How the Myanmar Crisis Threatens to Destabilize India’s Manipur State 

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How the Myanmar Crisis Threatens to Destabilize India’s Manipur State 

Allegations of illegal immigration from Myanmar, involving members of the Kuki-Chin ethnic group, contributed to the recent ethnic violence that claimed more than 80 lives. 

How the Myanmar Crisis Threatens to Destabilize India’s Manipur State 

Paramilitary soldiers patrol past a vandalized building in Imphal, capital of the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, May 14, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur

A permanent solution to the problems plaguing India’s violence-torn Manipur state lies in the effective sealing of the international border with Myanmar, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah told a press conference on June 1. He was speaking in Imphal, the capital of the northeast Indian state, where ethnic clashes since May 3 have claimed more than 80 lives and displaced over 40,000 people.

June 1 was the final day of Shah’s four-day visit aimed at brokering peace between the Meitei Hindus, who make up more than half of Manipur’s estimated 3.64 million population, and the tribal people of the Kuki-Chin ethnic group, who make up roughly one-fifth of the population. Shah held meetings with 25 Kuki civil society organizations and 22 Meitei civil society organizations during these four days.

“For a permanent solution, we have already set up wired fencing across 10 kilometers of the Manipur-Myanmar border on a trial basis, work tender has been invited for fencing on another 80 kilometers, and a survey for fencing the rest of the Manipur-Myanmar border is being initiated,” Shah said, adding that biometric data and retinal scans of people coming from neighboring countries are also being recorded.

Manipur shares a 400-kilometer border with Myanmar, most of which is unfenced. The India-Myanmar frontier is an open border with a free movement regime, which permits the tribes residing along the border to travel up to 16 kilometers across the boundary for up to three days without visa restrictions.

According to Athouba Khuraijam, spokesperson of the Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity, an umbrella group of several Meitei civil society organizations, the group categorically told Shah during a recent meeting that at the root of the current crisis is “narco-terrorism involving illegal Kuki-Chin immigrants from Myanmar, cross-border Kuki insurgent groups, and Myanmar-based drug cartels.”

“We told Shah that stopping immigration from Myanmar and identifying illegal immigrants in Manipur and deporting them has to be the government’s priority to restore normalcy,” Khuraijam told The Diplomat. “The government needs to hit the drug cartel hard and cancel the suspension of operations (SOO) agreement with the Kuki insurgent groups led by Myanmarese nationals.”

Kuki-Chin-Zo people, a transnational ethnic group, live in the India-Bangladesh-Myanmar triborder area, predominantly in India’s Mizoram and Manipur states, Myanmar’s Chin State and Sagaing Region, and the Chittagong Hill Tracts district of Bangladesh.

Chin State and Sagaing Region have been hotbeds of anti-junta resistance in Myanmar, where the military rulers have mounted a series of attacks, including bombardment, since 2021, forcing many people to flee. Many Kuki-Chin people have also fled Bangladesh for India in the face of persecution there.

The Kuki-Chin people who fled to Mizoram, where the ethnic group forms the overwhelming majority, have been sheltered by the state government and looked after from a humanitarian perspective. However, their migration to Manipur has caused a stir.

Kuki civil society groups have dismissed the charge of “large-scale immigration” as a scare tactic that has been used to generate paranoia against all Kuki people in Manipur.

“Of course, some Kuki-Chin people have crossed over from Myanmar over the years due to the hostile situation, there but that has never been in any alarming numbers at all,” said Ginza Vualzong, spokesperson for Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF), one of the Kuki civil society organizations that met Shah during his recent visit.

“We have told the home minister that immigration is being used as an excuse to drive Manipur’s indigenous Kuki population out of their land,” he added. The ITLF is opposed to a citizenship screening exercise, which the Meiteis are demanding and the Nagas have supported.

“It is with an ill motive that the Meiteis are making such demands and we as a community cannot agree to such selective targeting of our community,” Vualzong said.

Of Manipur’s three major ethnic groups, the Meiteis have lived in the Imphal valley and Nagas in the northern hills for hundreds of years, if not millennia. The Kukis started inhabiting Manipur’s southern hills, bordering Mizoram and Myanmar, from the 19th century.

Porous Border, Fluid Movement  

Demographic change has been a sensitive issue in India’s Northeast, having triggered many violent ethnic conflicts in the past. The most notable example is the alleged “infiltration” of Bengalis from Bangladesh into the Indian states of Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura, which has often endangering the lives of the Indian Bengali population living there.

In Manipur’s neighboring Assam state, a controversial citizenship screening exercise, named the National Register of Citizens (NRC), is aimed at identifying, detaining, and deporting foreign nationals, especially those of Bangladeshi origin. The NRC has dominated the political discourse in Assam and polarized society there since 2018. Later, the Indigenous people of Meghalaya and Tripura made similar demands to protect their state’s demographic character.

In Manipur, the heat over alleged illegal immigration from Myanmar started rising last year. In August 2022, the state assembly passed a resolution setting up a population commission, and, on January 18 of this year, Chief Minister N. Biren Singh announced the formation of a cabinet subcommittee comprising three ministers who are part of the population commission: Letpao Haokip, who is a Kuki; Awangbou Newmai, who is a Naga; and Thounaojam Basanta Singh, who is a Meitei. All the while, different Meitei interest groups have staged protests pressing the government to speed up the process.

In the last week of April, a random identification drive by the state government as part of the population commission’s work identified 1,147 undocumented Myanmar nationals in 13 locations in Manipur’s Tengnoupal district, 881 persons in three locations in Chandel district, and 154 persons in one location in Churachandpur district, according to a Manipur government official who did not want to be named due to sensitivity of the situation.

“Chandel, Tengnoupal, and Churachandpur are Kuki-dominated districts along the Myanmar border. However, in the Myanmar-bordering Naga district of Ukhrul, only five illegal immigrants were spotted from the survey at 24 locations,” the official said.

“The very first round of random survey gave a clear hint of the extent of the problem.”

According to a recent 16-page report titled “Violence in Manipur: The Larger Story,” published by the Delhi Manipur Society, an association of Meiteis based in India’s national capital, as many as 355 newly settled villages were recorded in Kuki-dominated Kangpokpi district and 262 in Churachandpur district in the last five decades, whereas only 42 and 14 new villages sprung up in the Naga-dominated Tamenglong and Senapati districts. “These are strong evidence of migration from outside of Manipur,” the reportstated.

Amid rising furor over the illegal immigration issue, the Meitei demand for Scheduled Tribe status, which would allow them to buy land in the tribal-dominated areas, has complicated the situation. The state government’s drive to clear protected forest areas from encroachment has further added fuel to the fire.

While the administration and Meitei interest groups alleged that immigrants from Myanmar were destroying Manipur’s forest cover by clearing them to set up new villages, Kukis allege that traditional Kuki habitations were being targeted for removal with an ulterior motive in the name of protecting the environment.

Drugs, Insurgents, Migrants 

Bhagat Oinam, a professor of philosophy at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, who is a Meitei by ethnicity, said Kuki-Chin migration from Myanmar to Manipur has happened for decades, broadly in three phases. The first wave was in the late 1950s and early 1960s during a civil war in Myanmar; the second was before and after the August 1988 uprising in Myanmar; and the third happened after the informal ceasefire between Indian security forces and Kuki militants in 2005, which was formalized in 2008. However, these migrations previously never led to any flashpoints.

“What has happened over the past few years is an explosion in poppy cultivation in Manipur’s Kuki-dominated districts backed by drug cartels and insurgent groups with a cross-border network, resulting in huge loss of forest cover. They use the drug money to buy weapons,” Oinam told The Diplomat.

“The 2021 military coup in Myanmar escalated the migrant influx from Myanmar, mostly the Kuki-Chin people who are being targeted by the military junta there. A section of these illegal immigrants are being used by the drug and weapon cartels in Manipur.”

He said that a decline in poppy cultivation in the infamous Golden Triangle of the Myanmar-Thailand-Laos trijunction, especially in Thailand and Laos, has resulted in a shift of the drug corridor to Myanmar-Manipur border areas.

According to a December 2021 report by the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute, opium is cultivated in Myanmar mainly in the isolated mountainous areas in Shan, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, and Chin states and Sagiang Region. Of them, Chin and Sagaing are home to Kuki-Chin people and share a border with Manipur.

“In Manipur, poppy cultivation has significantly increased over the last 15 years, primarily as a means of subsistence,” the report said, noting that Manipur “seems to be more integrated within the regional drug economy and connected to other actors, notably from Myanmar” than other poppy cultivation regions in Northeast India.

Vualzong, however, countered the allegation, saying that the Kuki people do engage in poppy cultivation because it is the most profitable among existing farming practices, but the funding comes from Imphal valley-based Meiteis and not from Myanmar. “The chief minister is not targeting the Meitei kingpins,” he alleged.

According to Kuki intellectual Paokholun Hangsing, a professor of the library and  information science department at the North-Eastern Hill University in Shillong, the narrative branding Kukis as infiltrators, occupiers of forest reserves, and poppy cultivators “is a ploy to misguide the Indian public” to justify a “pre-planned, carefully orchestrated design” to drive Kukis out of their home and ancestral land.

He alleged that when Kukis recently celebrated the centenary of their war against British colonial occupation, the state government forced them to tone down the celebration for the sake of maintaining peace. The authorities also insisted that the inscription “in defense of our ancestral land” be removed from the monolith erected to mark the occasion.

“The fact that Kukis fought the British for independence did not gel well with the calculatedly constructed narratives projecting the Kukis as immigrants to justify their ulterior motive to seize their land,” Hangsing said.