Myanmar border fencing amid office arson in Churachandpur

Yambem Laba *

After more than 58 years of dejure-free movement of the population on either side of the international border between India’s North East and Myanmar, an agreement allowing free movement sans passport and visa up to 50 kilometres on both sides and permission to stay for 24 hours was formally entered into in 1967 between General Ne Win’s military Government and the Indian Government.

Around 1984, when India formalised border trade between the two countries, subsequently leading to India’s Look East Policy, it was revised again, and the distance allowed for travel was reduced to 40 kilometres. Subsequently, the Indo-Myanmar friendship road came up, with India’s Border Road Organisation being tasked with constructing roads in Myanmar from Tamu up to Kalewa. It was the time of bonhomie between the two Nations.

Then came the Kuki uprising against the Meiteis on 3 May last year. In their demand for a separate homeland, they began attacking the Meitei community in the valley instead of the State. It was a war with no rules or quarters, and none were given, at least on the side of the Kukis. They began attacking any Meitei that had come into their crosshairs, including girl students, old wood cutters, and innocent farmers out tilling their paddy fields.

Taking advantage of the topography being on the higher reaches of the hills surrounding the valley across 360 degrees, where the Meiteis reside, and after the mayhem beginning on 3 May last year, which saw over 200 deaths, hundreds of injuries, thousands of houses burned on both sides, and over 60,000 people displaced, Manipur had figured in the European Parliament session in Paris and on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in South Africa. And the deafening silence of Prime Minister Modi had continued on the issue, and an uneasy calm had prevailed over the State for a brief period.

Then the stillness got punctuated with the staccato of automatic fires intermingled with the booms of bombs, even as the Kukis began raining down 3 inch mortar shells, lethod bombs, and rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) intermingled with tracer bullet fires and napalm shells on the valley below. The Kukis had also imported battle-hardened Kukis from across the border in Myanmar, battling the Military Junta there as members of the People’s Defence Force.

The only strategic mistake they made was when, in October, they took down the Sub-Divisional Police Officer posted at Moreh with sniper fire. That had spurred the Manipur Police into action, and soon the two designated camps of the Kuki National Army and the United Kuki National Front were seized by the police commandos, which they found abandoned.

Then the frontal attack on the Police Commando post at Moreh came under heavy fire from across the border using weapons far more sophisticated than the ones being used by the police. The fury of the attack was such that it prompted Manipur Security Advisor Kuldiep Singh to finally admit that foreign elements were also involved in the attacks on the police commandos on Indian soil in Moreh.

That was when the phone call by the SP Police Commandos at Moreh Th Krishnatombi went viral. He was announcing almost a last-ditch stand, stating that they were running low on ammunition but would fight to the last man standing. That woke up the Biren administration, which immediately requisitioned a helicopter from the Centre on standby duty at Imphal, began ferrying in supplies, and rushed in additional troops to Moreh.

The Kukis, now defanged by the huge presence of Indian security forces, changed their tactics and began forbidding the remnants of the business establishments in the once bustling and booming border town of Moreh from selling essential items, including medicine and water, to the Manipur Police commandos. This provoked a counter in the valley, where displaced persons from Moreh began a counter blocking essential items from reaching the Kuki population in Tengnoupal District, including Moreh.

Back in the valley, the Meitei defence force, or armed group called the Arambai Tenggol (AT), which numbers around 60,000 cadres and openly roams in the valley in vehicles fully armed, had summoned all the Meitei Legislators numbering 37 in number along with two MPs, namely Manipur’s titular ruler Sanajaoba Leishemba, who is the Rajya Sabha MP, and the Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Education, RK Ranjan, who is the Lok Sabha MP, and all had gathered at Kangla, which has been the seat of temporal and political power in Manipur since 33 AD.

There they were made to vow to serve the interests of Manipur and to impress upon New Delhi to implement the National Register of Citizens in Manipur, to fence off the Indo-Myanmar border, and to abolish the Suspension of Operations between the Centre, the State, and an odd group of 24 Kuki militant groups suspected to be the main force in the present attack on the Meiteis. Chief Minister N Biren Singh had also signed the resolution, but not in public at Kangla.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah, perhaps getting wind of the ongoing sentiments amongst the Meiteis, summoned CM Biren Singh to Delhi on the 3rd of February. Biren Singh returned two days later and seemed very pleased with the outcome of the meeting.

Then, on 8 February, Shah announced that the entire border between India and Myanmar will be fenced and that the Government of India has taken a decision to this effect that the entire length of 1,643 kilometres, starting from Arunachal to Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram, will no longer be open and porous.

He also said that the Free Movement Regime (FMR) of the people on the borders between the two countries, which had existed unofficially since independence in 1947 and 1948 and was first legalised in 1967, will now be scrapped. The FMR permitted citizens of both sides to travel up to 40–50 kilometres on either side and halt for up to 24–48 hours on both sides without passports or visas.

The FMR was suspected to be the main reason behind the huge quantum jump in the population of the Kuki-Zo community. The Chins in Myanmar are called Paites in Manipur, while the Kukis bear the same name.

And for the record, the Kuki National Army first came into being in Myanmar, was raised essentially to demand a Kuki State in Myanmar, and now has entered into a SoO with India. Earlier, Chief Minister Biren Singh had declared that the NRC would be implemented in Manipur with 1961 as the base year and that all those who entered after 1961 would be deported back or de-franchised.

Both the Kukis and the Naga communities have not taken lightly to the FMR being scrapped. The Nagas have their own reason as they consider the Naga-inhabited areas of the Somra Tract and Hukong Valley as Eastern Nagaland and have kiths and kins on either side, and the All Naga Students’ Association Manipur (ANSAM) has met Manipur Governor Uikey and submitted a memorandum to her to be forwarded to HM Amit Shah not to scrap the FMR.

The Kukis have no such reasons but the fact that the illegal immigration of Kukis and Zos (Chins) from across Myanmar would come to a halt sooner or later and would see the dwindling down of the poppy plantations in Mani-pur, which garner thousands of crores per year as revenue for their private ends.

It was at this juncture that a picture showing a Kuki Havildar of the Manipur Police attached to the Churachandpur Police Station firing at Meitei villages alongside Kuki militants went viral on social media.

The State was forced to take note and take action, and thus the Superintendent of Police, Siva- nanda Surve IPS, who is a mainlander, issued his suspension order for Head Constable Siamlalpaul. That was the moment the Kukis were waiting for to make things difficult for the implementation of the NRC in Manipur.

Soon a mob of about a thousand stormed Sivanan-da’s office on 16 February, asking him to cancel the suspension order of the Head Constable, and soon arson started. The police then resorted to firing, and two people were shot dead and about 30 others sustained bullets and other injuries.

Soon the mob turned to the office of the Deputy Commissioner and began ransacking it, setting the office on fire, including the Indian tricolour flying atop the building. All existing land records and other relevant vital data were turned to cinders. A couple of vehicles parked in the compound were also burned. The State immediately clamped curfew and shut down Internet services in the district, and the army staged a flag march.

Soon, in psychological warfare tactics, the SP was declared wanted, and the Deputy Commissioner was asked to quit Churachandpur within 24 hours. The Deputy Commissioner, however, has told the media that he is staying put as he cannot abandon the people of Churachandpur.

In the meantime, the valley-based Civil Society Organisation, the COCOMI, has asserted that the burning down of the DC’s office was to throw a spanner in the works for the implementation of the NRC in Manipur.

Over and above these happenings, over 20 people have died in the last week on both sides as the Kuki launched an all-out attack on all sides. A team of an attack force belonging to the Manipur People’s Army of the UNLF has, however, publicly claimed that a group of Kuki militants waved the White Flag to them in an encounter in the Khamenlok area in the Imphal East District.

However, there seem to be no signs of any solution being reached in the near future, while the long-term ends of the Kukis are diminishing on the one hand and, on the other, the Meiteis are being trained in increasing numbers, even as Manipur is slowly beginning to resemble a western town in America in the post-civil war era where guns are flouted openly and no questions are asked.

* Yambem Laba wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is a senior journalist at The Statesman
This article was webcasted on 24 February 2024 .

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