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Northeast Indian state sees violence fueled by conflict in Myanmar

IMPHAL, India – The capital of the Indian state of Manipur, Imphal, until very recently boasted gleaming showrooms showcasing international brands and hosted delegates from the world’s wealthiest countries for meetings of the Group of 20, showing this border province as part of a successful new enterprise. India on the rise. Today it is a city of blackened, abandoned buildings and is filled with soldiers, aid workers and displaced people.

For much of the first week of May, mob violence raged in the state of 3 million, leaving 70 dead, 48,000 displaced and entire villages, including temples and churches, in flames as ethnic tensions simmered, fueled in part by disputes over refugees. from neighboring Myanmar, have come to light. Spasms of violence continued throughout the month.

The 2021 coup in neighboring Myanmar, also known as Burma, caused a rush of refugees across its thousand-mile porous border with India – and nearly a quarter of that border is with Manipur , an impoverished province of rolling forests that has its own history of ethnic conflict. The upheaval is the latest indication of how Myanmar’s woes are affecting the region and how the policies of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party may be exacerbating long-standing ethnic and religious friction in the country.

“Since the coup, this recent violence is the first time we see that a large number of refugees have arrived and created internal problems,” said Gopal Krishna Pillai, former interior minister and co- secretary in charge of all of North East India, echoing the official line that the refugees are responsible for the unrest.

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Like much of India, Manipur has a complicated demographics, with three major ethnic groups: a majority group, the Meiteis, predominantly Hindus and dominating the political landscape; and two predominantly Christian minority groups – the Nagas and the Kukis. The Kukis share strong ethnic ties with the Chin tribes of Myanmar who fled across the border. There is also competition over land ownership, with the Meiteis resenting the special legal protections enjoyed by tribal communities.

The Meitei-dominated government in Manipur – led by a chief minister from the ruling Bharatiya Janata (BJP) party – has portrayed the Chin refugees as a threat, angering the Kuki tribes, who host those fleeing Myanmar.

Government measures seen by the Kukis as discriminatory sparked widespread protests that escalated into attacks on homes on either side. News of atrocities has sparked revenge attacks and the government has strangled the internet in Manipur for the past three weeks to silence the inflammatory rhetoric.

“The Kukis who lived here and the refugees who came after the coup in Myanmar came together to loot and burn,” said Khamba, a Meitei who was evacuated from the border town of Moreh this month. He said he saw people ransacking houses and burning down temples. He sat in a converted hostel in Imphal, where boys played badminton in their flip-flops and a pile of donated clothes towered over the roughly 450 residents.

“We had to leave our homes because of illegal immigrants from Burma. We want to go home because this is our country,” he said, using only his first name out of fear for his safety.

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Just 30 miles away, in the town of Kangpokpi, was Letminlal Hoakip, a Kuki who fled Imphal after people burned houses and churches there. “We are very angry when they call us Burmese refugees,” he said as he ate a meager meal of rice and lentils with 200 other displaced people inside a church compound. “They call us Burmese to politicize the issue, make it international, then the government will take action against us.”

Kim Gangte, a former member of Indian parliament, who also fled Imphal, accused the BJP-led government of letting the situation escalate.

“Why were more than 200 churches burnt down in a democratic country like India, where everyone should enjoy freedom of religion? she says. “I’m sad to say that the leadership took no precautions to calm the spirits of the people who fought so hard in the media.”

In 2021, the Burmese military overthrew the democratically elected government, sparking a civil war that sent a new wave of refugees, mostly Chins, to India. In the absence of an official count, estimates of arrivals after the coup stand at 70,000.

Officials also say the instability created by Myanmar’s civil war has spurred cross-border drug trafficking, with poppy cultivation and the opium trade escalating – a trend confirmed by a January report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The Manipur government has justified its crackdown on what it calls illegal immigrants as part of its war on drugs, alleging that the Kuki-Chin tribes have links to Myanmar’s drug mafia.

“The Chin-Kuki brothers…are encroaching everywhere and planting poppy and dealing in drugs,” Manipur Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren Singh said in a TV interview in March. “So the government did everything against those elements.”

But some observers argue that the government is scapegoating indigenous peoples. “Now it is easier to target Kukis as illegal immigrants,” said Angshuman Choudhury, an expert on the region at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research. “The Kukis who have lived in Manipur for centuries are much older than the border.”

Ajoy Kumar of the opposition Indian National Congress party visited Manipur this month as part of a delegation, and at a press conference on Wednesday accused the BJP government of “creating fissures between the two communities”.

“Words like ‘illegal migrants’, ‘narcos’ and ‘poppy growers’ were used for our own compatriots belonging to the tribes listed by Biren Singh himself,” he said.

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Since the coup, the Manipur government has stepped up eviction and demolition campaigns in Kuki villages and set up a population commission in response to growing demands from Meiteis that citizenship documents be checked. to eradicate illegal immigrants.

The government also accuses the Kukis, who live mainly in the forested hills, of harming the environment and has used this as grounds for their eviction. Once the violence began, many state forestry offices in Kuki areas were destroyed by rioters as symbols of the state’s overreach.

Kuki’s elected officials in the state, most of them from the BJP, have submitted a letter to the Indian government demanding separate administration, saying the state has been ‘split up’ and that ‘our people can no longer exist under Manipur”. Kuki BJP legislative member Paolienlal Haokip, who signed the letter, told the Washington Post that the “dangerous narrative” about illegal immigrants made “civil conflict looming”.

As for the increase in poppy cultivation, Moirangthem Arunkumar, a professor at Imphal University in Manipur, said the war on drugs should not target the growers, who are not the financiers but the daily wage earners. without other means of subsistence. “The war on drugs is like a war on a particular community.”

India has also avoided condemning the coup in Myanmar or classifying the Chin fugitives as refugees, partly so as not to antagonize Myanmar’s junta and out of fear that that country will turn to China, the India’s regional rival.

It wasn’t always like this. When unrest in Myanmar sent refugees across the border in 1962 and 1988, a much poorer India welcomed them by the thousands with open arms and even supported the pro-democracy movement in 1988 before the army does not crush it.

“It was a very different India. Our reflexes have changed,” said Gautam Mukhopadhaya, India’s former ambassador to Myanmar.

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