Maria Mangte | UNARMED HEROES: The courage to go beyond violence

Samuel T. Lupho, Hnom Penh city, Cambodia

I am really surprise to come accross this books in the Liberary of the Pannasatra Universtity, Cambodia where Iam right now persuing my research. More surprise is a great personalities from Manipur (Eimis) whom the world recognised her. Her stories are insightfull as well inciteful. She is Maria Mangte and here is for you to read and reflect.


Maria Mangte, whose original name os Lhingboi, comes from the norteast of India- the province of Manipur, which borders Burma (myanmar), Thailand and China. Until 50 years ago the tribes in the area lived side by side in peace despite all differences, and even lived partly together. Then British colonisation and Christian missionaries affected their cultural heritage. They were followed by businessmen, plantation founders, and soldiers, because nortyh-east India is rich in minerial resopurces, tropical woods and fertile highland soil. tribal communities were torn apart and in the struggle Maria lost her parents, husband and two children to inter-tribal warfare. She has overcome great personal difficulties in order to advance peaceful relations amongst indigenous people. She was completely unlettered but is now one of the few women members of councils that represents tribal peoples in India.

I have been at the centre of conflict for most of my life. I come from the province of Manipur in north-east India on the borders of Burma, Thailand and china, where there has long beenresistance to the central government. many inhabitants still belong to indigenous tribes, Until 50 years ago, they lived together harmoniously, but the central government used a strategy of ‘devide and rule’and set the tribes against each other. I belong to a small community called ‘KOM’. We are small in numbers and are now almost to extinct, but our community stands neutral between two warring communities. Both tried to claim our tribe which was dangerous for us because we were split into two groups- one lobbying for the Tankghuls and other for the Kukis. To try to stop this communal struggle within my community was challenging and dangerous. I was also drawn in different direction within myself. I had had a Christian education in a convent school but, through my grandmother, i inherited some of our tribal culture. From her, I learned the ways of preserving and guarding nature; much of the work my grandmother did was done in secret, because it was seen as witchcraft. We were all connected to nature, and the community in itself was in harmony. We did not know a God who stood above all things. From my father I inherited Western values- education, culture and desire for political participation and descision making. He became a resistance fighter who was persecuted by the government and spent a large part of his life in jail.

it was while I was at school that was awakened to social problems, when I used to accompany the nuns in their field work in remote villages. This is where I learned to live a good christian life, learning to give and help and to forgive and pray. but this also led me into political activism. When i was at college I became a stuident leader aand later I joined the revolutionary movement, the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA). We were fighting for the freedom of manipur state and to bring social justice to our society. We wanted to get rid of gender inequality, nepotism and corruption, discrimination on the basis of religion or caste, and economic disparity. All i knew at that time was the poverty of the people and their oppression, and all my thoughts were about how to liberate them. As a young women, I worked in the resistance with my husband and most of the people in my village. During the arm struggle, many were killed, including my husband. I was able to flee and managed to move to Delhi, where i studies politics. I kept my identity secret, as I would have been seen as the wife of a terrorist.

My political activities included a march to China (in 1979) when I was the only girl among hundreds of boys. Our hope was to establish links with the Chinese Government and to seek assistance in supportof our movement. We wanted to establish a strong base at the border to fight the Indians following Communist ideology. My role was to be guide, nurse, motivator and interpreter. later, i found that most of the cadres were not politically conscious. many hailed from poor families, with neither jobs nor education, and I realized that they had nothing else to do but take up rifles since they did not fit in anywhere.

Eventually, I became disillusioned with the revolutionary movement. I found there are the same nepotism, power politics and hierarchichal authority that i had opposed in the mainstream government. the Chinese Government had changed its policies of giving outside support, but more importantly, I could not accept communist brainwashing tactics or reconcile communist teachings with my christian background. the purpose of being a revolutionary was defeated when i found the normal tendency to selfishness and greed within the group. So, in 1984, I returned to India. I travelled through the jungles of Burma 9as it then was), but when I reached manipur, the manipur state police arrested me on a variety of criminal charges and handed over me to the Indian army.

Detention in the army campwas an important turning point in my life. I faced intensive interrogation from officials from the state central intelligence (CID) and the millitary intelligence (MI) and sometimes from the press. but this experience completely changed my impressions of the Indian army. contrary to what I thought, I found them gentle and polite when they spoke to me, and generally respectful of women. They tried to understand my views and to comprehend the situation as I described the cul;tural diversity within the area and the differences from the mainstream. They willingly accepted many of my views on social and economic problems, although we could not agree on political matters. But whatever the case, I wanted to bring neutral between the two sides and was willing to do anything to bridge the gap between the Indian army and the rebels and to bring them to the negotiating table if possible. my life was too at stake. I knew that if i did not prove myself, i would not be released nor would the groups let me in peace.

In 1968, I agreed to go back to the rebels of the PLA on a special mission. I had a message from the indian Government for peace talk and political negotiations. Once more I cross the border into burma and went to the headquarters of the kachin Independence Organization (KIO), where I met the Chairman Mr. Maran Branseng. I discussed my mission with him as a special messenger to the rebels for peace talks. Contact was made with the PLA, but there was no positive response. however, i came back as an emissary of the KIO with a letter addressed to the then Prime Minister of India, Mr Rajiv Gandhi, and thus left a diplomatic link between Government of India and KIO who were fighting for independence from the Burmese regime.

for the next few years I led a more ‘normal life’. I continued my studies in Delhi at Jawaharla nehru University. I also took a part-time job as a tour operator, which enable me to get back to Thailand and meet KIO leaders again. I continue to act as liaison between the Kachins and the Indian authorities, simply as a humanitarian supporter of the Kachin cause, not as an Indian national. later, I lived for a while in Thailand where I taught in a Catholic school and then worked in a finane company.

Life in thailand was completely different from life in india. The cities were more developed than in my country and people were friendlier and more sober, polite and gentle. I had no fears living here. I started to make anew life, earning more money than I needed, but still wanting to earn more to fulfil many dreams I had. But this desire to make more money almost destroyed my inner peace. I was suddenly moving in a different social crowd and like most normal young people I looked for entertainment in discotheques, parties and night-clubs. But i soon tired of the artificial love and romances of thai night-life, the competitiveness and the constant race against time. It was certainly a different way of life, from the jungles to the city! But despite all the rich food and comforts, I was never really happy. I felt lonely and empty, I was worried and discontented, and frightened that I was losing something though I did not know ahat.

An inexplicable impulse brought me back to india (in 1993) where I worked as a project officer for the International Trade Fair Promotion Organisation and then as a manager at reebok International India. Then, once agin, the whole course of my life was changed. I was working in delhi, but I was soon confronted with the victims of ethnic conflict that was flaring up in my region.

Many displaced women were comingh to delhi in search of relatives who could offer them shelter and moral support, and many them ended up on my doorstep. i listened to their stories about the war had suddenly interrupted without rhyme or reason. their sufferings were not only physical. there was the mental trauma and sorrows of parting from loving neighbours from other communities because of the ethnic violence. It was the women and children who were mos vulnerable and this affected me too. I became once more a changed person thinking, ‘this could be me’.

The situation back in my region was getting worse. many women were destitute having become widows while the fought in the inter-tribal wars. many orphaned children were begging in the streets with no homes to go. Yound people were taking drugs, yound girls were going into prostitution, and many had become HIV positive. There were increased crime and extortion, while insurgency led to millitary operations and attrocities to suppress the insurgency. many women and girls were raped by the soldiers. So this was when I started engaging in relief work, trying to find solutions to the social problems. The first step was to provide immediate rekief to the victims of conflict in terms of shelter, food and clothing, and we hoped that the trouble would end soon.

I soon found that relief work was not enough. The victims were beginning to develop a ‘dependency syndrome’ because there was nothing for them to do in the towns and cities. This was not their fault. They had come from villages where they were able to grow their own food in the forestlands and to be self-sufficient. But in the towns they were forced to live on charity, which was degrading to them. We needed to initiate income generating activities and at first the most obvious thing was to encourage women to use their traditional cloth-weaving skill which are rare and in danger of vanioshing. For weeks at a time we searched the city for markets where we could sell this traditional tribal clothing.

I also worked at the political level to promote the resolution of ethnic conflicts, so that the displaced people could return to their homes and normal life. For this work, the Tribal welfare Society came into existence. The society worked holistically to cater to the needs of victims and other downtrodden people in society. It contributed to education and health needs, provided legal aid, and promoted income-generating projects. It also raise awareness about peace, conflict resolution and human rights issues.

As a result of this work, I became involved in organisations at the national level devoted to promoting the interest and welfare of tribal peoples. In 1994, i was appointed Joint Secretary of the All Tribal Development council, and in 1996 i was elected as the secretary General of the Indian confederation of Indigenous and tribal peoples. In 1997, I was a representative at the UN Working Group on Indigenous people held in Geneva. There I met representative from all revolutionary groups in our region. With all their different goals and objectives, they were seeking support from western world for their movements. At this conference, we wanted to raise awareness and understanding amongst our European supporters of the problems we faced and the gravity of the situation.

Working for peace in a conflict zone is not easy with so many diverse ethnic communities who are rivals to each other. The situation is so confusing it is difficult to kow what to do. Every well intentioned action can invite hatred and suspicion, because if you work with one community another will consider you an enemy. The best approach is to find problems shared by the same kinds of people from different groups. For example, we work with women from different groups who have been victims of violence, or we try to bring traditional leaders together to discuss common problems, or we try to bring together unemployed youths from different communities. There are all kinds of practical activities that can bring people together, like the women’s weaving project or agricultural project, as well as seminars and workshops.

My experience as a student leader, as a revolutionary, as a political prisoner, as a social worker and as a movement leader have taught me that the ‘grass is not greener on the other side’. I have decided to work for peace and my work is to built bridges where people have been torn apart. I also realised that no liberation movement can bring freedom or liberate human race. Freedom is in the minds and hearts of the people. This taught me to respect every individual in their own place, which brought a feeling of stillness and peace in the middle of noisy crowd. I understood that we need to create many more visonaries and not merely leaders. It just needs a huma heart to touch the souls of those who are suffering and peace is within you. And inward peace will bring peace to outside world. Working for peace is not easy and we are often misunderstood, but it is not an impossible task either when everyone joins hands to work for peace.

( This personal testimonies is taken from the book Unarmed heroes- the courage to go beyond violence ccompiled and edited by peace direct 39a Lancaster Grove, London NW3 4HB, Tel: +44(0) 845 456 9714/ )

Lahsawnna: Kuki International Forum

About Zou Sangnaupang Pawlpi Delhi

Zou Students' Association Delhi Branch
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