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Lame excuses: on Manipur and the ethnic conflict

It has been over three years since the coup d’etat in Myanmar in which the junta usurped absolute power and unleashed severe repression in order to clamp down on any demands for a return to democracy or granting more power to the marginalised ethnic identities in the civil war-prone country. Facing repression such as brutal bombing and the displacement of entire villages, many citizens, particularly those from ethnic minorities, have sought refuge in neighbouring countries including India. Many refugees from Myanmar’s Sagaing region and Chin State have fled the junta’s violent campaigns and headed to Mizoram and Manipur. While in Mizoram, refugees, of Chin ethnicity in particular, have been treated favourably, with the Mizo people regarding them as ethnic brethren, those in Manipur have not received such treatment from the government led by Chief Minister N. Biren Singh. Manipur has continued to conflate the issues related to the refugees fleeing Myanmar with that of cross-border drug trade. Ever since the ethnic violence between the Kuki-Zo community and the majority Meitei community last year, this refrain by the Manipur government, which has not hidden its preponderance to act as an ethnic majoritarian regime, has led to the stigmatisation of the refugees and policies that are in stark contrast to Mizoram’s humanitarian approach.

Moves such as seeking to end the Free Movement Regime, that is seen as favourable by the citizens of both countries, the announcement that India will fence the 1,643 km India-Myanmar border and Mr. Singh’s statement that 5,457 “illegal” migrants were found in Manipur’s Kamjong district should be seen in this light. The Chief Minister has repeatedly maintained that the conflict, which has killed more than 220 people, displaced over 50,000 people and resulted in injuries to thousands, besides creating a siege mentality among the Meitei and the Kuki-Zo communities, is a consequence of his government’s actions against “poppy cultivation” and “illegal immigration”. This is both an over-simplification and a biased view of the ethnic conflict that has raged in the State because of the inability of the Biren Singh government to rise above the ethnic fray and build confidence measures that could win the trust of the Kuki-Zo community. That the violence has been followed by the brazen militarisation of Manipuri society, in the hills and in the valley, with vigilante groups armed with sophisticated weapons, causing law and order problems, and impeding security personnel seeking to impose law and order, reflects even more poorly on the government. Unless there is a change, both in approach and in leadership in Manipur and the way it has treated the conflict, the situation will continue to fester.

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