TODAY -

Ethnic separatism : The Kuki-Chin insurgency of Indo-Myanmar/Burma
- Part 1 -

Telsing Letkhosei Haokip *

Kuki National Front (KNF) arms deposition to GOI under SOO :: Sept 15 2010
Kuki National Front (KNF) arms deposition to GOI under SOO on Sept 15 2010 :: Pix - Leivon Jimmy Lamkang



ABSTRACT: This article focuses on the Kuki-Chin ethnic groups that inhabit mainly the north-eastern states of India, Sylhet district and Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, and parts of Burma/Myanmar. The historical context of deeply contested identity formation among and within these groups, also today, grounds ongoing struggles over sharing of resources, space and power. In the complex scenario of postcolonial states and multiple boundaries, and in light of changing geopolitical conditions, the article demonstrates how efforts to distil ethnic autonomy into statehood will always leave some 'others' dissatisfied. The continuing risk of renewed ethnic violence puts pressure particularly on state parties to come up with sustainable solutions, which presently remain elusive.

Introduction and Overview

This article deals primarily with the contested claims and position of a large and internally plural ethnic group that inhabits mainly the north-eastern states of India, Sylhet district and Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, and the Chin state of Myanmar, former Burma. The Kukis or Kuki-Chins are known by different names in the region and its neighbouring states. Generally identified as Kuki in India, they are called Mizo in the Mizoram state of India and Chin in Myanmar/Burma.

Since local people earlier identified themselves through their ancestors, clan histories and names of villages, the Kuki nomenclature itself is a fairly recent ethnic construct. The present article identifies some of the underlying reasons for the confusing manifestations of internal ethnic and linguistic diversities and plurality and explains resulting complexities, including various competing insurgent movements.

It also examines the links with often highly personalised power struggles in these locally and socio-ethnically grounded movements. The discussion of recent central and regional state efforts to pacify warring ethnic groups demonstrates that claims to ethnically based statehood, even if partly successful, are in this region always going to leave some stakeholders dissatisfied. It will be instructive to see how such simmering conflicts are being managed by the new BJP Government of India, with often violent and mostly reluctant Manipur state intervention.

A brief overview sketch may be useful to set the scene for readers. The origin of the Kuki-Chin movements dates back to early local uprisings against colonial rule in 1845-1871, starting in today's Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh (Haokip, 2008: 139). A series of further battles in 1872 and 1888, followed by Anglo-Chin war of 1889-90 in Burma, preceded the Anglo-Kuki war of 1917-19 in British India, presented by Haokip (1998: 75) as 'The First Kuki War of Independence'. The second Kuki uprising in 1942-1945 ended again in defeat for the Kukis, who soon thereafter found themselves spread over three new nation states.

In independent India's Northeast, many tribal communities gained separate statehood in due course, while most Kuki communities were left out. This, as well as genocidal violence directed at Kuki settlements, led to various insurgency movements. A combination of continuing claims for independence of a Kuki nation (Zale'n-gam) and self-defense thus underpins this particular ethnic insurgency and today the latter is probably a more urgent agenda. The attainment of Mizoram statehood on 27 February 1987, mainly spearheaded by the Mizo National Front (MNF), still left many Kukis deeply dissatisfied with India's handling of 'unity in diversity' (Haokip, 2008: 398).

On the Burmese side, too, official reluctance to grant more autonomy prompted the re-organisation of various Chin insurgent groups. Prominent among these are the Chin National Front/Chin National Army (CNF/CNA) and Chin Liberation Army (CLA). On the Indian side, when genocidal aggression against local Kuki populations increased during the 1990s, this led to a renewal of insurgency movements among Kukis, who felt betrayed particularly by the excessive atrocities inflicted upon innocent Kuki people by the Nagas.

In response, some Kuki leaders formed the Kuki National Front (KNF) to carve out a Kuki Homeland or Kuki state within the framework of the Indian Constitution in India. Another group raised the Kuki National Army (KNA) to fight for the creation of Kuki states, one in India and another in Burma/Myanmar (Haokip, 2008: 402). However, since amalgamation of the Kuki-Chin territories of India, Burma/Myanmar and Bangladesh is clearly not possible across the various international boundaries, at present the CNF/CNA are India-based Myanmar movements and the KNA/KNO is an India-based movement operating partly in Myanmar and mainly in India.

Some progress was achieved when, on 1 August 2005, various ethnic Kuki revolutionary outfits under the umbrellas of the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) and United People's Front (UPF) signed an agreement about 'Suspension of Operation' (SoO) with the Indian Army, with immediate effect. Altogether 19 Kuki revolutionary organisations, operating in the state of Manipur, thereby signaled readiness to engage in political dialogue.

The signing of this Agreement between the Indian Army and the KNO/UPF strengthened Kuki-Chin connections with India. It also signified unification of various ethnic Kuki Chin revolutionary outfits into two main streams, KNO and UPF. The negotiating table of the Indian Army became the first platform for all major rival ethnic Kuki insurgent groups to enter a political dialogue, prompting these groups to shed their internal differences, at least for the moment.

Three years later, on 22 August 2008, a tripartite Suspension of Operation Agreement between the Government of India, the Government of Manipur and KNO/UPF was signed in New Delhi. After various annual extensions, the latest state of play is now that on 22 August 2014 in New Delhi, a formal one year extension of this Agreement was signed by the new BJP Government of India and the KNO/UPF, still with no concrete decisions about when to start the wider political dialogue demanded by the KNO/UPF. The unsettling effects of such limbo situation will need to be discussed further below.

In addition, there are numerous other recognised and unrecognised small tribes, both in India and Burma/Myanmar, who neither embrace nor reject the above terms, and in Burma still others call themselves Zo (Zou) or Zomi (Zoumi). In addition, Kuki-Chin people will also differ in terms of ideology, political affiliations and aspirations, leading to further struggles over nomenclature.

Linguistically, the various words serving as ethnic identifiers are almost always a variant form of a single root, which appears variously as Zo, Jo/Yo, Kseu and Sen and is said by Lehman (1980) to mean 'unsophisticated' or 'uncivilised', contrasting it to Vai ('civilised') by implication to the Burmans (Chongloi, 2008: 125). The two terms Mizo or Zomi both refer to the 'People of the Hill' or 'hillmen'.

Both terms have also been interpreted as referring to the descendants of the progenitor Jo/Zo. On the other hand, it is perhaps not justifiable to pronounce Mizo or Zomi as Mijou or Joumi. An important reason for such reservations is that some negative 'othering' seems to be going on when these terms are pronounced slightly differently. The literal meaning of Zo, Jo or Yo is actually 'father'. In Thadou-Kuki, chun le zo, or in the Paite dialect tuun leh zuah, means 'mother and father'. But when Zomi is pronounced as Zoumi, and Mizo as Mizou, their meanings become something quite different.

In the Thadou-Kuki dialect, Zoumi/Zomi becomes 'a giant, a leviathan, a monster or an ogre', and Mizou/Mizo turns into 'a liar, cheater or fraudster'. To treat them as 'children or descendants of Jo/Zo', it is more sensible to call them Jomi. The word Zo should thus be pronounced correctly as Jo, and not as Jou, as used in Zomi/Mizo nomenclatures today. Zomi would then become Jomi, to mean 'the people or descendants of Jo/Zo', while Mizo should be pronounced as Mijo, but not as Zou, Zoumi or Mizou.

On account of such reasons, the pro-Kuki group finds it hard to use Zou as the common nomenclature for the whole Kuki-Chin group and feel that Zo should be pronounced correctly as Jo to bring out its literal meaning as the descendants of their progenitor. More recent efforts at ethnic re-organisation and assertions of indigenous rights are clearly building on such foundations.

Overall, this convoluted discussion shows that while using any of these ethnic labels and entities, some others cannot be completely ignored. Clearly, so many natural and man-made linguistic and other barriers separate and distinguish one group from another, and there are various agenda for making those distinctions.

Regarding Kuki-Chin terminology, it was long accepted by the British colonial officials that the separation of the 'Jo/Yo/Zo' people as Chin in Burma and Kuki in India and erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was an artificial classification and merely a temporary solution. Despite some earlier plans for a new 'Frontier Province' for them, they have remained permanently divided between different countries, though emotionally and culturally they are to some extent one. Such confusions and tensions are also reflected in the competition between various insurgency/revolutionary outfits.

Kuki and Chin are, then, like both sides of the same coin, combined as Kuki-Chin to cover a large internally diverse ethnic group which, to make things even more difficult, lives interspersed with other communities. The western mountains of Burma are occupied by these Kuki-Chin tribes, with related Nagas to the north. Both communities also have sizeable populations on the Indian side of the border. Both are traditionally animists and members of the Tibeto-Burmese linguistic family, and they compete over the same territory (Haokip, 2013; Kipgen, 2013).

To be continued...


* Telsing Letkhosei Haokip wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is a doctoral research scholar at the Manipur University of Manipur State, India. He can be reached at tslhaokip(aT)yahoo(dot)co(dot)in
This article was posted on June 23, 2015.


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