After the violence: A Myanmar twist as Manipur searches for its own | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

After the violence: A Myanmar twist as Manipur searches for its own

By, , Moreh/new Delhi
May 11, 2023 03:16 PM IST

Manipur saw violent clashes that began a week ago in Churachandpur but spread quickly across the state.

Inside an Assam Rifles relief camp two kilometres from the border town of Moreh, N Pulindro Singh sits on the floor wistfully. He talks of loss – the loss of his home burnt down in the ethnic violence that swept through Manipur in three destruction-filled days last week; the loss of peace in a town that once took pride in its diversity; and, in what is fast emerging as a problem for the security agencies, the disappearance of family members who may have crossed into Myanmar. “There were at least 300 people who fled to Myanmar when our houses were burnt down on May 3. M Thoiba Singh, my cousin, was one of them. Since then, we are waiting for them to return, but there is no word,” the 65-year-old Meitei man said.

A girl evacuated by the Indian army during the ethnic riots in Manipur state embraces with her mother (2R) after reuniting at a temporary shelter at the Leimakhong Army Cantonment.(AFP) PREMIUM
A girl evacuated by the Indian army during the ethnic riots in Manipur state embraces with her mother (2R) after reuniting at a temporary shelter at the Leimakhong Army Cantonment.(AFP)

Also read: Manipur violence: Imphal opens gingerly, traders stare at a long road to recovery

On Wednesday, Moreh, once a bustling transit centre of trade with a population of 10,000 people, resembled a ghost town. Shops lay ransacked, houses were burnt and damaged, and the only people on the streets left were columns of soldiers to prevent a recurrence of violence. Among the few buildings that stood untouched – perhaps a memory of the syncretism that existed even a week ago – were a handful of churches, mosques, a gurdwara, and a temple set up by the Tamil community. “Bengalis, Tamils, Sikhs, Odiyas, Meiteis and the Kuki tribals are among the communities that lived in Moreh for decades. Everything changed overnight,” Singh added.

Manipur saw violent clashes that began a week ago in Churachandpur but spread quickly across the state, pitting the Meiteis who form 53% of the state population, and the tribal communities, especially Kukis, who live primarily in the hill districts, against each other. The immediate trigger for the violence was a proposal to accord Meiteis scheduled tribe status, but the clashes quickly snowballed into riots that displaced thousands of people, and forced the Centre to fly in additional forces. Chief minister N Biren Singh pegged the death toll at 60, and said that 231 people were injured, at least 1,700 homes burnt, and 35,000 people displaced.

The violence has left Moreh scarred. “As many as 3,000 Meiteis were evacuated and brought to the relief camp beginning May 3, and many have since been shifted to other camps. The local Tamil community provided lots of the relief material,” said colonel Raza, commanding officer of the Assam Rifles unit stationed in Moreh.

But officials admit there is a new task emerging – tracking down missing relatives, many of whom are still hiding in jungles or have fled through the porous border to Myanmar.

“The rescued people in the camps approached the forces saying that many fled to the jungles. Some also informed that people known to them fled to Myanmar. Based on their initial probe, Manipur Police also confirmed that some may have gone through the porous border,” said a Manipur government official, who did not want to be identified.

Security personnel have now roped in church leaders, tribal chiefs and other community leaders to contact missing families and convince them either to return to their villages or to paramilitary camps.

“We have reports of many people missing primarily from rural parts of Moreh and Kangkpokpi. Some people rescued from the jungles have said that they left their homes after hearing rumours about a mob on a rampage burning homes and killing children. It is possible that many who are missing may have fled to Myanmar with the help of a nexus of insurgents and cross border smugglers,” the official quoted above said.

Kuldiep Singh, a former Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) chief who is now the state government’s security adviser, said Assam Rifles met their Myanmar counterparts recently on the issue.

“We do not have an official complaint, but there are unconfirmed reports that a few people of Moreh, a border town, have fled to Myanmar. The Assam Rifles have held a meeting with their counterparts. But the situation has normalised, there are no major incidents of violence now, and they will return soon,” Kuldiep Singh said.

Senior officials also said that once there is a complete return to normalcy, Manipur Police will conduct a thorough probe to investigate the possible role of insurgent groups behind the violence. Police suspect that key players behind the instigation of violence may also be among those that fled to Myanmar, a Manipur Police officer said, requesting anonymity.

Kuldiep Singh said that the state was well on the path back to a sense of calm, and that the police recovered at least 284 stolen weapons. “We have registered more than 200 FIRs and will probe the people behind the violence,” Singh added.

A second state police officer, supervising the logistics in camps across the state, said many people were escorted back to their villages or districts where peace had returned. “Some have been taken to places where they said they felt safe, and some have been dropped to airports. The respective district administrations are taking care of new entrants to their areas,” the second officer added.

For three days now, the authorities have relaxed curfew restrictions for three hours in the morning. Officials say banks may also open in many parts of the state by Thursday afternoon. But there are still stark reminders of the long, tenuous road to peace.

On Tuesday, a team of CRPF officials in Gwaltabi village in Imphal East had to be pressed into service to rescue villagers, and prevent a mob from burning their houses. It is also only on Wednesday that security personnel were able to completely sanitise and secure National Highway 37 to ensure the unencumbered movement of trucks filled with essential commodities.

Also read: Curfew eased in 11 districts as Manipur stares at recovery; 60 dead, 30,000 displaced

Back at the Assam Rifles camp in Moreh too, there are signs that the wounds are still raw.

A young Meitei man, who refused to be identified, turned his ire at the 2018 Free Movement Regime, an international agreement signed between India and Myanmar that allows citizens of both countries to cross into 16 kilometres of their respective territories to facilitate trade along the 1,643-kilometre border. “We are the indigenous people of Manipur, while there are other people who are immigrants from Myanmar. We want the free movement of citizens to stop. This is risking our lives,” he said.

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