Manipur Tragedy

The porous border between India and Myanmar. Photo credit: Åshild Kolås

Manipur, one of the states of Northeast India, has been the site of so-called ‘ethnic violence’ since early May, forcing more than 60,000 people out of their homes, while at least 160 people have been killed. But is this really an ‘ethnic conflict’ or ‘ethnic violence’ between Meiteis and Kukis?

Violence in Manipur

The violence in Manipur began on 3 May, when the Indigenous Tribe Leaders Forum organized a Tribal Solidarity March to protest against a Meitei request for recognition as a Scheduled Tribe. Scheduled Tribe status offers benefits including permission to buy land in hill areas, subsidized bank loans, easier admission to schools and quotas for government jobs. Manipur’s Nagas and Kukis have enjoyed this status for decades, while the Meiteis, who constitute around 52% of the population, have not. The Meitei ethnic group lives mainly in the Manipur Valley, while tribes such as Nagas and Kukis inhabit the hills. The Kukis are one of several tribes that live in the borderlands of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

According to the Associated Press, more than 50,000 Kukis and members of other tribal communities participated in the Tribal Solidarity March. Following the rally, mobs started burning down houses in rural villages and in towns such as Churachandpur, Bishnupur and Moreh, on the Myanmar border. Casualties were reported by both the Meitei and Kuki communities. The Manipur state government responded by announcing a series of curfews. Central Armed Forces personnel were deployed, later reinforced by companies of the Central Reserve Police Force, Border Security Force, Indo-Tibetan Border Police and Sashastra Seema Bal. Internet services were shut down for a full three months.

In mid-July, Kuki activists posted a 26-second video clip on YouTube, showing two Kuki women as they were paraded naked by a Meitei mob. According to Manipur’s Chief Minister Biren Singh, this was only one of ‘hundreds’ of violent incidents. On 21 July, the Kuki Women Organization for Human Rights in Manipur held another rally, protesting against the police and demanding the resignation of Chief Minister Singh. The Kuki women’s organization accused Meitei women, including the grassroots women’s group known as Meira Paibis (‘torch-bearers’), of violence against Kuki women. However, the Meira Paibis took it upon themselves to ‘maintain peace and protect their community’, and reportedly burnt down the houses of two of those accused of the incident that went viral on YouTube. Now the Indian Army is complaining that the vigilante justice of the Meira Paibis is only ‘complicating efforts to restore order’.

Is it ‘ethnic violence’?

While it is easy to understand how the violence escalated, it is more important to identify the parties who are interested in continuing the violence. Some analysts have blamed the Meiteis for ‘majoritarian violence’ and identified the Kukis as victims. Among them, Angshuman Choudhury, Associate Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, claims in an article in the Frontline that: ‘Meitei civil society deployed problematic tropes to other-ise the Kukis who have lived in Manipur for many centuries’. Choudhury further argues that Manipur’s Chief Minister, who is a Meitei, is ‘willing to militarise and exceptionalise the border areas for ethno-political ends’ and has used the influx of Chin-Kuki asylum seekers from Myanmar to ‘reanimate Meitei nationalism and give it an antagonistic edge […] amplifying a pre-existing fear psychosis amongst the Meiteis that they would soon be overrun by Kuki “illegals” from Myanmar’. The conflict is thus framed as ‘ethnic’, the Kuki ‘minority’ are ‘victims’ while the ‘majority’ Meitei bear the responsibility because ‘their’ Chief Minister is addressing illegal immigration, cross-border militancy and poppy cultivation on the Myanmar border. According to Choudhury, the Imphal government is dismissing ‘Kuki grievances by using the fig leaves of militancy, illegal immigration, and poppy cultivation’.

But is this really an ‘ethnic conflict’ or a ‘dispute over tribal rights’ for Meiteis? Is this a case of ‘ethnic violence’, as Wikipedia has decided? Is the ‘history of suspicion between ethnic groups’ the reason for the violence?

Militants, organized crime and poppy plantations

In fact, two Kuki armed groups—the Kuki National Army (KNA) and Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA) are financing their operations by cross-border weapons smuggling and by poppy cultivation operations in forest areas along the Myanmar border, with devastating consequences for border communities, and for the people of Northeast India. ZRA is also involved in rhino poaching and the smuggling of rhino horn via Moreh to Mandalay in Myanmar. The self-styled President of ZRA is Thang Lian Pau, a citizen of Myanmar and former Member of Parliament in Myanmar.

The lax border control at Moreh has allowed large numbers of illegal immigrants from Myanmar to cross the border. Some of them have been displaced by the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport project, a road and waterway project that will connect Northeast India to the Bay of Bengal through Rakhine State in Myanmar, constructed by India. Vulnerable Kuki immigrants are easily recruited to work on the new poppy plantations in Manipur. Another profitable business is to run Indian ephedrine across the border to supply methamphetamine producers in Myanmar, locally known as ‘Yaba’.

Rather than militancy being ‘fig leaves’ for grievances, grievances are ‘fig leaves’ for criminals posing as freedom fighters.

The two ‘Kuki’ and ‘Zomi’ armed groups have both signed Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreements with the Manipur state government and India’s Ministry of Home Affairs since 2008. When the conflict broke out, the state police started auditing weapons stored at the groups’ designated camps in the hills of Manipur. The Manipur government also carried out searches that exposed widespread weapons looting by Kuki militants. In response, the leaders of the armed groups claimed that they would ‘press for a separate administration and equal political status for the Kuki-Zo community, separate from Manipur but within the Union of India’, in other words a separate Kuki-Zomi state. Rather than militancy being ‘fig leaves’ for grievances, grievances are ‘fig leaves’ for criminals posing as freedom fighters, making spurious demands on behalf of ethnic groups they claim to represent.

It is clear that the conflict in Manipur is a conflict in which security forces are (or should be) fighting highly dangerous criminals, not a conflict between ethnic communities that have lived together for hundreds of years and suddenly started to kill each other because of ‘othering’.  The ‘Kuki’ and ‘Zomi’ armed groups are not fighting due to the grievances of the Kuki community, they are exploiting vulnerable people, regardless of ethnicity, and recruiting them into drug addiction and a life of crime, including insurgency, looting, arson and murder.

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