On the rare occasion that Zaw Win leaves the safe house, he wastes no time getting what he needs. These are necessary excursions: his wife and young son depend on him to gather food and water for their survival.
But in Manipur, even a trip to the market is never a safe bet. One seemingly innocuous misstep can get a person killed.
For more than three months, this small northeast Indian state has been at war with itself, wracked by a conflict that has killed at least 180 people, wounded at least 400 others, and displaced more than 54,000. Homes and ambulances have been set alight, children orphaned, women raped. Victims’ corpses have been mutilated beyond recognition. After decades of tension, political disharmony between the majority Meitei and minority Kuki ethnic communities has boiled over into near unprecedented bloodshed.
Zaw Win, 41, is neither Kuki nor Meitei. He is a refugee from Myanmar who came to India hoping to escape the indiscriminate violence in his homeland. But in Moreh, a small border town on Manipur’s eastern fringe, he has found himself embroiled in yet another crisis – where warring groups, armed variably with machine guns and homemade rifles, have been known to kill one another in the streets.
On August 5, three Meiteis and two Kukis were killed in separate shootings—just days after a Manipuri armoury was looted of hundreds of guns and tens of thousands of rounds of ammo. Less than two weeks later, after what had seemed like a rare ceasefire, things erupted once more when armed men killed three village patrol guards in a Kuki village near a Meitei-dominated district.
“Manipur is a very dangerous area,” Zaw Win, who has been given a pseudonym for his safety, told Myanmar Now. “That’s why, even for food, we go out once every four days, sometimes [once] a week. Even for that we are afraid.”
It is not just for fear of becoming a collateral casualty that Zaw Win spends such little time outdoors. In recent months, he and the thousands of other refugees sheltering in Manipur have become active targets, as some of the more extreme figureheads within the Meitei community have labelled them “illegal immigrants” and “narco terrorists” in an attempt to justify their campaign of territorial violence.
“We don’t have any protection on either side right now,” he said. “So we are out of hope to survive here. That’s all I can say.”
While it remains unclear to what extent these threats of violence have been acted on against the refugee community, the danger is real—and so are Zaw Win’s fears of persecution.
Earlier this year, a special commando group carried out door-to-door raids across Moreh and arrested at least 170 refugees, according to aid group India For Myanmar. Such active targeting by Indian authorities in the borderlands has forced many to abandon their shelters and seek refuge in the surrounding jungle. Some, however, have gone even further: back across the border, into Myanmar.
We don’t have any protection on either side right now… So we are out of hope to survive here– a refugee from Myanmar, living in Manipur
“When [the police] find empty shelters, they ask why they are empty, whether they were the homes of Myanmar refugees, and the owners’ whereabouts,” one Myanmar national told Radio Free Asia in March. “They order the village chiefs not to let the refugees stay and to drive them back to where they came from.”
The brink of civil war
The decades-old dispute between the Meitei and Kuki peoples is channelled along ethnogeographic lines. The Meiteis—who are majority Hindus—predominantly live in Manipur’s Imphal Valley, which sits at the centre of the state and hosts the eponymous capital. The surrounding hills, which make up 90 percent of the state, are mostly populated by the Kuki and Naga groups—both of them largely Christian.
Each side has its reasons for discontent. The Meitei, who dominate Manipur’s political establishment, do not currently enjoy Scheduled Tribe status, a designation that is typically granted to some of the most disadvantaged socio-economic groups in India, including the Kuki. Therefore, the Meitei have not been legally allowed to expand their territory into the state’s hill districts. Many Kuki, meanwhile, believe they are being unfairly targeted by the Meitei-dominated government’s handling of indigenous land rights issues, which has seen them arbitrarily evicted from state-owned forests and vilified as illegal immigrants and poppy farmers.
The temperature rose sharply in April, when the Manipur High Court ordered the state government to recommend that the Meitei be granted inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes. This demand was criticised by Kuki groups, who believed it would enable the Meitei to secure even more power and make state-sanctioned inroads into the hills. Peaceful protests quickly turned violent, with interethnic clashes breaking out in the streets, and police attempts to quell the riots by way of truncheons and tear gas failed.
The bloodshed rapidly escalated, and by early May, the powder keg had exploded.
Entire villages have since been burned to the ground, forcing thousands of Manipuri residents, both Meitei and Kuki, to seek shelter in neighbouring communities. Reports of stabbings, shootings, and lynchings, as well as gunfights between armed militias on both sides, have proliferated. Schools and workplaces have been closed, internet access has been restricted, and the Indian army has been deployed with orders to shoot on sight.
It is a crisis that has caught the attention of troubled onlookers around the world. Yet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose party governs Manipur, has mostly refused to address the spiralling ethnic violence. The so-called “messiah of the poor” only broke his near silence on August 10, after the opposition party tabled a vote of no confidence against him.
“The country is with you. We will sit together and find a solution to the current challenge to restore peace and put Manipur on the path of development,” he assured the hundreds of thousands of people entangled in the conflict.
Others are less optimistic, with some describing the situation as being close to a civil war. In a report published in June, the United States Institute of Peace labelled the ongoing battery of atrocities as “some of the worst [violence] witnessed in the state in decades,” noting how “decades of deep distrust and historical hurt have polarised Indigenous communities across the region… [which] features multiple conflicting claims to ethnic and communal homelands – and armed insurgent groups to defend those claims.”
This is the firestorm Zaw Win now finds himself in, less than three years after uprooting his life and fleeing Myanmar’s civil war. In a place that has declared its hostility toward perceived interlopers, he knows that, if captured by either the authorities or the Meitei vigilantes, he could easily become another statistic in Manipur’s climbing death toll. But the alternative is just as worrisome: that he might be sent back to the very country he fought so hard to escape.
It has been more than two years since he crossed the Indo-Myanmar border with his wife and son, on the back of a motorbike that trafficked him out of one nightmare and into another. For him, he said, it “feels like yesterday.”
On an early morning in May 2021, the first army vehicles loaded with soldiers from the Myanmar junta trundled towards the gates of the university in Mandalay where Zaw Win worked. The staff had been expecting them. It had been more than three months since the military had toppled the country’s democratically elected government and started waging a renewed war against its own people. Dozens of protesters formed a civilian blockade in front of the only gate into the university, hoping—by way of nonviolent resistance—to deter the troops from forcefully entering the campus.
“After about one hour,” Zaw Win recalled, “another five trucks full of soldiers arrived at the gate. Then, without any announcement, they started using smoke bombs and [rubber] bullets. They started shooting. They broke the gates down and arrested almost 40 staff, including a very senior professor, and in front of me they beat [him] senseless.”
Zaw Win left Mandalay that same day, fleeing via a predetermined escape route. He had been labelled a person of interest—if the military caught him, he would be arrested, jailed, and potentially killed. Along with his wife and then 18-month-old son, he gathered what supplies he could and made the 320km journey northwest through the Myanmar borderlands to India. There, with the aid of locals on the other side of the border, they crossed into Manipur.
During those first three months in India, Zaw Win and his family lived in “silence” without setting foot outside. When he did finally emerge, he recalled being struck by the region’s rich diversity: how the Meitei, Kuki, and other ethnic denominations all seemed to live amicably with one another.
Eventually, he discovered that Manipur was less a melting pot than a pressure cooker.
“Tribes like Kuki, Meitei, and other different races staying together: at first I thought this was beautiful. But in reality there are some very big problems,” Zaw Win said.
When violence erupted and agitators started setting fire to houses, vehicles, and places of worship in the capital of Imphal, he realised that the state was a “very complex and very dangerous area.”
For people like Zaw Win, it is doubly so. Amid soaring ethnic tensions in Manipur, members of the Meitei community and the state government have turned refugees from Myanmar into political scapegoats, beating the drums of xenophobia and nationalism and stirring up fears around illegal immigration and narco terrorism.
‘More indigenous than the other’
“It’s a very deliberate ploy to use the refugee influx to discredit genuine Kuki grievances against the government in Manipur,” Angshuman Choudhury, an associate fellow at India’s Centre for Policy Research and an analyst specialising in Myanmar, northeast India, and armed conflict, told Myanmar Now. “Finally, when all of [the Kuki’s legitimate grievances] bubbled up, reached a peak, and they protested, the Manipur government—instead of addressing those concerns—pushed back using this illegal immigrants narrative.”
This phenomenon is not new: Manipur’s ethnic disharmonies have long centred around competing claims of indigeneity and hot-blooded resentment of perceived encroachers. As Anna Charenamei, a member of the Young Tribal Women’s Network who has been doing relief work for the displaced people in Manipur, put it: “Everyone wants to be more indigenous than the other.”
“Whether it’s in the Naga Hills or the Imphal Valley, there is this fear of new refugees coming in,” Charenamei told Myanmar Now. “There is already a lack of resources and there’s a lot of insecurity towards land, [so] people are not looking at it from a humanitarian aspect.”
By lumping the Kuki and the Myanmar refugees together and accusing them of being illegitimate invaders of an ethnostate, however, Choudhury pointed out that the Meitei nationalists have “mixed historical migration with new migration and created this very toxic, xenophobic mishmash.”
In this way, the Manipur conflict has been supercharged by Myanmar’s February 1, 2021 coup, when the military set in motion a series of events that forced thousands of citizens like Zaw Win to flee their homes. If sections of Manipur’s Meitei community already harboured feelings of nationalism, xenophobia, and insecurity before, the influx of displaced persons—especially those from Myanmar’s Chin State and Sagaing Region, who have strong ties with Manipur’s Kuki population—fanned those blazes into an inferno.
Fuelling these anxieties is the fear mongering rhetoric spouted by Nongthombam Biren Singh, chief minister of Manipur, who has repeatedly laid blame for his state’s spiralling conflict at the feet of Myanmar immigrants, or, as Choudhury said, “weaponizing the influx as a way to divide and rule.”
“Illegal immigrants are trying to create unrest in the state, a situation I had predicted 10 years ago. Poppy cultivation has been growing, and there has been a rise in drug trafficking too,” chief minister Singh recently told the media. “My government wants to cull out the illegal immigrants who are involved in drug trafficking and terrorism. The fact that the illegal immigrants belong to the Kuki community doesn’t make all Kukis bad.”
It is worth noting that there are legitimate cases of transnational crime taking place in the India-Myanmar borderlands, including drug trafficking and arms smuggling, in some cases perpetrated by members of the Kuki community. Also notable is the fact that because India is not a signatory to the 1951 international convention on refugee rights, anyone who arrives into the country without required documentation is automatically classified by authorities as an “illegal migrant”—making them easy targets for xenophobic nationalists.
As Choudhury points out, the finger-pointing is a conscious ploy by Meitei figures to reanimate a hostile fear of the “other.” For refugees who are already fleeing persecution, he added, this has made things “incredibly dangerous.”
“People are fleeing, but not out of choice, out of extreme compulsion, because that’s the closest area they could flee to,” he said. “We’ve come down to a very absurd, bizarre situation where probably they would be better off in Myanmar than in Manipur in some ways.”
Caught in these parallel conflicts, people like Zaw Win are now being forced to decide which side of the border harbours the lesser evil: Myanmar, where the military is committing widespread systematic scorched earth campaigns against civilian communities across the country, or Manipur, where the government has put a bullseye on refugees’ backs.
“Right now they are targeting and complaining about us, [saying that] these Myanmar refugees are the main reason for this conflict,” said Zaw Win. “It’s very bad. That’s why we feel we are unsafe: because the local government is targeting us for their political gain.”
This targeting has become literal in recent months, as Manipur authorities, following instruction from India’s Union Ministry of Home Affairs, have started collecting the biographic and biometric details of thousands of refugees from Myanmar: their fingerprints, eyes, face, and voice. The exercise is intended to help with identification purposes, and must be completed by September 30. But many, including aid workers and human rights activists, fear the data could lead to arrests and deportation.
“We are afraid this data will be shared between the government and the [junta], because some refugees are wanted people by the military,” Zaw Win said. “Right now we are so worried… we don’t know what we can do.”
That’s why we feel we are unsafe: because the local government is targeting us for their political gain– a refugee from Myanmar, living in Manipur
The insider-outsider dynamic in Manipur has manifested in ways that may be eerily familiar to Western onlookers. Cutting through a 10km stretch of the India-Myanmar borderlands is a semi-completed structure of steel and barbed wire: a fence, built by India’s Ministry of Defence in collaboration with the state government, that aims to seal off the 400-km border separating the two countries.
While the foundations for this fence were laid as early as 2005, its perceived importance gained renewed enthusiasm in 2022 as refugees from Myanmar continued to steadily enter Manipur. Choudhury noted how the border had been gradually militarised over the past 12 months, and the ways in which Manipuri authorities had been exploiting fears around transnational crime to reinforce the boundary and further entrench division.
“[Manipuri authorities] continue to insist that the Kuki-dominated border areas are plagued by drug smuggling and poppy cultivation,’” said Choudhury. “And that becomes a cover for this sort of fencing that spills beyond the security needs.”
“Ultimately, it is equivalent to the aggressive rhetoric around wall-making that we have seen in other territorial contexts, such as in the case of the US-Mexico border.”
On April 27, Manipur governor Anusuiya Uikey visited Moreh—the same town where Zaw Win is in hiding—to inspect the integrity of Manipur’s barrier, and to personally thank the border guards for their efforts to patrol it.
“We are proud of our security forces who have been working round the clock for our safety,” Uikey said at the time. “Although anti-social elements, drug smugglers, and militants have been trying to disturb peace from across the border, our security forces are strong enough to foil their attempts at any cost.”
Such rhetoric echoes American ex-President Donald Trump’s 2019 address, in which he announced plans for his now infamous United States-Mexico border wall to curb “uncontrolled, illegal migration” and the flow of “illegal drugs” into the US.
Demarcated by British colonists in 1826 without local consultation or consent, the Indo-Myanmar border has been contentious from the beginning, effectively dividing longstanding communities into two distinct nationalities: Indian and Burmese. While many in the interior view themselves as indisputably distinct from their neighbours in Myanmar, the borderlands are more variegated and fluid. Many people living there, including the Kuki, have family on either side.
This is one of the reasons why the Indian and Myanmar governments mutually agreed in 2018 to establish the Free Movement Regime: an arrangement that allows communities living along either side of the border to travel up to 16km inside the other country without a visa. In many ways antithetical to the idea of a border fence, the Regime aims to facilitate people-to-people contact, local trade, and business between Indian and Myanmar border communities. Amid the ongoing conflict, however, the Singh government has elected to temporarily suspend it in a bid to stop border crossings.
By contrast, the shared kinship and cultural ties across the Indo-Myanmar borderlands is the reason why Mizoram, the Indian state that neighbours Manipur to the south and similarly hugs Myanmar’s western flank, refused to support the border fence or allot land for its construction: namely, because doing so would give material reality to a boundary that so many local people view as immaterial, and divide communities who have long benefitted from a porous perimeter.
“The Mizoram government said, ‘Look: it’s our brothers and sisters; we have family ties across the border. There’s no way we are going to let you fence the border,’” Choudhury explained. “Manipur was different. Manipur said, ‘Yeah, we’ll fence the border. We want the border to be securitised.’”
It is a stark contrast that highlights the different ideological positions between the two states. This too is reflected in Singh’s “illegal influx” rhetoric and that of Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga, who has expressed support for refugees from Myanmar and penned a letter to Prime Minister Modi insisting that the nation not turn a “blind eye to this humanitarian crisis.”
It also goes some way towards explaining their wildly different immigrant populations. While official figures are hard to come by, figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) indicate that there are upwards of 40,000 Myanmar refugees currently sheltering in Mizoram, mostly from Chin State and Sagaing Region, and having largely entered since the coup. In Manipur, there are reportedly around 8,250.
The other side
Zaw Win has friends and family who have made the journey to neighbouring Mizoram, and said many have asked him why he does not do the same. Yet despite the dangers to both him and his family, he refuses to flee a second time and leave Manipur behind. Since arriving in Moreh, Zaw Win has become a member of the refugee community, working in collaboration with MPs and leaders from the Myanmar side of the border to support the scores of others who are making the crossing and finding themselves in the same situation as him.
“I haven’t considered going anywhere. I have to stay here for the other refugees,” he said. “I cannot leave my [people] here. I want to work for them.”
It is a position that puts him at even greater risk, but as he sees it, he has little choice. He believes that if volunteers like him do not offer support to those who continue to be displaced from Myanmar, no one else will.
“In India there is no body for [managing] refugees in accordance with the policy of UNHCR,” he noted. “In the borderland, especially in Manipur, we cannot request any humanitarian access; on the other side they are arresting us.”
This “other side” of the border remains the greatest fear for Zaw Win, and he isn’t alone. Choudhury pointed out that, beyond the physical threat of harm that Meitei authorities pose, one of the greatest anxieties facing the refugee community in Manipur right now is a “lingering fear of deportation.”
While Manipur may be on the brink of civil war, Myanmar is already in the grips of it. The potential risks on one side of the border are near certainties on the other.
“In Myanmar’s case it is very clear: it is a war between the military and the Myanmar people. But in Manipur, it is very complicated,” Zaw Win said. “Right now for me it’s better to stay in Manipur, because if I go back to Myanmar then definitely the military will arrest me and maybe kill me.”
Given the thousands of people still in Myanmar who find themselves facing a similar danger, it is also a near certainty that, despite the best efforts of the Manipuri authorities, the influx of refugees will continue. Zaw Win, for one, has seen little indication that the situation on either side will improve any time soon.
“I think that both in Myanmar and also Manipur, it will take a lot of time to stabilise.”
Until then, he will remain in Moreh, fighting for those who fled here before him and those still to come.