Manipur unrest and its impact on regional security – Explained, pointwise

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Manipur has been grappling with unrest and violent protests, recently witnessing the first direct clashes between the Kuki-Zomi tribals and the Meiteis in three decades. With a complex cultural geography divided into ‘valley’ and ‘hill’ districts, the state has experienced longstanding ethnic tensions. The Manipur unrest poses significant challenges to regional security, potentially destabilizing the fragile peace and affecting the broader geopolitical landscape of the region.  

What are the reasons behind the unrest in Manipur?

External factors  

Myanmar crisis: The military coup in Myanmar in 2021 and subsequent unrest have led to a continuous influx of Burmese refugees into Manipur. Thus complicating the ethnic balance in the state. Many of the refugees share kinship ties with Manipur’s Kuki tribe.  

Drug trafficking and cross-border crime: The proximity to the Golden Triangle and porous international borders make Manipur vulnerable to drug trafficking and other cross-border criminal activities. These illegal activities can fuel violence and social unrest in the region. 

Internal Factors  

Demand for Scheduled Tribe status: The Manipur high court recently asked the state government to send a recommendation to the Centre on the Meiteis’ demand for Scheduled Tribe status, which has triggered protests by tribal groups fearing a loss of reservation benefits.  

Land issues: The Meitei community, which is numerically in the majority, mainly inhabits the Imphal Valley, accounting for just a tenth of the state’s total land area. The competition for land and resources has intensified tensions between the Meiteis and hill tribes.  

Historic tensions: Longstanding tensions between hill tribes and Meiteis in Manipur have contributed to the unrest, as both communities vie for political representation, resources, and cultural recognition.  

Lack of economic development: Economic underdevelopment in the region has exacerbated inter-ethnic tensions, as communities compete for scarce resources and opportunities.  

Governance issues: The government’s handling of the situation, such as the suspension of mobile internet and the application of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), has been disruptive and has not effectively addressed the root causes of the unrest.  

Must read: What is behind Manipur’s widespread unrest? 

What will be the impact of Manipur unrest on regional security?

Border vulnerability: The unrest in Manipur could lead to increased cross-border criminal activities such as smuggling, drug trafficking, and illegal arms trading. This could make the region’s borders more vulnerable and affect overall security.  

Growth of militancy: Prolonged unrest could provide fertile ground for militant groups to expand their influence and recruit more people, leading to a rise in extremist activities and further destabilizing the region.  

Strained relations with neighbouring countries: The unrest in Manipur could have implications for India’s relations with neighbouring countries like Myanmar, Bangladesh, and China. Increased refugee flows and cross-border crimes can strain relations and hinder diplomatic efforts in the region.  

Hindrance to economic development: Persistent unrest could deter investment and hinder economic development in the region, leading to increased unemployment and poverty, which in turn could feed into more instability and security challenges.  

Challenges to India’s Act East Policy: The unrest in Manipur could impact India’s Act East Policy, which aims to boost economic and strategic ties with Southeast Asia. Ensuring peace and stability in the Northeast region is essential for the success of this policy and for India’s broader strategic interests.  

Internal displacement: Unrest in Manipur may lead to the large-scale internal displacement of people, putting pressure on neighbouring states and resources. This could create additional tensions between various ethnic groups and communities, further complicating regional security.  

Human rights violations: Prolonged unrest may result in human rights violations, attracting international attention and criticism. This could affect India’s image and its ability to advocate for human rights and democratic values in the region and beyond.  

Impact on social cohesion: The unrest in Manipur can deepen ethnic, religious, and social divisions, weakening social cohesion and harmony. This may lead to long-term challenges for regional security and peacebuilding efforts.  

What are the government initiatives to overcome Manipur unrest?

Political dialogue: The government has initiated political dialogues with various ethnic groups and stakeholders to address their grievances and demands, aiming to build trust and find common ground for lasting peace.

For example, the Manipur government held peace talks with several insurgent groups like the United National Liberation Front and Kangleipak Communist Party. These peace talks aim to find a lasting political solution to the ongoing conflict in the state and create a more stable environment.  

Suspension of Operations (SoO) Pact: The Manipur government has decided to withdraw from the Suspension of Operations (SoO) arrangement with two militant organisations, the Kuki National Army (KNA) and the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA), amid allegations of instigating discontent among forest encroachers. 

Note: The SoO agreement with Kuki was signed in 2008 as a ceasefire deal between the Indian government and different Kuki terrorist organisations operating in Manipur and Nagaland. According to the agreement, the Kuki terrorist groups promised to cease their violent actions and report to designated camps that would be supervised by security authorities. In exchange, the Indian government promised to halt operations against Kuki tribes. 

Development initiatives: The government has been promoting development initiatives in Manipur, focusing on infrastructure, education, and healthcare to improve living standards and economic opportunities for local communities. Like, the government has launched the Northeast Special Infrastructure Development Scheme (NESIDS) to improve infrastructure in the region, including Manipur.  

Act East Policy: India’s Act East Policy aims to strengthen economic and cultural ties with Southeast Asian countries, potentially benefiting Manipur and the Northeast region by increasing trade, investment, and connectivity. For instance, the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway project has been advancing, which will improve connectivity between Manipur and Southeast Asia, promoting trade and economic opportunities.  

Skill development programs: The government has introduced skill development programs to provide better employment opportunities for the youth in Manipur, addressing some of the root causes of unrest. For example, the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) partnered with the Manipur State Rural Livelihoods Mission to train and provide employment opportunities to 5,000 youths from the state.  

Security measures: The government has deployed additional security forces to maintain law and order and protect citizens from violence during periods of unrest.  

Counter-narcotics operations: In recent years, the government of Manipur has intensified its efforts to combat drug trafficking and cultivation, which has been fueling instability in the region.

For example, Manipur police destroyed illegal poppy plantations spread over 90 acres in the Tengnoupal district. Such operations aim to reduce the influence of criminal organizations and improve security in the region.  

Read more: Who are Meiteis: Protest against ST demand turns violent in Manipur, curfew imposed in entire state

What are the challenges associated with resolving unrest in Manipur?

Complex ethnic dynamics: Manipur’s diverse ethnic landscape, with multiple tribes and communities, makes it difficult to address the grievances of all parties. The ongoing tensions between Meiteis, Nagas, Kukis, and other tribes make it challenging to find a solution that satisfies everyone.  

Presence of armed groups: Numerous armed groups operate in Manipur, each with its own objectives and demands. Their presence complicates the peace process and makes it difficult for the government to establish law and order in the region.  

External influences: The unrest in Manipur is influenced by events in neighbouring countries like Myanmar, where the military coup and subsequent crackdown have led to an influx of refugees. These external factors add another layer of complexity to the situation in Manipur.  

Lack of development: The Northeast region, including Manipur, faces significant developmental challenges, including poor infrastructure, limited access to resources, and high unemployment. These factors exacerbate existing tensions and make it harder to resolve unrest.  

Inadequate policy implementation: Although the government has introduced various initiatives to address the issues in Manipur, the implementation of these policies often falls short, limiting their impact on the ground. This has led to a lack of trust between the local population and the government, which hinders progress in resolving unrest.  

AFSPA: The continued implementation of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in Manipur has been a contentious issue. While the government argues that it is necessary to maintain order, critics argue that the act has led to human rights abuses and fueled resentment among the local population.  

Read more: Cabinet approves continuation of Schemes of Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region

What should be done?

Inclusive dialogue: Engage all stakeholders, including various ethnic groups, in a dialogue to understand their grievances and find common ground. The Mizoram Accord of 1986 between the Government of India and the Mizo National Front (MNF) serves as an example of successful engagement with all stakeholders.  

Strengthen governance: Improve governance by addressing corruption, and inefficiency, and strengthening local administration. This can be modelled on the successful decentralization efforts in Kerala, which have empowered local communities and improved the delivery of public services.  

Promote economic development: Invest in infrastructure, education, and job creation to foster economic development and reduce poverty. The success of the Gujarat model in India, which emphasizes industrialization and infrastructure development, can serve as a blueprint.  

Reevaluate AFSPA: Review the implementation of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and consider alternative security measures that protect human rights and promote trust between security forces and the local population. The withdrawal of AFSPA from Tripura in 2015 could serve as a model for a phased reduction of the act in Manipur.  

Address border issues: Strengthen cooperation with neighboring countries, particularly Myanmar, to manage cross-border issues such as smuggling, infiltration, and refugee influx. The cooperation between India and Bangladesh on border management can serve as a model for enhancing security along the Manipur-Myanmar border.  

Encourage civil society involvement: Empower civil society organizations to play an active role in conflict resolution and peacebuilding. The work of organizations like the Naga Mothers Association and the Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace in Manipur can be further supported and expanded.  

Cultural Exchange Programs: Promote cultural exchange programs within Manipur and between the state and other regions of India to foster a better understanding and appreciation of diverse cultures. This can be inspired by the European Union’s Erasmus+ program, which encourages cross-cultural learning and interaction among students and educators.  

Read more: Problems associated with North Eastern states: A more meaningful commitment to the Indian republic

Sources: The Hindu (Article 1, Article 2 and Article 3), Indian Express (Article 1 and Article 2), The Times of India (Article 1 and Article 2).

Syllabus: GS 3: Security issues – Internal Security

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