Manipur Group Meitei Alliance Calls To End Suspension Of Operations SoO Agreement, Days Before Review

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Manipur Group Calls To End Suspension Of Ops Agreement, Days Before Review

Panelists at the discussion on scrapping Manipur’s suspension of operations (SoO) agreement

New Delhi:

A global alliance of Manipur’s Meitei community has called for scrapping a controversial ceasefire with over two dozen Kuki-Zo insurgent groups amid the ethnic conflict between the hill-majority Kuki-Zo tribes and the valley-majority Meiteis.

The Kuki-Zo insurgent groups that signed the tripartite suspension of operations (SoO) agreement with the Centre and the Manipur government in 2008 have been hiding under the SoO safety net “to covertly act against India’s peace and security,” the Meitei Alliance, a group whose members are Meitei civil society organisations around the world including in the UK, the US, and Europe said in a statement on Saturday.

Every year, a joint monitoring group (JMG) reviews the SoO agreement and decides whether to end or renew it. The next review is on February 29. Broadly, the SoO agreement says the insurgents are to stay at designated camps and their weapons kept in locked storage, to be monitored regularly.

The Manipur government in March 2023 announced it had withdrawn from the SoO agreement with the Kuki National Army (KNA), and the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA). However, only the JMG can decide on such matters, which indicates the state government’s move was only a request to the JMG, sources said.

The over two dozen Kuki-Zo insurgent groups come under two umbrella groups – the Kuki National Organisation (KNO), and the United People’s Front (UPF). These two representing the others have signed the SoO agreement.

“Suspension of operations with any armed group is, technically speaking, to restore law and order and to ensure security in the country. But when it is used to mask privatisation of violence, it poses a threat to the security of the state as well as life and property of citizens,” Bimol Akoijam, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for the Study of Social Systems, said in a statement today.

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The Meitei Alliance also published a booklet detailing what it claimed were instances of SoO agreement ground rules violations by Kuki-Zo insurgents.

“Kuki-Zo armed groups have always kept their larger long-term political goal of carving out a sovereign territory called Zale’n-gam. They merely take advantage of SoO to systematically build up their strength to achieve prioritised goals achievable within the Constitution of India,” the Meitei Alliance said in the booklet titled ‘Ghost of Peace: Why Not Abrogate SoO Agreements With Kuki Armed Groups to Prevent Destabilisation of India?’

“In the long run, Kuki armed groups in the Indo-Myanmar borderland may shift allegiance and become the proxy of an entirely different, globally powerful expansionist force to become a perennial threat to India’s internal security and more extensive geostrategic interests,” the Meitei Alliance said, days after it submitted a memorandum to Home Minister Amit Shah with a request to scrap the SoO agreement.

Mr Akoijam, who recently published a report on the media’s shortcomings on reporting the Manipur issue, called for disarming all armed groups in order to end the “privatisation of violence” and ensure “only the State has monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force”.

“I have indicated before there is something that has already been discussed among scholars and activists that the privatisation of violence is unacceptable. Only the State must have the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force. That is what the State is. Now, if you privatise it (violence), that is not done… Has SoO become something like a mask to hide the truth? That is something people have to ask,” Mr Akoijam told reporters in Delhi on Saturday.

‘Amend, Review SoO Agreement, Not Scrap It’: Retired Army Officer

Major Md Ali Shah (retired), who was a part of the panel discussion on the SoO agreement in Delhi on Saturday, recommended not to put pressure on the Centre and the state government to scrap the agreement, and instead push for reviewing it and taking corrective actions to ensure the ground rules are followed by the insurgent groups.

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“I have a slightly different point of view. I am sure you have the maturity to understand it… The moment any agreement is retracted, it won’t go down well. I personally don’t stand for termination of SoO. There can be a review, no doubt. There can be amendments, no doubt. But terminating the agreement won’t be the solution to the problem,” Major Shah told reporters.

Another former army officer, Lieutenant General Konsam Himalay Singh (retired), also pointed at the scope of improvement of the SoO agreement. “… Simply following the ground rules would have prevented the worsening of the present situation. The rules were violated in many ways, though only the Manipur government’s records can confirm this. Even now, there is scope for improvement, like biometric identification of the inmates, reducing the number of camps, and strict enforcement of ground rules,” Lt General Singh said in a statement.

“But violence has spread much further. Now immediate and forceful actions to contain it are necessary, including all illegal armed groups,” said Lt General Singh, the first officer from the northeast to become a Lieutenant General in the Indian Army, and who was honoured with the Yudh Seva Medal after the Kargil War in 1999, when he commanded the 27th Battalion, Rajput Regiment, in the high-altitude battlefield Siachen.

Allegations Against Meitei Insurgents Who Signed Peace Deal

The ethnic violence in Manipur over disagreements on land, resources, political representation, and affirmative action policies has dragged on for nine months now.

Both sides accuse each other of atrocities. The Kuki-Zo tribes say their “village defence volunteers” have been repelling attacks by armed groups from the valley, who come to the hills across the “buffer zone” with obvious intentions. Both call themselves “village defence volunteers”, a definition of the belligerents in Manipur that has become the most controversial since nothing stops these “volunteers” from killing people under the insurance provided by “in self-defence”.

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However, members of Manipur’s oldest valley-based armed group UNLF, which signed a tripartite peace agreement with the centre and the state government in November 2023 – the first Meitei insurgent group to do so – are allegedly engaged in violent activities against both the security forces and the public, news agency PTI reported on February 18.

The recent sightings of insurgents of the Kh Pambei faction of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) in Manipur’s Moirangpurel, Tumukhong, and Itham have raised concerns, with reports indicating they were carrying out reconnaissance to set up camps in these areas, PTI reported.

The gates of houses of Kuki-Zo tribes in parts of Imphal valley including the Games Village in the Langol foothills have the acronym ‘UNLF’ written on them, sources who have been to the area said, requesting anonymity.

While the Kuki-Zo tribes accuse the Meiteis of razing their vacant buildings and occupying them in and around Imphal valley, the Meiteis have pointed at entire localities of their community flattened and erased in the hill district Churachandpur.

A similarity between the “village defence volunteers” of both sides is that they appear to be well-armed and well-equipped with modern battle gear. The security forces have frequently recovered Russian-origin AK and US-origin M series assault rifles, and gun models commonly used by both the junta’s army and pro-democracy insurgents in neighbouring Myanmar.

Over 180 have died in the violence, and thousands have been internally displaced.

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