Manipur ground report: Meitei groups bar entry to 10 Kuki villages that were burnt down

The restrictions imposed by Meitei vigilante groups have made it next to impossible for mediapersons to investigate allegations of armed attacks and arson that occurred in Manipur’s Kangpokpi district in June.
Meitei vigilante group and police blocking TNM at Nongshum
Meitei vigilante group and police blocking TNM at Nongshum
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Two months after several Kuki villages were burned down and nine Meitei people were killed in the Saikul subdivision of Manipur’s Kangpokpi district, the villages remain inaccessible for journalists. Amid a storm of claims and counterclaims by Meitei and Kuki groups, reporters are forced to rely on selective leaks from security forces whose credibility has been seriously dented during this conflict. It is possibly the only region in Manipur that mediapersons are being physically prevented from accessing even though there are no official orders. Meitei vigilante groups and Meira Paibis women make sure that nobody enters the villages and exert pressure on the Army to dissuade them from extending help to journalists.

The restrictions in these villages of Saikul subdivision have made it next to impossible for us to investigate allegations of armed attacks, burning down of villages, and murders on both sides of the ethnic divide. Ten villages in the subdivision were attacked and set ablaze from June 12 onwards starting with H Khopibung. In the next two days, the villages of Khamenlok, Chullouphai, P Phainom, Aigejang, Thambol, Jordanphai, Songjang, Leikot, and Govajang were also targeted, leaving behind a trail of devastation.

As per the official count, nine Meiteis were killed. While the Manipur police have said that the perpetrators were Kuki militants, Kuki village chiefs had questioned the narrative through a joint statement issued on June 16. The chiefs asked what the Meitei men were doing in the Kuki villages whose residents had already fled. They said that Kuki village volunteers had no option but to fire at the Meitei ‘radicals’ in order to defend themselves. Kukis have also been vocal in their demand for the media to document these incidents in depth because they believe the reporting on the event to be false and misleading. So what happened between June 12 and June 14? What condition are these villages in currently?

On August 15, Independence Day, TNM set out on a journey to these villages but faced resistance from vigilante groups who forbade our entry. At Nongshum village, which is about 30 km from Imphal town, our team was stopped by Meitei village volunteers who carried walkie-talkies. They said the media cannot be allowed to move further into the Khopibung and Khamenlok areas. When we sought to know the reasons for the restriction, they said permission had to be taken from a commando of the Manipur police.

A police officer arrived at the spot but behaved in a hostile manner. “There are militants from Myanmar present there. They will shoot you down,” he yelled. When we asked who these militants were, he said they were Kukis. While there are no official orders banning anyone from entering these regions, the Metei village volunteers who surrounded us explained how dangerous it was to venture into the village. They pointed to bunkers uphill through binoculars saying that they belonged to Kuki militants.

In reality, the bunkers belonged to the Indian Army’s Gorkha Regiments (GR). When the mob began to grow in strength and it became clear that the vigilante group wouldn’t allow us to travel to Khopibung, we took an uphill road to the right which led to a GR bunker, where an officer confirmed that other bunkers too belonged to them. The officer also informed us that the regiment has not placed any restrictions on the entry of outsiders, but refused to speak about why some villagess in Saikul subdivision are still impenetrable. There's no official word about the unofficial blockade preventing journalists from going on a simple fact finding mission.

We moved towards a school in Chingdai village where GR and CRPF personnel were camping. While waiting outside the camp gates to meet GR officials, a few Meira Paibis women approached us seeking to know the purpose of our visit. They checked our vehicle and our ID cards and became agitated when we told them that we couldn’t speak their language. Messages began to be passed through mobile phones and soon more Meira Paibis volunteers, numbering around 60, reached the spot. Seeing the commotion, two GR officers came out to speak to us. But the women surrounded us to prevent us from having a conversation with the officers. The officers seemed scared and hesitant to speak.

“They (Meira Paibis) can’t understand Hindi or English and will not allow us to talk to you. They assume that any conversation that we have in these languages would be to help journalists travel to the villages, which they don’t want,” said an officer. The officers clarified that while the Army has not prohibited anyone from entering the villages that experienced violence in June, they cannot provide security to mediapersons to travel. “We cannot be of help in this regard,” said the officer.

Another officer we spoke to over the phone said outsiders are being prevented from travelling to these villages because of the volatile nature of the conflict. “Only things left here are burnt down villages and volunteers who engage in gun battles. The women and children have moved to relief camps. We cannot divulge anything more,” the officer said.

TNM met some of the people from the villages in Saikul subdivision who had to flee to a relief camp in the district. Lhingnu, her three children, and her elderly father-in-law Theng fled Phainom (a Kuki village) on June 13, a day after the neighbouring Khopibung was burnt down.

“All these villages lie in close proximity. When Khopibung was burnt down, people from neighbouring villages started moving out within a day. We too fled with the kids, without even taking a pair of extra clothes. My husband stayed back in the village as a volunteer. He says there is nothing left in the villages. They burnt everything down,” 45-year-old Lhingnu told us.

Theng added that after Khopibung was burnt down, the other nine villages were destroyed completely within a span of two days.

At another relief camp, TNM met around 20 families from Govajang village. They had also fled on June 13, after the attack on Khopibung. At least one young man from each family stayed back in the village as a volunteer.

“We knew for certain that our village would be the next target. We walked almost a day to reach this relief camp,” said 70-year-old Loishi, who fled Govajang with her family.

Kuki activists allege that mediapersons are not being allowed into these villages as Meitei groups have something to hide. A Local Self Government member from Kangpokpi district alleged that it could be because they don’t want anyone else to know the extent of damage caused to the villages and the truth about the sophisticated weapons they use in these areas.

He also shared a few drone camera visuals, purportedly of the villages that were burnt down. However, TNM couldn’t independently verify whether the videos were shot in these villages. An Army official who was earlier deployed in Khopibung confirmed that the villages are almost in the same condition as seen in visuals. “It may be true that they have things to hide but we can’t say,” he said.

Manipur Dispatches: Our reporters Prajwal Bhat, Haritha John and Bhuvan Malik are in Manipur to provide you with exclusive, in-depth ground reports that delve into the heart of the matter. If you believe that human rights violations in a distant land should be a topic of conversation in this part of India, support our intrepid truth-seeking mission. Contribute here.

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