Exclusive ground report: Why villagers on Manipur's borders are affected by two wars

Around 60,000 people have been internally displaced since May 2023

36-An-Assam-Rifles-personnel-patrolling-the-India-Myanmar-border Forest vigil: An Assam Rifles personnel patrolling the India-Myanmar border.

The constant buzz of insects is broken only by the rapid movement of feet and the noise of a China-made scooter carrying fresh fish. In the humid forests of Phaikoh, the last village in Manipur on the India-Myanmar border, thousands of hungry faces peer out as plumes of smoke rise from thatched huts. The wood fires add to the heavy air of gunshots and violence. The village falls under the Kamjong district of Manipur, but blends smoothly into the upper Kabaw valley of Myanmar.

As many as 6,973 Myanmar immigrants have entered Manipur illegally as of April 12. Of this, 652 have been pushed back, 12 are in judicial custody or children’s homes, and 6,309 are staying in temporary shelters near the border.
Over the past few seasons, the entry of illegal immigrants, arms and drugs and threats from insurgents have been supplemented by fast advancing rebel forces in Myanmar and a looming China, making it one of the most critical yet neglected international boundaries in India.
The process of officially demarcating porous stretches of the India-Myanmar border is yet to begin. Senior home ministry officials said the survey department will be roped in and consultations will be held with all stakeholders before fencing work begins.
Beneath the veneer of peace is the unpleasant reality of around 60,000 internally displaced people, who continue to live in uncertainty in relief camps on both sides. Every night, boys step out to guard their villages against unknown threats.
Currently, Moreh is the only feasible cross-border trade route between India and Myanmar, and the Indian government is keen on making border villages like Behiang another trade corridor once the fencing is done.

THE WEEK travelled north from Imphal to Ukhrul and onward to Kamjong in a six-hour backbreaking journey that crisscrossed police barricades and makeshift checkpoints manned by village guards. These posts divide the Imphal valley and the hills as the Meitei and the Kuki communities guard their territories with guns, creating islands of tenuous peace. This has been the case for a year now, ever since violence between the communities broke out on May 3 last year.

Leaving these strife-torn zones behind, we climbed the treacherous terrain to reach the international border. The jungle near Phaikoh opened up into the Kabaw valley, an open area of relatively flat land surrounded by tall whispering trees. Tiny leeches stuck to my feet and, as I tried to remove them, I saw droplets of blood. The burly voice of an Assam Rifles guard asked, “Do you even know where you are standing?”

Border pillar number 102 was on my far right; there were small Myanmarese hutments and a rice mill some 50m away. But border pillar number 99 fell behind at a considerable distance on my left, barely making itself visible amid refugee shelters that housed more than 600 men, women, the elderly and children from Myanmar. Some border pillars seemed to be missing. This divide, the international border, is less painful than the division of hearts between the hill-valley people in Manipur today.

It is foolish to think that international boundaries run in straight lines. This fenceless, formally un-demarcated border is fraught with complications. Locals believe Kabaw valley was given away to the Burmese under a faulty strategy after independence and at least some 2,000m actually belongs to the Indian side. There are no records to prove this and the Treaty of Yandabo, signed in 1826 between the British and the Burmese, crops up in conversations with locals every now and then. They feel the 22,210sqkm Kabaw valley will make the fencing of the India-Myanmar border an emotive issue for Manipur.

39-A-checkpoint-in-Phaikoh On guard: A checkpoint in Phaikoh, the last village in Manipur on the India-Myanmar border.

But these are only local sentiments; in the larger picture, this is the only Indian border that is undisputed. On the others, there have been disputes with Pakistan, China and even Nepal and Bangladesh in some cases.

This, however, does not mean that the Myanmar border is trouble-free. In fact, it has become one of India’s biggest security nightmares. And Manipur has become its first casualty.

41-A-camp-for-Buddhist-refugees Life in limbo: A camp for Buddhist refugees from Myanmar in Shangkalok village in Manipur’s Kamjong district.

As many as 6,973 Myanmar immigrants have entered Manipur illegally as of April 12. Of this, 652 have been pushed back, 12 are in judicial custody or children’s homes, and 6,309 are staying in temporary shelters near the border. State authorities have till now captured biometrics of 6,306 people. They have been given identity cards that say ‘Myanmarese Refugee’, and display their camp number and location, permanent address in Myanmar, birth date and identification marks. Thousands of women (many of them widows), children and elderly from neighbouring villages like Ongjia, Thanan, Mantou, Phailen, Zedy and Mongjang-Momo in Myanmar have made border stretches of Phaikoh and Shangkalok in Kamjong district their home. “We saw our houses burnt in bomb explosions,” said Nenthilal, who entered India after the fall of Thanan in Myanmar’s Sagaing region. “The refugee population is huge and there is scarcity of fresh vegetables on the Indian side. So we have to rely on our resources in villages [in Myanmar]. Depending on the security situation, we go and work there and return [to India] at sunset.”

Chousou, also from Thanan, said, “I am returning after catching fish [from a pond in Myanmar territory]. We live here (Indian territory), but go to collect paddy or catch fish during the day. We entered India in December with our families. We can hear firing and gunshots, but at least we are safe.”

43-A-view-of-a-rice-mill-in-Myanmar Across the divide: A view of a rice mill in Myanmar from within Indian territory.

Mortar shelling and drone strikes are happening not far from this border stretch. Vast swathes of Myanmar territory have fallen to rebel forces―there is an ongoing war between the Myanmar junta and ethnic rebel groups―which has direct implications for Manipur and other northeastern states. The upheaval in Myanmar following the coup in 2021 prompted several Manipur-based insurgent groups, with bases across the border (see graphics), to draw lines along ethnicities in war zones, too. It is learnt that Manipur’s valley-based groups are supporting the Myanmar army, while the hill-based insurgents are backing the opposing People’s Defence Force.

Latest intelligence reports reveal that there has been a consolidation of more than 200 valley-based insurgents, equipped with latest arms, in Myothit in Myanmar. Myothit is south of Thanan, around 10km through the mountain routes from Phaikoh. “In the past six months, the number of valley-based insurgents in Myothit has risen. Some of them even carry Myanmarese citizenship and are taking advantage of the porous border,” said a senior security officer.

45-Internally-displaced-Manipuris Homes away from home: Internally displaced Manipuris at a temporary settlement in Imphal.

Natural resources like areca nut and teak are in abundance in the fields across the unfenced border, which attracts not only refugees, but also insurgents and smugglers. This makes the economics of border management a critical aspect of security. Contraband items like heroin and methamphetamine worth Rs6.7crore were seized from this particular border stretch in the past few months. But this is only a drop in the illegal drug economy of Manipur. Official figures with THE WEEK reveal that the total value of drug seizures in the local market was Rs56.8 crore between January and December last year. The amount is sold for ten times in the international market.

As Myanmar shares an international boundary with four Indian states―Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh―the cross-border routes for smuggling drugs and weapons are many. These are from Tamu, Tahan, Somrah, Chikha, Khampat, Bokan and Dhella in Myanmar into Moreh, Kamjong, Behiang, Tusom, New Somtal and Sajik borders in Manipur. From here, the consignments go on to Churachandpur and Imphal, then to Assam, Mizoram, Nagaland and the rest of the country.

Myanmarese refugees in Phaikoh village show their identity cards. Myanmarese refugees in Phaikoh village show their identity cards.

For the longest time, the close ethnic bonds between the population on both sides of the border belied the importance of guarding this strategically significant stretch. Over the past few seasons, though, the entry of illegal immigrants, arms and drugs and threats from insurgents have been supplemented by fast advancing rebel forces in Myanmar and a looming China, making it one of the most critical yet neglected international boundaries in the country.

Oblivious to the tensions building on the ground, some of the Myanmarese hutments on the Indian side are buzzing with entertainment. On a good day, the refugees watch local channels using cable television dishes installed on some of the thatched huts, when the Indian side provides uninterrupted power supply. On quieter days, you can find youngsters on hammocks reading books under the vast sky and bright sun. The children of conflict, however, are staring at an uncertain future. Nengngaithem, who came on a bike with her husband from Myanmar, is expecting a child. “My husband was a farmer, but when our house got bombed a year ago we came here,” she said. “I do not have any money. But I will deliver my child.”

Predictably, the Indian population is outnumbered along this long border stretch. Phaikoh has a school where local children stand in two rows during a physical training exercise; the refugee children stand in 10. The humanitarian crisis brewing here has brought church volunteers and civil society groups like the Kuki Students Organisation to help provide education to the children. Mangcha, a KSO volunteer from Chassad village in Manipur, said they charge only Rs100 as admission fee. “It is a one-time fee,” said the history graduate from Imphal. “More than 50 per cent children came in last year and the numbers increased until January this year. I hardly get any remuneration, but I feel I am doing some meaningful work.” He smiled indulgently at his class. “The Myanmarese kids are good at mathematics, obedient, but show little interest in learning English. The local children are difficult to handle in comparison. We do not have enough infrastructure to accommodate all of them at the same time, so we divide them in shifts.”

I asked Mangcha if he learnt anything from the children? He laughed. “The Burmese script is very different,” he said. “It is not easy. Even though I tried, I could not pick up their language.”

Up in arms: Armed Kuki youth guarding their village in Churachandpur district. Up in arms: Armed Kuki youth guarding their village in Churachandpur district.

The refugee camps in Phaikoh housing Kuki-Chin refugees are close to the Buddhist refugee camps in Shangkalok in Ramphoi village. Both communities are on opposite sides in the Myanmar war, and though these are helpless refugees who are not expected to foment trouble, Indian forces have kept them apart to avoid any potential conflict. “We have come here [to India] for the first time but we have heard about the Buddhist culture and how it has spread from India to the world,” says Pying Khant Zaw, 21, who was studying engineering before his family fled to safety. “I had to leave my studies. My dream is to see my family safe and pursue my studies once again. I want to be successful so that I can travel the world. I want to see many more countries.”

A panoramic view of the landscape shows a telling contrast―bamboo huts of the Indian villagers that will not blow away easily in a storm interspersed with thatched huts of the refugees. They belong to the same tribes and the population has mingled so much that geographical lines do not matter any more. The refugees have even found ingenious ways to construct wells where both Indian and Myanmarese draw water and make use of a row of common makeshift toilets along the border pillars. “You could not stand in this area earlier when the refugees first started coming in,” remarked an Assam Rifles officer. “There were no toilets and the population swelled, creating a miserable situation.”

In February, the Union home ministry suspended the Free Movement Regime―which allowed cross-border movement up to 16km without a visa―to ensure internal security and maintain the demography of the border states. However, the decision needs to be followed up with strict implementation as well as talks with the Myanmar authorities, confessed a security officer.

Assam Rifles officers admitted that missing border infrastructure like roads, border outposts, fencing and shortage of boots on the ground makes their task as the first line of defence a huge challenge. “The border is not formally demarcated, some of the border pillars are missing and there is lack of coordination between state governments on the issue of demarcating the international border,” said Lt Gen (retd) Rameshwar Roy, former director general of Assam Rifles.

The process of officially demarcating the porous stretches of the India-Myanmar border is yet to begin. Senior home ministry officials said the survey department will be roped in and consultations will be held with all stakeholders, especially state governments, before the fencing work begins. It is an uphill task as critical border roads are missing in Manipur and in the absence of easy access to these stretches and adequate deployment of border troops, the construction of a fence without men to guard it could be a futile exercise. “The border outposts are also required to be interconnected with good surface and electronic communication,” said Roy.

The dynamics in the region are volatile as the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), the biggest insurgent group in the northeast, holds sway among many valley-based insurgent groups that are learnt to visit the NSCN(IM)’s covert base first before moving towards their own hideouts. Battle-hardened groups like the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur and United National Liberation Front have carried out fatal attacks on the Assam Rifles troops in the past. A major chunk of the Kabaw valley also shares a border with Churachandpur, the hill district where the Meitei-Kuki ethnic violence first began. “Any deployment for effective border management will require a linear deployment along the border as the first line of defence,” said D.K. Pathak, former director general of the Border Security Force, which guards the international border with Pakistan and Bangladesh. “But it must be backed by strong support bases at intermittent distance a few kilometers behind the first line. In view of the virtually nonexistent road infrastructure in the entire area, the troops deployed in the first line will run the risk of being overrun by insurgents if support bases are not established to send reinforcements in crisis situation. These bases will also keep the supply line to the posts on the first line.”

If the border is a cause for concern, then the year-long ethnic conflict within Manipur is also dire. The valley-based Meiteis do not set foot in the hills and the Kukis do not cross the so-called “buffer zones”, created to deploy central paramilitary forces to rein in violence. There exist islands of peace on both sides―children go to school, shops are open and crowds throng the farmer markets. But beneath the veneer of peace is the unpleasant reality of around 60,000 internally displaced people, who continue to live in uncertainty in relief camps on both sides. Every night, young boys step out to guard their villages in the hills and the valley against unknown threats.

Jenevy, 21, who stays at the relief centre on a college campus in Churachandpur, is a village volunteer who goes on “duty” at night. “My house got burnt when I left Leisang (in the hills),” he said. “I saw mortar shells coming towards my village. Even if I do not live there today, I have to guard it.”

No one discloses where they get the arms from, but the Manipur Police have a record of 6,003 weapons being looted from across the state in the past year. “It may not be an exaggeration to call it an armed society,” said a senior police officer. Official records show that 1,990 arms have been seized, which still leaves around 4,000 arms floating around in the state.

“We are making all attempts to recover the missing arms and to ensure that peace prevails,” said Manipur Director General of Police Rajiv Singh.

There are unprecedented challenges for the local police, which has been trying to insulate the uniformed men from the ethnic divide. Such times call for fresh ideas. And so, when new entrants were joining last year, the state police held a video meeting of the Kuki and Meitei newbies. The next challenge came when the training session was to be held. The neighbouring Assam Police were requested to allow their Manipur counterparts to use their training facility. At the moment, Kuki and Meitei policemen are training together in Assam, understanding each other day by day. They realise that the journey back to Manipur is not easy, but not impossible.

The Biren Singh government is between a rock and a hard place as vigilante groups in the valley―citing threats from the influx of migrants―are picking up arms. “It is true they are armed but they are not doing it as anti-nationals,” said the chief minister. “If we are able to provide full security and normalcy returns, then there will be no more youth bearing arms. We are also carrying out operations to recover arms from both the valley and the hills.”

The state police are in a quandary over how much force to use to disarm the population. Any operation in civilian areas requires the cooperation of the public, but the society does not seem ready to trust its administration yet. “Till the time this trust deficit is not bridged, the cracks in the society cannot be filled up,” said G.K. Pillai, former Union home secretary. Whether interests of all sections of society are protected equally remains crucial in such circumstances. Pillai said the healing touch has to begin with those who have survived the strife and continue to live in the hope of returning home one day.

“The local administration is giving us food and our children are going to school. But we do not expect peace to come anytime soon,” said Letkhohou Khongsai, 31, from the hilly Chandel district in Manipur. “The big question is, will we return home?”

The disillusionment runs deep in the relief camps in the valley. As the sun goes down, displaced families in dimly lit rooms get busy preparing meals. Men and women wash clothes in open drains and children open their books to learn new lessons. The beds are divided by long sheets on poles and a few community halls have blood pressure machines and broken stretchers lying around; these are for when doctors visit. “Even the poor have dignity. But to be living as a displaced person in your own country is the biggest nightmare,” said Poornima Lasihram, 38, who fled Moreh last May 3.

She demanded an answer from the politicians seeking votes in the Lok Sabha elections. For the first time, Manipur set up special polling stations for “internally displaced people”. Surprisingly, the turnout was good. “We are not asking for any special favour. We are asking for our rights,” said Poornima. Babby Sorisan, the convener of the Wangkhei Apunba Nupi Lup relief camp in Imphal, said seven NGOs have come together to improve the condition of women who are worst affected by the violence. “Women have been at the receiving end of the ethnic clashes in the past one year. We want the pain to end and we will do whatever it takes to bring these women out of misery.”

With the dawn of each new day, there are new hopes and aspirations that keep the human spirit alive. Surjit, who cast his vote at the Trade and Expo Centre Complex in Imphal, said compassion and unity have to be the way forward. He left behind Kuki and Naga friends in his village when he took shelter in Imphal. “My friends are not picking up my calls now. Some of them blocked my number,” he said. “But I know we will talk again. We have always been united and we will ensure Manipur stays united, not just territorially, but also community to community and heart to heart.”

With his words in mind, we journeyed south from Imphal to the hill district of Churachandpur to reach the last border village of Behiang. A Meitei Muslim driver took us there. On the way, we crossed Bishnupur, once chosen by the British for its advantageous location and today being misused by militants to launch attacks on security forces. On April 28, militants killed two Central Reserve Police Force personnel, demonstrating that peace can be shattered any moment in these areas. A few Assam Rifles vehicles and illegal Myanmarese entrants pass us by as we reach Behiang. The Assam Rifles have an advantage here as their post overlooks several Myanmarese villages up to Tiddim. Aerial surveillance using quadcopters and thermal imagers make up for the shortage of boots at the loosely scattered border pillars hidden on top of several hills.

Behiang has a floating population as most villagers go out for work and travel miles on foot, bikes and vans to meet their loved ones across the border.

A 100m climb near border pillar 42 at Behiang takes you into a busy Myanmar village whose chief likes to seek out the Assam Rifles when there is trouble. Once, a village chief’s son got locked inside the hut and despite several efforts they could not open the door. A call went to the Indian side for help, and the boy was freed.

There are many stories about how the hearts in the hills have been beating together despite the imaginary fence. On Tiddim road, we met a happy group of travellers who were returning from Myanmar after visiting their loved ones. Having travelled on these stretches for decades, they barely knew the difference between the two countries, which explained why they had no idea that the Free Movement Regime had been frozen.

However, villagers on both sides of the border, looking for sustenance and survival in these difficult mountain terrains, are aware of the buzzing trade that has been taking place in Moreh, a more accessible, motorable and prosperous region in comparison. A 10km border stretch here has been fenced. “If the border fencing allows trade like in Moreh and brings business, then we do not mind fencing,” says Naihat, a 38-year-old native of Behiang. The sentiment is echoed by Myanmarese refugees in Phaikoh as well. Currently, Moreh is the only feasible cross-border trade route between India and Myanmar, and other southeast Asian countries and the Indian government are keen on making border villages like Behiang another trade corridor once the fencing is done. It is a tall order, but a start has to be made somewhere. Building new fences and removing imaginary ones is the only way forward for Manipur as the Union home ministry increases efforts to ward off threats to people of India. This might require North and South Block to go back to the drawing board to map out once again where they need to climb up or down to set things right.


After the United National Liberation Front signed a ceasefire agreement with the Union and state governments on Nov 29, 2023, there are now 33 active outfits in Manipur, some of which have bases in Myanmar

Valley-based: 15

Includes the UNLF(Koireng), the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur, the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup, the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak and the Coordination Committee (alliance of six groups)

Hill-based: 18

Includes 10 Naga insurgent groups like the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah, the NSCN (Khaplang), the Zeilangrong United Front and the Manipur Naga Revolutionary Front, and 8 Kuki insurgent groups like the Kuki National Front-Nehlun, the Kuki National Army and the Kuki Independent Army


Fencing from Border Pillar-79 to BP-81 (9.214km) completed

Fencing from BP-35 to BP-43 (20.862km) delayed as survey work for land acquisition is facing resistance from local population

Detailed project report prepared for fencing from BP-61 to BP-75 (42.286km)

Identification of new stretches―55.41km―ongoing