Manipur: A battleground of imperial geopolitics

Yenning *

Since May 3, 2023, a bloody war is being fought in Manipur between the Kuki-Zo communities, assisted by Chin-Kuki fighters from Myanmar (Burma) and the indigenous Meitei community. Whereas the Chin-Kuki-Zo people have been receiving generous assistance in various forms from the West including church bodies, the Meitei people have been fighting the war all alone, without any kind of aid from any quarter.

A casual look may suggest that the Meitei-majority Government of Manipur is acting in favour of the Meitei community. This is exactly what the Government of Manipur should be doing for the Meiteis have been fighting to safeguard the integrity of Manipur which is the most fundamental duty and responsibility of the Government of Manipur.

But a closer analysis will reveal that the Government of Manipur has been incapacitated to deal with the state’s law and order, and security matters right from the moment the Chin-Kuki-Zo militants launched a pre-planned and premeditated politico-military offensive against the Meitei people.

All throughout the 14 months of the relentless Chin-Kuki-Zo offensive, the Government of India’s role is dubious at the best, if not antagonistic to the Meitei community. New Delhi-appointed Security Advisor and the Director General of Police have been handling all security related matters of Manipur while the Chief Minister was stripped of the post of Unified Command chairmanship just days after the Chin-Kuki-Zo people launched their offensive to carve a separate Kukiland or Zogam out of the several millennia old former independent kingdom of Manipur, now a state of India.

The sheer helplessness of the Chief Minister came to the fore when his own advance security team was ambushed by Chin-Kuki-Zo militants en route to Jiribam. Even after the Chief Minister’s advance security team came under a daring attack and the Chief Minister was prevented from visiting Jiribam, the Government of India thought it wise not to punish the attackers.

When the Chief Minister himself couldn’t do anything against the Chin-Kuki-Zo attackers, it would be a costly folly if the Meitei people are expecting any kind of aid from the Government of Manipur. In another word, Meitei people are now left all alone to fight for their beloved Manipur.

If the Government of India’s approach to dealing with the Chin-Kuki-Zo militants and refugees with velvet gloves and literally incapacitating the Government of Manipur is any indication, New Delhi too has vested interests in the ongoing war thrown upon the Meitei people from within and across the international border.

The protracted violence seen in Manipur is largely a manifestation of the geopolitics of rival or unfriendly global and regional powers including the US, India and China. Manipur, unfortunately, has been chosen as a battleground of their geopolitics, on account of its geo-strategic location.

Bane or Boon

Call it bane or boon, no other factor has produced a more profound impact on the political history of Manipur than its geo-strategic location. Starting from the colonial period, Manipur always occupies a crucial site in the geopolitics of contending imperial powers. It was on account of its geo-strategic location that one of the bloodiest chapters in the history of World War II was fought in her territory.

Geographically, North East India in general and Manipur in particular form a buffer zone between the Indian subcontinent and South-East Asia. The location of the North East is such that it is perfect to serve as a convenient gateway for transnational trade and commerce but unfortunately that is not happening till date.

Politically, the region acts as an interface among imperial and/or rising powers. Geopolitics is an intricate blending of geography, the state and the military and, geopolitics is always at the core of imperialism, colonialism and ultimately wars between imperialist forces. Geopolitics of imperial powers coupled with its strategic location, played a pivotal role in shaping the history of Manipur.

Prominent British historian Eric Hobsbawn wrote that independence of third world countries were mainly rested “either on their convenience as buffer-states (as in Siam – now Thailand – which divided the British and French zones in South-East Asia, or Afghanistan; which separated Britain and Russia), on the inability of rival imperial powers to agree on a formula for division, or on their sheer size”.

Manipur existed as an independent country even at the height of British imperialism and formed a buffer zone between British India and the Burmese empire. After the Burmese empire was defeated in the third Anglo-Burmese war (1885–86), Burma too came under British control and Manipur lost its status of being a buffer zone.

Ultimately the British Empire also put Manipur under their control as a consequence of Anglo-Manipur war of 1891. The Japanese occupation of South-East Asia once again put Manipur in a buffer zone between Japan and British India during the World War II.

After the conquest of Burma in the early part of 1942, Japan launched a massive military offensive against British India through Manipur and it led to the Battle of Imphal, which is often termed as one of the fiercest battles fought between the Japanese forces and Allied forces in the World War II.

Manipur had nothing to do with the geopolitics of either Japan or Britain but it was subjected to heavy bombardment by both the sides and Manipur suffered colossal losses. We fear certain global and regional powers have been playing out their nasty geopolitics on the soil of Manipur again, albeit through mercenaries this time.

Chin-Kuki-Zo mercenaries & BURMA Act

It would be a gross error if anyone is assuming that the Chin-Kuki-Zo people are fighting alone for a separate and exclusive homeland of their own. In fact they are being aided by many foreign powers, particularly the US. The Chin-Kuki-Zo people’s fight against the Myanmar military junta serves American interests.

With China emerging as a formidable power not only in her neighbourhood but also across the world and challenging the US hegemony, Washington is determined to curtail Chinese influence in every region. With the Myanmar Government under heavy Chinese influence, the US saw an alliance in the so called ethnic armed organizations including Chin-Kuki-Zo groups, and the Chin-Kuki-Zo groups are more than happy to serve as mercenaries. This is understandable because they share a common enemy, i.e Government of Myanmar.

Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability Act (BURMA Act) was passed by the US House of Representatives on April 6, 2022 with the stated objectives of authorizing humanitarian assistance and civil society support, promoting democracy and human rights, and imposing targeted sanctions with respect to human rights abuses in Burma, and ‘For Other Purposes’.

The BURMA Act “authorizes the appropriation of funds for FY 2023 to 2027 for various forms of assistance. According to a publication by an independent research group;

“Since the coup, the United States has provided $400 million to support the pro-democracy movement, but the BURMA Act could expand that material assistance. The BURMA Act contains a variety of provisions, the key elements of which authorize the funding and implementation of activities that would support resistance actors in defeating the military….”

Again there were reports that the US Government was considering to provide ‘non-lethal aid’ to ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and People’s Defense Forces fighting the junta. Non-lethal aid could include

1) radios for command and control,
2) laptops suitable for rugged conditions,
3) GPS systems,
4) satellite phones,
5) body armor,
6) civilian drones and spare parts,
7) early warning systems for resistance actors and civilians against military air strikes
8) funding for or expanded access to satellite internet providers with service over Myanmar, and
9) drone jamming technology.

Taking the battle to Manipur

With their hopes of easy and early victory over the military junta fading away as the war dragged on, some of the so called ethnic armed organizations (of Myanmar) launched a politico-military offensive in Manipur in collusion with the Kuki-Zo people settled in Manipur.

Indian Home Minister Amit Shah stated in the Lok Sabha on August 9, 2023 that the ethnic violence in Manipur was a result of the disturbance “caused by infiltration from Myanmar”. It only implies that the violence seen in Manipur is largely external aggression. Moreover, many of the Kuki-Zo armed groups operating in Manipur are led by people from Myanmar.

Even as huge amounts of fund sanctioned by the US Government through its BURMA Act are suspected to have been diverted to acts of terrorism unleashed upon Meitei people in Manipur, the US sees no harm for it still serves its purpose. Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina recently warned that the USA has been conspiring to carve a Christian nation in South Asia.

This separate nation would comprise large parts of Sagaing Division and the Chin state of Myanmar, the Indian state of Mizoram, and Kuki-inhabited areas of Manipur, and the Bandarban district and adjoining areas of Bangladesh’s Chittagong division. If this is true, a Chin-Kuki-Zo state in India will only advance the US interest.

India too has vested interests in the Manipur violence. New Delhi cannot afford to antagonize the ethnic armed organizations of Myanmar including the Chin-Kuki-Zo groups who have been fighting against the military junta. Whether these armed groups succeed in overthrowing the junta or not, India needs them to curtail Chinese influence in the region and push forward its own agenda.

At the same time, it appears India sees little problem if it is a matter of creating a new state or union territory or separate administration, whatever it is, within the Union of India. It’s a complex game of geopolitics involving multiple players.

Many of these players have a common interest that unfortunately challenges the very idea of Manipur and survival of the state’s indigenous peoples, particularly the Meiteis.

* Yenning wrote this article for The Sangai Expres
This article was webcasted on July 01 2024.

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