Manipur-Myanmar binary: Blame junta, not its victims

Pinning blame for the majority Meitei vs minority Kuki conflict on “illegal immigrants” is perhaps the easiest way for the BJP-ruled government to shrug off responsibility for 3-month long violence.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh blames the Kuki-Chin influx from Myanmar for the ethnic conflagration in his state. According to him, these “illegal immigrants” are hand in glove with a Kuki poppy-growing drug mafia in Manipur opposing his campaign to clean the state of drugs.

Since the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar, several thousand Myanmarese have poured over India’s open border into the Northeast, escaping the junta’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists.

Mizoram has taken the brunt of this cross-border displacement. Between 30,000 to 40,000 Chin people have sought haven in the state, whose chief minister, Zoramthanga, has defied the Centre to welcome the refugees who share the same ethnicity as the Mizo people.

Only a few hundred refugees crossed into Manipur in the same period. Pinning the blame for the majority Meitei vs minority Kuki conflict on “illegal immigrants” is perhaps the easiest way for the BJP-ruled, Meitei-dominated state government to shrug off responsibility for the three-month-long violence. The Manipur CM and his bosses in Delhi must lay the blame at the door of the Myanmar military if they believe “foreigners”, rather than the government’s failures, created the crisis.

Myanmar citizens have been crossing the border into India because their government is attacking them. Entire villages were burnt down for refusing to accept the junta’s writ. The military is using aerial bombardment to bring land and people under its control. Over 3,000 civilians have been killed since the coup began. In vast swathes of the country, an armed resistance known as the People’s Defence Force (PDF) is fighting the military—it has been fierce in the India-facing areas of Chin state and Sagaing region where the resistance is strong.

Recently, Biren Singh identified 718 Myanmar “infiltrators” to be deported. That is, in fact, the number of arrivals at the Moreh border in Manipur between July 22 and 24 when the Myanmar military began attacking Khampat, Kanan and other areas in Tamu, the district in Myanmar bordering Moreh.

India has a 1,643-km-long border with Myanmar, stretching across Arunachal, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. It cuts through villages and families. Acknowledging this, India and Myanmar have long allowed people to cross over and stay with family and friends in an informal arrangement.

In 2018, both signed a Free Movement Regime to regulate this de facto arrangement when the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar was at its peak. But the informal arrangement has continued to prevail over the border, becoming a lifeline for thousands in the aftermath of the Myanmar coup.

In just six years, Myanmar has managed to create a double-refugee crisis in the region—the Rohingya exodus that saw nearly seven to eight million people flee their homes in trauma and take dangerous routes to Bangladesh, and the displacement of over 40,000 Chin refugees from its western border into India. The Myanmar military is behind both, but remarkably enough, Delhi blames the refugees while it cosies up to the junta.

India believed it was important to keep the junta happy to safeguard its strategic and security interests. One goal is to restrict Chinese influence in Myanmar, and another is to ensure that the Myanmar military cooperates in protecting the security of the Northeast by denying shelter to northeastern insurgent groups.

But the junta has failed to deliver on either count. After a few standoffish months following the coup, Beijing is engaged with all sides in Myanmar to protect its interests. It is building mega projects, including highways, ports and power stations in Myanmar. It supplies arms to the regime. It engages with the ethnic armed organisations on Myanmar’s northeastern border to stabilise its borders. It engages with the pro-democracy camps. And the Chinese have reportedly set up a listening station in Coco Islands, a Myanmar territory in the Bay of Bengal.

Meanwhile, the fighting in the Myanmar-India border regions has further set back Delhi’s ambitious but long-delayed connectivity projects in Myanmar: the India–Myanmar–Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan Multimodal transport project.

Even worse, the badly stretched Myanmar army has co-opted Northeast insurgent groups to fight the PDF. In Sagaing, the underground People’s Liberation Army, which ambushed an Assam Rifles convoy in November 2021, is fighting alongside the Myanmar military.

As for drugs, a report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) earlier this year said Myanmar’s opium economy is witnessing a significant expansion. UNODC officials said that “economic, security and governance disruptions” after the February 2021 military takeover had left farmers with little choice but to return to opium. Chin State, a marginal poppy cultivator earlier, showed a notable spike. It was bound to have an impact in India’s Northeast.

Still, India continues to believe that the Myanmar military is its best bet. In bilateral engagements, Delhi has stopped flagging democracy-related issues as it used to in the early days after the coup. On the sidelines of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation meeting in Bangkok earlier this month, external affairs minister S Jaishankar told the junta foreign minister U Than Swe that India’s border areas “have been seriously disturbed, and any actions that aggravate the situation should be avoided”.

It was a rare rebuke. But India is the third biggest supplier of arms to the junta after Russia and China (according to SIPRI), and thus contributes to the instability of its borders. Myanmar is not fighting external enemies. The military uses these supplies against its people, who cross the border as refugees. When the fighting comes close to the Indian border, it also puts Indians at risk, as was evident during the aerial bombing of the Chin militant group’s headquarters earlier this year, when people in Mizoram’s Champai district had to abandon their homes and flee to safer locations.

Yes, the steady influx of refugees is a problem, especially as transnational criminal networks running drugs and arms and secessionist insurgencies misuse the open border. But let us be clear about the complicity of the junta and the Chinese drug, mining and scamming mafias operating under its benevolent gaze in Myanmar’s borderlands. Sealing the border may help deflect attention from the real causes of the conflict. But it will give rise to more contestations over boundaries and territories, even revive secessionist demands and long-dead insurgencies, undermine people-to-people relations and indeed, India’s Act East policy. All this without solving anything in Manipur. Delhi should call out the Myanmar junta instead of picking on the regime’s victims. For starters, it should stop sending Naypyidaw military supplies.

Nirupama Subramanian

Independent journalist

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