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To understand the violence in India’s Manipur, look towards Myanmar

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

India's Manipur has been witnessing violent ethnic clashes over the past few months. The underlying reasons are much more than just the internal dynamics of the state but also the influx of illegal migrants from the conflict-ridden neighbor, Myanmar.

The ethnic clashes have disrupted the lives of the people of Manipur in the past few months.

The troubling images of a burning Manipur have been etched into our collective memory since the past few months. The violent clashes in the state started in the month of May however, the seeds of this unrest had been sown since decades before. On the face of it, the conflict in Manipur comes across as a question of unrest between two prominent groups - the Kukis and the Meitis. Digging deeper into the issue will expose us to other nuances that need to be addressed in order to get a clearer picture of this problem. Even though much has been said about the immediate antecedent of the clashes- giving the status of Scheduled Tribes to the dominant Meitis in Manipur. There is another angle to the story that needs to be illuminated further- the problem of illegal immigration from Myanmar. This problem is not just specific to the state of Manipur but rather to all the states that share the porous border with the politically unstable Myanmar. The India-Myanmar border remains porous majorly because of the Free Movement Regime (FMR) that exists between Myanmar and India that allows for the citizens of both the countries living within the perimeter of 16 kilometres from the border are permitted to cross over with a border pass issued by the competent authority with a validity of one year.

Figure 1.1: The Myanmar -India Border

As Myanmar fell into the hands of the military junta in 2021, a grave humanitarian situation emerged in the country. The crackdown of the military junta on certain ethnic groups led many communities to flee from their homeland and seek refuge in the immediate neighbourhood. It is vital here to note that India’s northeast, particularly Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur. This approximately 1600 km border has remained largely porous which further aids the inflow of not only people but also goods and resources across the border. While as a responsible neighbour, India has committed itself to providing humanitarian assistance to the people in dire need as a result of conflicts in their home countries, unprecedented migration of people in large numbers poses its own set of challenges on the home country as well. This is precisely what has been the problem with regards to the migration of people from Myanmar to India’s Northeast. The states of India’s northeast have been grappling with different degrees of challenges and civic unrest over the years and in some cases since the independence of the country. In this case, the influx of foreign nations into the ethnic makeup of these states adds to the already precarious situation in the region.

Reports on the data regarding the number of refugees from Myanmar have suggested that more than 40,000 people have been recorded to have moved from Myanmar to Mizoram ever since 2021. It is however important here to note that this is just the number of the documented cases of refugees and Mizoram state administration has taken appropriate measures to identify these refugees in order to prevent any internal chaos. The situation in Manipur is quite different in this case.

The need here is to first bring attention to the ethnic makeup of Manipur, in order to chart out the chaos that has been grappling the state and locate the role of illegal refugees in this case. The major ethnic groups residing in Manipur include- the Meiteis, the Kukis and the Nagas.

Figure 1.2 : Map of Manipur

The Meiteis comprise about 53 per cent of the population. The rest of the population belong to tribal communities such as the Kukis, Nagas and the Chin communities. In the case of Manipur, the districts are often divided into the ‘valley’ and the ‘hill’ regions with the majority Meiteis living in the valley regions of Imphal and the hill regions are inhabited by the tribal communities. The Kukis predominantly reside in the Churachandpur and Chandel regions. To put this into context with the previous discussion on the refugee inflows from Myanmar, many of the refugees belonging to the Kuki tribal communities in their homeland are said to have crossed the border through districts like Churachandpur and assimilated into the Kuki communities in Manipur. The Kuki tribes living in Manipur themselves have been reported to have migrated from Myanmar in the 1830s and the Naga tribes residing in the land have since claimed that the Kukis have encroached upon the land that belongs to them. The issue of identity and self-determination has since long plagued the region among these different ethnic communities.

To make matters more complicated, the complex layer of illegal immigration was added to the conflict. On the other side, the Chin tribe of Myanmar that have engaged in the flow of migration to Manipur are closely related and historically connected to the Kukis of Manipur along the lines of ethnicity, religion, language and economy. In the light of the recent unrest being faced by Manipur, illegal migration has been noted as one of the most significant antecedent factors was in fact in the growing dissatisfaction with the illegal migrants living in the border areas. The state government had carried out eviction drives in the tribal forest areas of the state in order to drive out the communities illegally encroaching on the forests in the hills as well as to disrupt the drug cultivation nexus developing in these areas. It has been reported that the refugees in the region have resorted to poppy cultivation in order to earn their livelihoods in the absence of access to legal job opportunities in India. However, this action ignited volatile reactions from the already apprehensive Kuki population who saw this move as a means to subjugate the Kuki tribes.

Therefore, the situation of illegal migrants in the region has further added to the already existing mistrust between the ethnic communities in Manipur.

Mizoram has been another state that has witnessed a large influx of refugees from Myanmar. Even though Mizoram has kept a tab on the documentation of these refugees, a different problem has faced the administration adding to the movement of people from Myanmar. This problem relates to illegal arms smuggling. Numerous reports of authorities intercepting the shipments of hand-made grenades, bullets, explosives, bullet-proof jackets and satellite phones being shipped across the border from Mizoram to Myanmar have come up to the surface over the past years, especially after the Myanmar coup. Moreover, it was already a point of contention that such arms smuggling had been happening previously from Myanmar to Mizoram in order to aid the insurgent groups operating in the state.

These instances are however evidence enough that a lot more attention needs to be paid to the changes in demographic trends brought about by illegal immigrants along with the fueling of the already existing tensions among the ethnic groups in the states of the Northeast of India. While the lack of documentation on the number of illegal immigrants remains to be a challenge to be carefully handled, India will have to balance the goal of providing humanitarian assistance to those in need while also protecting the internal security situation of the country.


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