Indian and Manipuri Governments Reach Fraught Peace Agreement with UNLF’s Pambei Group

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 22 Issue: 5

Khundongbam Pambei, leader of the UNLF-Pambei. (Source: Wikimedia)

Executive Summary:

  • The Indian government and the government of the restive northeastern state of Manipur signed a “peace agreement” with the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), a banned ethnic Meitei organization, on November 29, 2023. While signing the peace agreement is a breakthrough for the Indian government, it is unlikely to usher in peace in the foreseeable future.
  • New Delhi signed the peace agreement with a segment of the UNLF that split off in 2020 under the leadership of then-chairman Khundongbam Pambei. This faction has only around 65 members, as opposed to rest of the UNLF, which opposes the agreement. The remainder is led by R.K. Achou Singh (alias Koireng), and has some 300 members.
  • Other militant Meitei groups in Manipur are not signatories to the agreement. A separate agreement with militants that come from the Kuki-Zo tribal communities may collapse. Other challenges include the spillover effects of the ongoing civil war in Myanmar and a high number of armaments that are currently circulating around Manipur.

On November 29, 2023, the Indian government and the government of the restive northeastern state of Manipur signed a “peace agreement” with the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), a banned ethnic Meitei organization based in the Imphal valley. The tripartite agreement was hailed as a “historic achievement” because it was the first time that a militant group from Manipur’s Meitei ethnic majority had signed an agreement with the Indian government. A statement issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) stated that the agreement would “usher in a new era of peace in the North East in general and Manipur in particular” (Press Information Bureau, November 29, 2023).

Manipur, which shares borders with turmoil-ridden Myanmar, has been wracked by insurgencies for decades. [1] Although the insurgency in Manipur has waned in recent years, there has also been a sharp uptick in violence since May 2023, when violent clashes erupted between the Meitei majority and the Kuki-Zo tribal communities. [2] Ethnic tensions have continued to run high in Manipur since then.

Against this backdrop, the Indian government and Manipuri state government signed the deal with the UNLF. While the recent agreement is a breakthrough of sorts for the Indian government, it seems unlikely to lead to a “new era of peace.” Instead, the coming period could see a surge in violence in Manipur.

Agreement with a Weaker Faction

The UNLF was formed in 1964 to establish a sovereign and socialist Manipur. While it is Manipur’s most powerful militant group, the UNLF suffered several splits over the decades. In 2020, its then-chairman, Khundongbam Pambei, began ceasefire negotiations with the Indian government. However, differences with the group’s central committee culminated in his expulsion from the UNLF in 2021. Pambei then went on to form his own organization. It is with this new “Pambei group” that New Delhi has signed the peace agreement (Hindustan Times, December 15, 2023).

The Pambei group is estimated to have a cadre of only around 65. In comparison, the rump UNLF led by R.K. Achou Singh (alias Koireng), which opposes the peace talks, has some 300 members (The Hindu, November 29, 2023). Days after the Pambei group signed the agreement, the “UNLF-Koireng” issued a statement denouncing the “Pambei group” for its “total betrayal of the [sovereignty and independence] goal of UNLF” (Times of India, December 3, 2023). The fact that the numerically dominant faction of the UNLF opposes peace talks and is not a party to the recent agreement bodes poorly for future UNLF-government efforts. Likewise, the possibility of violence between Pambei’s and Koireng’s wings of the organization cannot be ruled out.

Not an Inclusive Agreement

In addition to the Koireng-led UNLF, several other Meitei groups in Manipur are not signatories to the agreement. This includes the outlawed People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), and the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP). Indeed, just a week before signing the agreement with the Pambei faction, the MHA announced a 10-year extension of the ban on eight “Meitei extremist organizations,” including the PLA and its political wing, the Revolutionary Peoples’ Front (RPF); the UNLF and its armed wing, the Manipur Peoples’ Army (MPA); PREPAK and its armed wing, the “Red Army”; the KCP and its armed wing, also called the “Red Army”; the Kanglei Yaol Kanba Lup (KYKL); the Coordination Committee (CorCom); and the Alliance for Socialist Unity Kangleipak (ASUK). The notice pointed out that they “have been engaging in activities prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India” and “employing and engaging in armed means to achieve their objectives, attacking and killing the security forces, police, and civilians in Manipur” (The Hindu, November 13, 2023).

Kuki militant groups compose the other part of the militant ecosystem in Manipur. Of the roughly 32 Kuki armed groups, 25 are part of two umbrella groups: the Kuki National Organization and the United People’s Front. They both signed the 2008 Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement. The SoO confines the groups to designated camps and mandates that their weapons be regularly monitored and kept in locked storage (NDTV, June 25, 2023). However, the SoO agreement is now in jeopardy. In March 2023, the Manipur government unilaterally withdrew from the agreement with the Zomi Revolutionary Army and the Kuki National Army and accused them of instigating violence (Indian Express, March 14, 2023). It is alleged that SoO-adhering Kuki militant groups were involved in attacks on Meitei civilians and Indian security forces.

Calls for scrapping the SoO agreement and banning the Kuki groups are growing (Times of India, May 24, 2023). Kuki groups in the SoO agreement have demanded concessions previously extended to the Pambei group, including the removal of serious criminal cases against certain Kuki militants (Indian Express, December 5, 2023). Concerns have been raised over this, amplified partly by the opacity of the government-Pambei group talks and the terms of the November 29, 2023 agreement. With the failure to come to terms with the dominant UNLF-Koireng group, observers have begun to regard the clandestine deal Pambei struck with the government with suspicion.

Unrest, Instability, and Insecurity

The Indian government’s agreement with the Pambei group comes at a time when tensions, instability, and insecurity are soaring in Manipur. Over 200 people were killed by mass violence between May and September 2023. In addition, attacks by militant groups targeting state forces and civilians have increased. Due to this, since May 2023, several dormant ethnic militant groups have regrouped as an insecure public has turned them to defend their communities. In sum, public support for the militants is on the upswing (Scroll, September 2, 2023).

The civil war in neighboring Myanmar also complicates the situation in Manipur. The Kuki share ethnic ties with Myanmar’s Chin people. With several Meitei militant groups cooperating with the Myanmar junta, Chin resistance groups have targeted the camps of Meitei groups like the PLA and the UNLF in border areas. Under pressure from the Chin resistance groups in Myanmar, Meitei militants are returning to Manipur (The Quint, December 6, 2023). This includes the Pambei faction, which aligned with the Tatmadaw (Burmese Army). According to an MHA official, the Pambei group’s decision to sign the agreement with New Delhi was hastened by the pressure it faced in Myanmar from the Chin resistance. The government expects that more Meitei militant groups will follow the Pambei group’s path toward the talks with India as larger swathes of Myanmar come under Chin control. [3] However, the militant groups may not be willing to surrender their arms amid the soaring insecurity in Manipur.

A significant issue of concern is that over 4,000 arms that were looted by mobs from police armories in May last year remain in the hands of non-state actors (Deccan Herald, June 2, 2023). This includes AK-47s and grenade launchers. “Whether it was stolen from the police armories, or sourced from Myanmar,” the large circulation of weapons in society “remains a challenge,” stated Lt. Gen. Rana Pratap Kalita, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C) of the Indian Army’s Eastern Command. He also pointed out that “the violence level can escalate at any point of time” (Deccan Herald, December 28, 2023).


While signing the peace agreement with the Pambei group is a breakthrough for the Indian government, it is unlikely to usher in peace in the foreseeable future. Negotiations that are not transparent, agreements that are not public, and accords that are not inclusive are rarely sustainable. The agreement with the Pambei group is, therefore, unlikely to reduce violence. Rather, it could trigger more violence in Manipur in the future.



[1] The roots of the anti-India insurgencies in Manipur can be traced back to opposition to the alleged “forced” merger of the Kingdom of Manipur into India in 1949 and the subsequent delay in granting it full statehood.

[2] The immediate trigger to the violence was a Kuki-Zo-Naga tribal rally opposing a Manipur High Court directive to the Manipur state government to confer tribal status to the predominantly Hindu Meitei, which would give the already politically dominant Meitei greater access to education, jobs, and land rights. However, Meitei-Kuki tensions can be traced back to British colonial times when Meitei vs. Kuki, non-tribal vs. tribal, and valley vs. hills divisions deepened. Land is a crucial point of contention; Meitei account for 65 percent of Manipur’s population, but the valley they are confined to comprises just 10 percent of the state’s land. Tribal status for the Meitei would give them access to land in the hills. Meanwhile, the Kukis feel “persecuted.” Their demonization by the Meitei and the Manipur government as “encroachers, poppy cultivators, drug smugglers, and illegal immigrants” has fueled Kuki anger (The Hindu, May 6, 2023; Imphal Review of Arts and Politics, July 22, 2023).

[3] Author’s interview with MHA official, January 2, 2024.