnel fell into the Tiau river that flows between the two countries forming a natural boundary, and destroyed a vehicle, sending people in the area fleeing.
This time, the fighting claimed one life and injured another person in a Chin refugee camp inside Mizoram close to the border. The camp was hit by shrapnel.
India has felt the impact of the Myanmar military coup in other ways too. More than 40,000 Chin refugees from Myanmar have taken refuge in Mizoram since the February 2021 coup.
This time, the fighting triggered a fresh influx of civilian refugees into Mizoram to save themselves from getting caught in the crossfire.
The latest episode in Indian-Myanmar military collaboration began late Sunday (November 12), when Chin Defence Forces and other pro-democracy groups attacked two military posts in Rehkhawdar town in Chin state to wrest it from the junta. The CDF captured the town.
Rehkhawdar is located opposite Zokhawthar in Mizoram’s Champhai district.
As fighting raged through Sunday night, Zokhawthar, which already hosts some 5,000 Chin refugees, took in another batch of 4,000 civilians. Thousands of civilian refugees crossed the Tiau river and came into Mizoram to escape the fighting, according to Vanlalchanna, chairman of the Myanmar Refugees Relief Committee of Mizoram.
“The two places are very close. Some are staying in camps, some are staying in homes of people they know,” said Vanlalchanna, whose organisation is helping with food rations and other arrangements for the refugees.
According to Indian security sources, the soldiers in Rehkhawdar were completely cut off on the Myanmar side, and had no way of finding their way back to safety. So they got in touch with Indian security forces.
“In our border security management, there is a lot of cooperation and understanding between security forces on both sides. So they felt they could reach out to the Indian side for help,” an Indian security official told Awaaz South Asia.
In Mizoram, where the rescued soldiers spent a night in Zorkhwathar police station, resentment against the Myanmar Army is high. That’s because Chin refugees bring first-hand accounts of aerial bombing and shelling by the Myanmar military, which has also burnt down entire villages.
Speaking from Zorkhawthar, Ramtharnghaka, president of the local chapter of the Young Mizo Association, an NGO that has been actively supporting the refugees, said the people of the area had gathered outside the police station where the soldiers were being kept and had demanded “to see the faces of the soldiers”.
“But the police told them that was not possible, and the people dispersed obediently,” he said.
On Tuesday, two helicopters landed in Hnalan village in Mizoram, picked up the Myanmarese soldiers in two batches each and evacuated them to the Manipuri town of Moreh, from where they were sent back by road across to Tamu in Myanmar.
With the fighting subsiding, for now, some of the civilian refugees have gone back too, said Vanlalchanna.
But there is no telling when India will again be drawn into the arc of Myanmar’s instability. So far India has signalled that it will work with the junta to secure its own interests. India is also keenly aware that Myanmar’s other neighbours, especially China, keep a close watch on developments in the country.
Last month, Deputy National Security Adviser Vikram Misri was in Naypidaw along with representatives from Thailand and China, for the anniversary commemoration of a 2015 ceasefire agreement with ethnic armed organisations.
But the 2021 military coup frayed the ceasefire and it is dead in all but name. The Myanmar military’s attempts to revive this truce and separate the ethnic armed organisations from the People’s Defence Forces have so far failed.
In October 2015, eight ethnic armed groups signed the National Ceasefire Agreement. In February 2018, two more ethnic rebel groups joined the cease-fire brokered by Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government, bringing the total number of signatories to 10.
But three pro-democracy groups that signed the truce agreement are now allied with the PDF, including the Chin National Front, which did not attend last month’s anniversary event.
The Arakkan Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army which also signed the ceasefire are part of the Three Brotherhood Alliance that delivered a crushing blow to the junta in Shan state on China’s border. Myanmar’s military defeat in Chin state on India’s Mizoram border underlines the failure of the ceasefire.
In the face of the Myanmar military’s weakening hold, India may soon have to take a call on whether it can put all its eggs in that basket. Or, whether it should start reaching out more proactively than it has done so far to the National Unity Government.
Nirupama Subramanian is Founder-Editor of AwaazSouthAsia.