North East

Ground Report From Moreh: The Lawless Border Town Where Kuki-Chin Militants From Myanmar Call The Shots

Jaideep Mazumdar

Aug 18, 2023, 10:56 AM | Updated Sep 08, 2023, 08:44 PM IST

Kuki men blocking a road to impede movement of security forces in Moreh town.
Kuki men blocking a road to impede movement of security forces in Moreh town.
  • A pall of gloom and fear has descended on Moreh, once a bustling town, with Kuki-Chin militants unleashing terror and causing grave concern within the Indian security forces.
  • This small border town was, till three and half months ago, bustling with activity. 

    Traders from both India and Myanmar haggling over the prices of their merchandise, their loud voices drowned by a cacophony of vehicles disgorging tourists and goods before being overloaded with a wide assortment of garments, utensils and plastic items from Myanmar while customs officials and Assam Rifles personnel kept a hawk eye on all proceedings: these were all part of normal life in Moreh.

    All that changed on 3 and 4 May when Kuki militants attacked Meitei traders and their business establishments as well as the 1,000-odd Meitei households in the town with a population of a little over 23,000. 

    Moreh now resembles a devastated town with cindered remains of burnt houses and shops, the sound of the occasional SUV packed with central forces driving down its narrow roads while raising a cloud of smoke, dust and ashes, and the lurking presence of Kuki-Chin militants. 

    Illegal Immigrants And Rebels From Myanmar

    The displaced Meiteis have been replaced with thousands of illegal Kuki-Chin immigrants from Myanmar, all of them waiting to travel to the interior areas of the state where they will get their fake residential certificates from Kuki village chiefs. 

    These fake certificates will allow them to fraudulently procure Aadhaar and Voter ID cards, making them Indian citizens.

    Among these illegal immigrants are many militants belonging to the Myanmar-based Chin National Army (CNA), which has fraternal ties with the Chin National Defense Force (CNDF) and the Chinland Defense Force (CDF). 

    The CNDF and the CDF were formed after the February 2021 coup by the Myanmar military, commonly known as the ‘Tatmadaw’. The two groups are allied to the National Unity Government (NUG), Myanmar’s government-in-exile comprising political parties opposed to the Tatmadaw. 

    The CNA, CNDF and CDF are part of the larger People's Defence Force (PDF) of the NUG that is engaged in an armed struggle against the junta. 

    Chin rebels in Myanmar with RPGs and other arms.
    Chin rebels in Myanmar with RPGs and other arms.

    The presence of Chin rebels from Myanmar in Moreh became apparent on 26 June when Kukis in the town started looting shops and homes belonging to Meiteis who had fled from there. 

    When security forces tried to intervene, Kuki women put up roadblocks and stopped them from reaching the localities where the Meitei-owned properties were located. 

    A little later, Kuki militants engaged in a firefight with security forces.

    “A lot of sophisticated weapons were used in that firefight. The Kuki militants in Manipur do not have access to such sophisticated arms and have never used them. We are very sure that Kuki-Chin rebels from Myanmar have infiltrated into Manipur with their weapons and ammunition and are using them,” said a senior Indian Army officer. 

    A Manipur Police officer posted in Moreh who did not want to be named told Swarajya that Chin rebels are now moving around openly in the town. “There is no doubt about their (Chin rebels’) presence in Moreh and some other Kuki-dominated areas,” he said. 

    Policemen guarding the main road in Moreh town.
    Policemen guarding the main road in Moreh town.

    This is confirmed by the remaining non-Kuki residents of Moreh who are living in fear under the shadow of Kuki and Chin militants’ guns. 

    “Most of the people we see in Moreh are all unknown faces who have all sneaked in through the porous border from Myanmar. They stay in Moreh for a couple of weeks and then go off to other areas of the state. A few thousand Kuki-Chin people from Myanmar would have already come in illegally from Myanmar,” a non-Kuki resident of Moreh who was born in that town told Swarajya.

    Such is the fear that this 47-year-old man who owns a couple of stores in Moreh not only refused to give out his name, but also requested that the community he belongs to should not be named. 

    “We live in mortal fear of Kuki and Chin militants. They are ruthless and merciless, and quite savage. They are extorting huge sums of money from us also now. We have to meekly pay up because the price for disobeying them will be certain death,” said the man. 

    The Manipur Police is quite powerless, he added, and the Assam Rifles seems to be following a policy of non-intervention. Though the Assam Rifles rubbishes such allegations, the police say that they are often stopped by Assam Rifles troops from intervening when Kukis are involved in criminal acts. 

    Senior army officers at the headquarters of the 57 Mountain Division at Leimakhong in the outskirts of Imphal who spoke to Swarajya confirmed that Chin and Kuki rebels from Myanmar have entered Manipur and are using sophisticated weapons that they have brought along with them.

    “Two BSF jawans were killed by snipers at Moreh and Sugnu (in Kakching district) on 28 May and then on 20 June. On 28 May, a BSF constable was shot in the head by a sniper in Moreh town. And on 20 June, another BSF constable on sentry duty on the terrace of a school building at Sugnu was felled by a single shot on his neck. Both were killed by sniper rifles,” said an army officer. 

    The officer said that the Kuki militant groups in Manipur — the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) that is made up of 17 Kuki insurgent groups and the United People’s Front (UPF), another umbrella body of eight other Kuki militant groups — do not have sniper rifles and other sophisticated arms. 

    “Nor do they have trained snipers or the expertise to handle sophisticated weapons. In the shootings of the BSF jawans, long-range sniper rifles were used and the snipers were very good marksmen because they hit their targets lethally from a long distance with single shots,” said the officer. 

    A deserted road in Moreh town.
    A deserted road in Moreh town.

    The security establishment is now very sure that CNA, CDF and CNDF militants have entered Manipur and a good number of the sophisticated weapons that are in the hands of Myanmar’s PDF have also been smuggled into Manipur. 

    “A lot of these arms are being smuggled in through Moreh because there is barely any security there. The international border is very porous and very poorly guarded, so its very easy to smuggle in weapons,” the police officer posted at Moreh told Swarajya

    Firearms Possessed By Myanmar Rebels

    The PDF in Myanmar — including the CNA and the other two Chin rebel groups — have Chinese copies of AK-47s and knock-offs of Chinese Type-81 assault rifles, as well as a wide range of smaller 5.56 mm guns including US-made M4 carbines and M16 rifles, German Heckler & Koch 33 rifles (once produced under licence in Thailand), LMGs, hand-held 40 mm grenade launchers, Type-69 RPGs and Chinese copies of the Soviet RPG-7. 

    The Kachin Independence Army in northern Myanmar and China-backed United Wa State Army (UWSA) in northeast Myanmar produce knock-offs of the Chinese Type-81 rifles that they have been supplying to the CNA and other rebel groups in that country. 

    A diverse array of small arms is also being smuggled in from Thailand. The arms being procured by the PDF from Thailand include US-made AR-15 semi-automatic and automatic rifles (which have often been the weapon of choice in mass shootings in the US), Belgian FN-FAL automatic rifles, Singaporean Ultimax-100 LMG and Turkish Derya semi-automatic shotguns. 

    Apart from all these, the CNA and other rebel groups also possess arms looted from the Tatmadaw like the standard 5.56 mm MA-1 and MA-1 Mark 3 assault rifles (produced in Myanmar with Israeli assistance). 

    Indian intelligence agencies say that some rebel groups, notably the CNA, KIA, Bamar People’s Independence Army and Shan State Army, have received training in arms from Tatmadaw defectors as well as military trainers from other countries in Thailand and in the northern and northeastern parts of Myanmar bordering China. Those areas in Myanmar are out of the Tatmadaw’s reach. 

    As a result of such training and their arsenal of sophisticated weapons, the Chin-Kuki rebel groups in Myanmar have become a very potent force. 

    That is evident from the success notched by the Chin-Kuki rebels against the Tatmadaw in recent months. In April this year, an army supply convoy of 30 trucks escorted by soldiers in two Brazilian-made Cascavel armoured vehicles moving from an operations base in Kalay in Sagaing region (adjoining Manipur) to Hakka (capital of Chin state) was ambushed and destroyed in repeated attacks by Chin forces using IEDs, small arms and ordnance dropped from drones. 

    In early May this year, a convoy carrying troops of the Myanmar Army’s crack 77th Light Infantry Division going to Hakka from Gangaw in Magway region was decimated and most soldiers killed with small arms and IEDs by Chin rebels. 

    Meitei houses set on fire by Kukis in Moreh.
    Meitei houses set on fire by Kukis in Moreh.

    The eastern part of Chin state of Myanmar borders Mizoram while its northern part shares its boundary with Manipur’s Kuki-majority Churachandpur district. 

    The Sagaing region of Myanmar to the north of Chin state borders Manipur to its west. Though a majority of Sagaing’s population are Buddhist Bamars, Kuki-Chin Christians form a large percentage of the population of the Kale and Tamu districts of Sagaing region which are adjacent to Manipur. 

    Since the western part of Sagaing region is completely outside the control of the Tatmadaw, the Kuki-Chin rebels and refugees prefer to enter India through the Kale and Tamu districts of Sagaing region. Tamu district is adjacent to Moreh in Manipur’s Kuki-majority Tengnoupal district. 

    The Worry For Indian Security Forces 

    The entry of a good number of well-trained and well-armed Kuki-Chin rebels into Manipur from Myanmar poses a grave threat and is causing grave concern within the Indian security establishment. 

    The Kuki-Chin rebels from Myanmar have come into Manipur not only to get safe refuge from counter-attacks on them by Tatmadaw’s helicopter gunships, but also to help the Kukis in Manipur in their conflict with the Meiteis.  

    But security forces fear that these Kuki-Chin rebels from Myanmar may soon train their arms on Indian security forces. Combing operations against Kuki militants have already started in the hill districts of Manipur and sophisticated weapons are being recovered  from the militants. 

    This may bring the security forces in direct conflict with the Kuki-Chin rebels from Myanmar. These rebels are now mostly concentrated in Moreh because it is a quick getaway from Myanmar and the rebels can easily slip back into Myanmar to launch operations against the Tatmadaw. 

    It is only a matter of time before Indian security forces launch operations to drive out the Myanmarese rebels from Moreh. After all, Moreh cannot remain in the grip of these rebels and serve as a free entry point for Kuki-Chin illegal immigrants from Myanmar indefinitely. 

    Kuki men blocking a road to impede movement of security forces in Moreh town.
    Kuki men blocking a road to impede movement of security forces in Moreh town.

    The Myanmarese rebels will not give up their safe haven (Moreh) without a fight, and that can be a bloody one, given their arsenal of weapons and their proficiency in handling those weapons as well as the training they have received. 

    Going To Moreh

    The distance between Moreh and Imphal is about 110 kilometres that, in normal times, can be covered in less than three hours.

    But these are not normal times. In these ‘abnormal’ times, it takes at least seven hours, often even more, to travel the 110 kilometres from the state capital to the frontier town. 

    That’s because of not only checkposts erected by the security forces who check and recheck identity documents, bags and other possession and quiz travellers on the purpose of their journey, but also illegal checkposts erected by Kukis on the highway soon after it exits Imphal Valley and makes its way through the hills to Moreh. 

    The checking and quizzing at these Kuki-manned checkpoints is much more stringent, and also very arbitrary. At most of them, Kuki women and unarmed men are at the forefront. But men armed with assault rifles can be seen lurking behind, waiting to come out at the first sign of suspicion. 

    Many of the men at the checkpoints reek of alcohol and are quite menacing. Some pose ludicrous questions (“Why are you wearing a full shirt in summers?” and “Why do you have so many pens in your bag?”) and unsatisfactory answers can trigger a signal from them to the gunmen hiding inside a roadside hut to come out and subject travellers to more grilling at gunpoint. 

    An Assam Rifles' checkpost on the entry to Moreh town.
    An Assam Rifles' checkpost on the entry to Moreh town.

    Such harrowing experiences await travellers every few kilometres. And that is what makes the journey to Moreh long, arduous and (often) terrifying. 

    Moreh itself is quite like a ghost town shrouded by a pall of devastation, fear and foreboding. The shops which have not been vandalised, looted and torched  are mostly shuttered. Men and women roam around the streets, and many are clad in Burmese lungis — a telltale sign of their Myanmarese origins. 

    It is apparent that the Kukis rule the roost here. They frown on anyone speaking in Manipuri (or Meiteilon), and many have wads of Myanmar Kyat (currency notes). 

    The police and non-Kuki residents of the town say that Kuki-Chin rebels keep a watch on all movements from peepholes in the walls of some buildings and from sniper posts visible atop some buildings. 

    That’s why non-Kukis do not muster the courage to roam around freely in the town anymore. The fear of being hit by a stray sniper’s bullet is too real to ignore. 

    They also fear that the worst is yet to come in Moreh. That will be when Indian security forces start acting against the illegal immigrants from Myanmar and the Kuki-Chin rebels among them. 

    *********************

    The response of the Assam Rifles to the above report is being reproduced below, unedited.

    Dear Editor,

    This is in response to Jaideep Mazumdar's article titled, "Ground report from Moreh : The lawless border town where Kuki-Chin Militants from Myanmar call the shots" published in Swarajya Magazine on August 18 2023. Several contentious points have been irresponsibly broached. This rebuttal seeks to address the unfounded statements made within the aforementioned editorial.

    The article conspicuously lacks in facts or statistics, and the sources attributed to the military are blatantly fabricated too. No Officer of the Indian Army or Assam Rifles located in Moreh was contacted by Swarajya mag or this author and made statements validating the entry of Chin and Kuki rebels from Myanmar into Manipur or of their possession of sophisticated weapons. It needs no emphasis that misrepresenting and misquoting Army with an overt aim of instilling fear and exacerbating discord among communities is a highly deplorable and prosecutable handiwork.

    The article tries to establish the presence of a substantial number of Chin Rebels equipped with advanced weaponry in Moreh. However the truth of the matter is that the region remains firmly and safely under the control of the State and Central security forces .The supposed differences between the state force are conjectural. The maintenance of law and order in the area is the primary responsibility of the state forces. Assam Rifles can only assist in such matters when its involvement is explicitly sought

    In the case of killing of BSF Jawans in Moreh and Sugnu, the relevant First Information Reports (FIRs) related to these incidents attest that the perpetrators of these incidents were residents of Moreh and not foreign rebels.

    The referenced editorial is an exercise in disseminating uncorroborated and conjectural speculations with a clear intention to sow panic and enmity between communities and should be viewed in that light. Assam Rifles has the trust and confidence of the government and citizens, and it is our duty to maintain that trust through responsible and accountable actions. We urge all citizens to recognise the sensitive role played by the security Forces in safeguarding the locals. As also, support our operational functioning and ensure the efficient execution of our duties.

    (Aabha KS)

    Leiutenent Colonel

    Staff Officer

    (PublicRelations & Media)

    ******************

    Response of Jaideep Mazumdar

    1) The officers of the armed forces quoted by me are my trusted sources whose identities and ranks are, of course, confidential and shall not be divulged.

    2) The presence of Chin-Kuki rebels in Moreh has been widely reported in the local media. The claim that Moreh remains "firmly and safely under the control of state and central security forces" is called into question by the violence--primarily attacks on properties of other communities by Kuki rebels--that town has witnessed repeatedly since May 3-4, 2023.

    3) Many reports have also appeared in the local media of the differences between the Assam Rifles and Manipur Police and of the Assam Rifles obstructing the police from carrying out their duties. A video of one such incident is in public domain and the FIR filed by the Manipur Police against the Assam Rifles also negates the claim that differences between the two forces is "conjectural".

    4) As for the killing of BSF jawans at Moreh and Sugnu, it was believed that they were killed by precision shots fired over a considerable distance. Is the letter of the AR suggesting that residents of Moreh possess weapons sophisticated enough to carry out such hits, despite the IMB being guarded by the AR?

    5) The AR claims that the portrayal of Moreh "as having a deteriorated law and order situation is incomprehensible". How would the AR, then, explain the violence perpetrated on the properties and people belonging to the Meitei and other communities by the Kuki rebels in Moreh? Are those signs of a perfectly normal "thriving, semi-cosmopolitan" Moreh? Is the Assam Rifles implying that ethnic violence did not devastate Moreh more than once since early May this year?

    6) This writer is well aware that law and order is the primary responsibility of the state police and the Manipur police have been criticised, rather heavily, by this writer in articles and interviews many times for its failure to prevent ethnic violence and take action against the perpetrators of violence. This writer is also well aware of the primary mandate of the Assam Rifles. It is, however, an indisputable fact that the AR has often been seen in Moreh, and many other places in Manipur, engaged in law and order duties.

    7) Writing about events and situations without fear or favour is essence of responsible journalism. If that means critically examining the role of any state entity, so be it.


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