South Asia

Why the Myanmar Junta Bombed the Chin National Front Headquarters and Why Delhi Should Care

There is no sense in sacrificing the wellbeing of Indian citizens at the altar of doing business with a rogue military regime next door.

On January 11-12, jets belonging to the Myanmar military, which snatched power from the elected civilian government by force in a February 2021 coup, conducted two bombing raids of Camp Victoria, the headquarters of the Chin National Front (CNF), located right across the India-Myanmar border in western Chin State.

According to a statement released on January 12 by the National Unity Government (NUG), the civilian government of Myanmar established in parallel to the coup regime, “two Chin women and three revolutionaries” were killed on the first day of the air attacks.

According to the Chin Human Rights Organisation (CHRO), the jets destroyed the main hospital inside the camp using two precision-guided bombs the following day.

The CHRO, which works on human rights and mass atrocity-related issues in Chin State, also said in a tweet that the Burmese jets “may have” crossed into Indian airspace during the bombing raids, as per “witnesses”.

Locals from Farkawn, a town in Mizoram’s Champhai district, located about 10 kms from the international border, told The Guardian that two bombs fell on the Indian side of the border. One video circulating on Twitter, allegedly filmed by a Mizo local from an elevation, shows smoke emanating from a valley down below, where the Tiau river forms the naturally demarcated border between India and Myanmar. Towards the end, the thundering boom of a payload landing somewhere close by is heard. The footage, however, doesn’t quite make it clear where the bomb landed. 

Another video shows a Mizoram-registered truck with a shattered windscreen, as its owner (not visible in the footage) narrates how the bombs exploded when it was parked on the Indian side near the Tiau river.

The Tuipuiral Group of the Young Mizo Association (TGYMA), a local chapter of the influential Mizo civil society organisation, corroborated the same in a statement released on January 12, noting that “a bomb not just hit Indian soil but also partly damaged an Indian vehicle which was near the Tiau River.” Interestingly (and disturbingly), the statement also said that fighter jets from Myanmar had flown into Indian airspace “several times” in the past two months. 

So far, the Indian government had not issued any official statement on the incident. However, one senior official from the Assam Rifles (AR), which guards the India-Myanmar border, flatly dismissed these claims in a statement to the media. The Champhai district administration has also produced a report after separately investigating the claims, but it remains out of public view for now.

Why was Camp Victoria bombed?

To those closely following the armed conflict in Myanmar, the bombing of the CNF headquarters, which is also the base of its armed wing, the Chin National Army (CNA), should not come as a surprise. 

The CNF, formed in 1988, is a powerful Ethnic Armed Organisation (EAO) in Myanmar that espouses for greater political autonomy for the Chin people within the rubric of a federal democratic union. After engaging in armed combat with the military for more than two decades, the CNF signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement with the quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein in 2012. Three years later, it signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) alongside seven other EAOs. Camp Victoria was a product of these multi-layered ceasefire regimes, which allowed for mutually-agreed upon areas of troop deployment and basing. 

However, things changed dramatically after the February 2021 coup.

The CNF effectively terminated its ceasefire status, pulled out of the NCA, and dived straight into the armed resistance against the new military regime. It was one of the first EAOs to openly rally against the coup regime, unlike several others in the north and east who chose to remain neutral. So far, it has doggedly refused to participate in talks with the junta despite repeated offers by the Commander-in-Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, to various EAOs to negotiate. It is also coordinating national-level combat strategies against the military in close cooperation with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Karen National Union (KNU) and the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP).  

Also read: No Evidence of Myanmar Artillery Hitting Mizoram: State Government

But, not just that, the CNF has also been training and providing command-and-control support to other local Chin militias, known as Chinland Defence Forces (CDF), that organically mushroomed across the state in the months following the coup. In fact, it is Camp Victoria that emerged as the primary training ground for the various CDFs. Last September, CNF vice-chairman, Dr Suikhar, told me that the camp had expanded significantly after the coup. They were training some 1000-1200 CDF members there, while also supporting villagers who lived nearby.

Just months after the coup, along with various CDFs, the CNF created an umbrella body known as the Chinland Joint Defence Committee (CDJC) to institutionalise politico-security coordination. The CJDC works closely with the NUG, which offers national-level political and strategic guidance. Suikhar told me, with much conviction, that the CJDC had control over more than 80-90% of the territory in Chin State, and that the military was restricted to only certain urban centres. He also told me that the CJDC had started running local administrations in some of the “liberated areas”, imparting policing, judicial, educational, health and humanitarian services to the people there. 

It is indeed the case that the military, since the coup, has faced some of the fiercest armed resistance from the Chin hills. The CDFs, many of them trained by the more experienced CNF, have taken full advantage of the terrain to outmanoeuvre the military by routinely ambushing supply convoys along the hilly tracts and in the process, inflicting heavy personnel and material damage. Confirmed casualty figures are hard to come by, but the CDJC claims to have killed some 1,000 junta troops in 2021 (since February 1) and 1,124 in the January-July 2022 period. As Suikhar told me last year, even airpower is not very effective in a hilly and forested region like Chin State. 

Thus, it is hardly shocking that the headquarters of this influential Chin EAO came under a frontal air attack by the junta, especially since the remoteness of the terrain automatically deters infantry-based offensives. In fact, in November, the CHRO publicly released leaked intelligence about the junta’s plan to strike Camp Victoria from the air. The intel specifically identified a set of targets within the camp for bombing, including the hospital that was struck on January 12. This was an attack that many within the CNF had foreseen. 

Also read | Ground Report: Myanmar Refugees in Mizoram Camps Are a Picture of Resilience

Will India respond?

The Narendra Modi government has remained silent on the allegations of junta jets breaching Indian airspace and bombing Indian territory despite influential Mizo civil society organisations calling on it to “safeguard the sovereignty of India.” As per reporting by Scroll.in’s Rokibuz Zaman, villagers from Farkawn have “angrily contested” the claim of the Assam Rifles official who said that no bombs were dropped on Indian soil. The TGYMA even supplied an unverified photo to Scroll.in that shows Assam Rifles troopers surveying what looks like a small crater created by an explosive on a dirt track.

New Delhi likely sees the uproar as something that is heavily localised and can be strategically managed. This is also because the immediate areas around the stretch of the border next to Camp Victoria are remote, thickly forested and largely devoid of large-scale human habitation. Even the Assam Rifles maintains no more than a light footprint in these areas. Such conditions give all parties involved a certain degree of deniability as far as stray, cross-border aerial bombings are concerned.

But, even if the allegations were true, New Delhi is unlikely to come down heavily on the Myanmar military. Both sides have, over the years, developed a particularly intimate relationship that neither wants to disturb over a single incident.

In 2015, when top ministers from the Modi government claimed that Indian Special Forces had entered Burmese territory to destroy anti-India militant camps, only Zaw Htay, then director in the President’s office of the Aung San Suu Kyi government, had expressed his dissatisfaction. The Myanmar military remained silent, at least in public. According to sources of the Indian media, even the quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein that was in power during the so-called cross-border “hot pursuit operation” by the Indian army didn’t create a fuss just to maintain good relations with India.

This mutual understanding of each other’s strategic imperatives is deeply embedded in a 30-year long history of New Delhi believing that the Myanmar military can keep its volatile Northeastern borders secure and stable, and the Burmese Generals craving legitimacy from New Delhi. In fact, since the Modi government came to power in 2014, the Indian defence and security establishment has gone out of its way to get cosy with the Myanmar military, even as the country slowly moved towards civilian rule.

They initiated collaborative kinetic engagements against non-state armed groups on both sides of the border to build confidence and interoperability, such as through joint counterinsurgency operations and quid pro quo military campaigns. Sale of Indian military hardware was another key pivot for India’s outreach to the Myanmar military. 

Such close security-centric engagements created a certain path dependency in New Delhi of reflexively relying on the Myanmar military, not its civilian quarters, to do diplomacy with Myanmar. We see this path dependency rearing its head once again after the February 2021 coup. After months of dithering, New Delhi spent a large part of 2022 moving close to the military regime next door. In November, Indian foreign secretary, Vinay Mohan Kwatra, made a working visit to Nay Pyi Taw to meet the who’s who of the junta.

As I had argued in a piece for The Irrawaddy then, the visit made it clear that New Delhi is now committed to resuming its development projects in Myanmar, rather than paying even lip service to principles of democracy or human rights. It is also now more confident than before of publicly engaging with the junta. 

Thus, an air raid by the Myanmar military against one of its own armed groups would not spoil anyone’s sleep in New Delhi. But, the bombing of Indian territory by the junta’s jets should, that too for more than one reason.

Why Delhi should care

For the locals in Mizoram, especially those living in towns and villages close to the border, even the grim possibility of Burmese jets breaching the skies above them is a cause for sleepless nights. This is something that the Modi government should recognise, and recognise without delay. There is no sense in sacrificing the wellbeing of Indian citizens at the altar of doing business with a rogue military regime next door.

In any case, it is border states like Mizoram that bear the consequences of a direct spillover of the conflict in Myanmar. Since the coup, the small, cash-strapped state has already received more than 30,000 refugees from mostly Chin State, but support from Delhi has been few and far between. This continues to fuel a sense of disenchantment towards the Modi government within state government and local civil society circles. By ignoring the concerns of the Mizo people around the Burmese junta’s reckless conduct along the border, the Modi government risks further alienating Mizoram.

For Delhi, the CNF too is an important border actor. It controls large swathes of territory in Chin State, including in the south where a pivotal nodal point of the India-funded Kaladan project is located. The CNF has, in the past, also demonstrated its ability to act in India’s interests by targeting Manipuri insurgents with bases inside Myanmar. Thus, it can serve as that critical buffer, which India needs in order to retain stability along its Northeastern borders and keep Chinese-backed elements at bay. But, looking away while the junta bombs the CNF headquarter right across the border isn’t the best way to make sure the powerful Chin group remains on its side. 

Delhi would also do well to recall how the Suu Kyi government responded when Indian paratroopers allegedly crossed over into Burmese territory during a counterinsurgency operation in 2015. The President’s office had clearly told the Indian media that they will “not allow any foreign military operations in Myanmar territory” and sternly reminded India that “every country must respect the other country’s sovereignty.” 

Yet, given New Delhi’s predilection to stick by the standard rules of the game, it is likely to stay silent and let the dust settle. Last July, the Thai government, which has warm ties with the Myanmar military, made the junta apologise when the latter’s jets crossed into Thai airspace during a bombing raid in Karen State. However, it did so while downplaying the incident. New Delhi might do the same if it does respond in the coming days. But, for Mizoram, that might not be enough and rightly so.

Angshuman Choudhury is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.