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The Role Of A Plant In Manipur Ethnic Violence

Poppy farms in Myanmar’s Chin State’s northern tip are just 60 km from Manipur’s border town Moreh

New Delhi:

A UN report in January on large-scale poppy cultivation in Myanmar mostly went unnoticed in a world busy with the war in Ukraine and other more ‘important’ geopolitical issues.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report, which tracked Myanmar opium farming, found that poppy cultivation shot up in 2022 and reversed the downward trend of 2014 to 2020.

Myanmar’s military junta seized power from a democratically elected government in a coup in February 2021. In the following year, the UN report shows a clear increase in Myanmar poppy farming.

Why is this report significant now, in the context of India?

The month-long ethnic violence in Manipur, which shares 400 km of the 1,640 km-long India-Myanmar border, has a direct connection to poppy cultivation and drug trafficking.

The Manipur government’s “war on drugs” campaign has destroyed thousands of acres of poppy farms in the state’s hill districts since 2017.

The immediate cause of the current crisis in Manipur was the protest by the Kuki tribe, who are settled in the hills, against the valley-majority Meiteis’ demand for inclusion under the Scheduled Tribes (ST) category, India’s affirmative action policy.

The other factors of the violence, however, among a multitude of social frictions, include the loss of livelihoods of the hill tribes who have relied on poppy cultivation for decades.

One of the areas worst-affected by the ethnic clashes – apart from Churachandpur, where violence started on May 3 – is the porous border trading town of Moreh in Manipur.

Some 60 km from this Indian border town lies the northern tip of Myanmar’s Chin State, where the UNODC found “very high” poppy cultivation density of more than 6 acres per square kilometre (sq. km), or roughly five football fields per sq. km (see map below). Churachandpur district, too, is just 65 km from the Chin State border, where there is a dense concentration of poppy fields.

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Opium poppy cultivation density in Myanmar. Source: UNODC Illicit Crop Monitoring Programme

Only 10 per cent of the 400-km international border that lies in Manipur is fenced, leaving it wide open as a transit route for drug trafficking to northeast India from the “Golden Triangle” – the tri-junction of the Myanmar, Laos and Thailand borders.

The narcotics trade active in this forested region knows no political boundaries. All kinds of drugs derived from the opium poppy such as heroin have been regularly seized by the authorities in this region. Politicians, businessmen, and police and military officers have been arrested, indicating the insidious nature of the problem in Manipur.

However, the Manipur government’s consistent crackdown on poppy cultivation in the hill districts since 2017 have added to the pent-up anger among the tribal farmers of the controversial crop.

A big operation to destroy poppy fields in December 2022 – five months before the ethnic clashes erupted – coincided with the harvest season, which ended all hopes of making any money from half-a-year worth of farming.

The government has destroyed 18,664 acres of poppy plantations from 2017 to 2023, data from Manipur’s special anti-drugs unit Narcotics and Affairs of Border (NAB) shows. Kangpokpi, 45 km from state capital Imphal, had the biggest share of poppy plantations razed at 4,397 acres during the five-year period, followed by Churachandpur at 2,700 acres, the NAB data shows (table 1 below). These two are tribal-majority districts.

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Table 1: Destruction of Manipur poppy plantations from 2017 to 2023

Poppy cultivation is relatively easy compared to mainstream agriculture. The crop is sown twice a year and is harvested in early spring and winter (table 3 below). Tribal farmers, most of whom are extremely poor, prefer to grow poppy in remote hills mainly due to lack of government support for them.

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Table 3: Myanmar opium cultivation calendar, 2020-2021. “Monsoon cultivation” observed in Kayah and southern South Shan refers to early planting before end of rainy season, and “late cultivation” refers to staggered planting after normal time to spread the harvest over a longer period. Source: UNODC Illicit Crop Monitoring Programme

“Poppy cultivation is the easiest way out for the poor,” an officer involved in the “war on drugs” campaign told NDTV on phone from Imphal, where internet has been snapped for nearly a month.

“But it is still a wrong thing to do. You grow poppy to make drugs and that’s illegal, whatever the reasons. There are ways to make the leaders in the hills and the valley answerable to why benefits are not reaching poor tribals,” the officer said, asking not to be identified.

The conversion ratio of opium to heroin depends on three factors – the morphine content of opium, the efficiency of traffickers to extract morphine from opium and convert morphine to heroin, and the purity of the heroin estimated. The UNODC said none of these factors are well-researched in the context of Myanmar.

The Manipur opium yields, however, are known to be much richer and fetch a higher price in the international market, an anti-narcotics officer who was posted at Moreh told NDTV on phone. The officer left the border town in the second week of May amid gunfights.

“It is no secret that certain groups and power centres want to control poppy cultivation,” the officer said, asking not to be identified.

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Young-stage poppy seedlings planted in a terrace field, Myanmar’s East Shan, 2022. Credit: UNODC

Following the clashes with the Meiteis, the Kuki tribe has demanded “separation” from Manipur. The state government led by Chief Minister N Biren Singh of the BJP, who is a Meitei, has said Manipur’s territorial integrity will be protected.

The Kukis’ demand for a separate administration has led to suspicion that they want to run the ‘business’ all by themselves. The corollary of this allegation, however, is that other communities are involved in many ways, from transporting the finished ‘product’ to selling them.

“If other communities including the Meiteis are not involved, then why would the question of the Kukis trying to run poppy plantations alone arise?” an Imphal-based environmentalist told NDTV. “It is all public information. Recall the number of politicians and cops arrested for carrying heroin in Manipur. Look up on the internet. The poppy business has seeped through the fabric of communities,” the expert said, requesting anonymity.

The environmental damage including large-scale deforestation due to poppy cultivation has often been overlooked, Lieutenant General L Nishikanta Singh (retired), a resident of Imphal, told NDTV on phone. “Hills that are sacred to the indigenous people have been damaged due to poppy cultivation,” said Lt General Singh, who served in the Indian Army including in the Intelligence Corps for 40 years.

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A lanced capsule oozing opium latex in Myanmar’s Kachin, 2022. Credit: UNODC

Meitei groups have alleged Kuki-Chin tribe’s migration from Myanmar to Manipur to work as labourers at poppy farms increased significantly in the past two decades. The Meiteis say the current violence was a deliberate provocation by “illegal immigrants” and Kuki-Chin insurgents, who have signed the “suspension of operations”, or SoO, with the centre and the state government.

One of the key points in the SoO agreement was that the insurgents will respect the territorial integrity of Manipur. But the Kuki-Chin tribe’s demand for a separate administration violates the agreement.

Kuki groups strongly refute the allegations that illegal immigrants are involved in the current crisis. They say the issue of illegal immigrants is a fiction invented by the Manipur government to justify their actions.

Dr Nemthian Guite, associate professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, who has been following the issues in Manipur very closely, told NDTV that drug trafficking has been happening for a long time and the authorities are trying to blame poor tribals, while many across communities including the Meiteis have dipped their hands into the opium trade.

“It is wrong to blame tribals who are very poor for poppy cultivation. The government, instead of enforcing anti-drugs laws strictly, monitoring the border and investigating how well-connected trafficking is in Manipur, is suddenly putting the blame only on tribals,” Ms Guite said, alluding to drug lords operating out of Imphal valley. She asked how did the poppy cultivations come up in the first place, if not without the knowledge of the government authorities.

Some intelligence operatives in Manipur have indicated that Myanmar-based insurgents may be involved in the violence, though there is no official confirmation. Insurgents hiding in the remote forests in Chin State’s northern region, which shares a border with India, have links with Manipur’s poppy planters. A disruption of the ‘business’ in Manipur affects poppy planters in Chin State as they share the same trafficking routes.

Lieutenant General Singh on May 30 alleged some “300 terrorists, including lungi-clad ones from Myanmar have entered India (Manipur)”. The “lungi-clad” reference was seen as alluding to the involvement of Myanmar border-based insurgents who, like civilians, wear the “longyi“, as it is known in the military junta nation.

Chin State’s opium production is miniscule compared to other plantations in Myanmar, the UNODC data shows. It produced 7.9 tonnes in 2021 and 13 tonnes in 2022, compared to Shan State that produced 340 tonnes in 2021 and 670 tonnes in 2022, a huge 96 per cent jump (table 2 below).

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Table 2: Myanmar opium production by region and state (in tonnes) in 2021-2022. Values in parentheses indicate 95 per cent confidence interval. Numbers in the table are rounded, percentage changes are calculated with exact estimates. Source: UNODC

It is speculated that Chin State’s low production and much smaller cultivation area (table 4 below) relative to Myanmar’s other poppy regions makes sending the ‘product’ to the nearest border, which is Manipur, more convenient than selling it down south towards Thailand or Laos, which are quite far away.

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Table 4: Areas under poppy cultivation in Myanmar in 2021 and 2022 in hectares (1 hectare is approximately 2.48 acres). Values in parentheses indicate 95 per cent confidence interval. Numbers in the table are rounded, percentage changes are calculated with exact estimates. Source: UNODC

The UNODC says the Myanmar opium production estimates indicate a magnitude and are not precise measurements.

They show a rough picture, however, of the size of the problem that few in Manipur have talked about amid the current crisis – the question of who gets to control opium production, and by extension, wealth and influence.

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