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On the India-Myanmar border,
a fence too far?

Ending the Free Movement Regime with Myanmar could backfire on India and spark further tribal unrest. A diplomat considers the issues.

By GAUTAM MUKHOPADHAYA
New Delhi, January 2024

The rustic India-Myanmar border starts closing off

India's decision to revoke the Free Movement Regime (FMR) with Myanmar and to introduce border fencing could roil tribal tensions and exacerbate problems.

THE decision by the Home Ministry to revoke the Free Movement Regime (FMR) between India and Myanmar and to fence the 1,640km boundary that the rest of the country knows little about, is based on false premises and a misrepresentation of reality. It is also contrary to the Centre’s stated policies and rhetoric pushing ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’ to foster closer trade, connectivity and people-to-people ties with Myanmar and Southeast Asia. This marks a remarkable reversal of the border regime with Myanmar (Burma) that has been in existence since colonial times and will virtually seal off a neighbour with a long shared civilizational history.

Flexibility for tribal movement

The FMR evolved in recognition of the artificial and arbitrary nature of colonial boundaries and the close traditional, customary and kinship ties of cross-border tribal communities. Although it was Britain that drew the boundaries between India and then Burma after the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826 when it took control of Assam and Manipur (along with other territories that had been wrested from the Burmese Konbaung dynasty after the 1st Burman War), it was understood that any attempt to restrict cross-border ties and movement between divided ethnicities would invite trouble.

Gautam Mukhopadhaya

Gautam Mukhopadhaya


The FMR evolved in recognition of the artificial and arbitrary nature of colonial boundaries and the close traditional kinship ties of cross-border tribal communities

With some variations, this was also recognised by independent Burma in the revision of its passport rules in 1948 and by India in 1950. It survived the substantial exodus of people of Indian origin and Burmese dissidents fleeing General Ne Win’s military coup of 1962 and various suppressed pro-democracy movements and upheavals, notably in 1988; the formal demarcation of the India-Burma boundary in 1967; and the Naga, Mizo, Meitei and later, Assam-based insurgencies since the 1960s. It became an exhibit for the gradual thawing of relations with the military junta around the turn of the millennium, India’s ‘Look East’ policy in the 1990s and ‘Act East’ policy since 2014. Despite several challenges, especially the insurgencies in the Northeast, there were few complaints or demands for its revocation, until now.

Formalising the FMR

Ironically, the border regime that had been in operation in varying degrees more or less unilaterally, was formalised by the Indian government in January 2018 in its current form to take into account security concerns, reciprocity and the overall evolution of relations with Myanmar via the Northeast corridor. An official statement said the agreement was intended to regulate and harmonise the “existing free movement rights for people ordinarily residing in the border areas of both countries”. It would “enable movement of people”… “provide connectivity”… and “enhance interaction of people of the North-Eastern States of India with the people of Myanmar” and “give a boost to the economy of the North East”. While boosting trade and people-to people ties, the agreement would “safeguard the traditional rights of the largely tribal communities residing along the border, which are accustomed to free movement across the land border”.

Seeing the potential of the 16km FMR to promote Manipur as India’s ‘gateway’ to Southeast Asia, it was also being informally stretched by state authorities and businesses as far as Imphal (until recently) to strengthen medical, commercial and people-to-people ties between Myanmar and India, and Imphal in particular. This was accompanied by much talk about stretching physical, commercial and people-to-people connectivity all the way to Bodh Gaya, a major pilgrimage destination for predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. Few states bordering Myanmar benefitted from it as much as Manipur, which provided the most convenient land route between the two countries.

Fencing cannot corral, curb issues

This policy is now being summarily upturned without any serious debate under pressure from the very same Manipur government as it tries to wrest control of the border trading town of Moreh from the Kuki-Zo after the reciprocal clashes – described as ‘ethnic cleansing’ – during May 2023.

If the lifting of the FMR is historically and politically illogical, the fencing of the border is even more questionable. Several reasons have been floated for the border fencing demand, mainly, to contain any spillover from the anti-military conflict in Myanmar; to prevent growing illegal and informal trade in drugs, gold, betel nuts and timber; to tackle Valley-based, Naga and Assam-based Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs) sheltered in Myanmar; or to combat the alleged ‘illegal migration’ of Kuki-Zo tribespeople and so on. Much of this thinking is misconceived. In any event, these issues will not be addressed by fencing.

Robust fencing across 1,600km of mountainous and forested terrain prone to landslides will require heavy investment in men, machinery, and maintenance. It will incur huge erection costs as well as payments for patrols, monitoring and surveillance. There will be unquantifiable environmental costs in these ecologically sensitive ranges. More importantly, this new barrier would pass through tribal areas inhabited by diverse Naga, Kuki-Zo, Mizo and eastern Arunachal tribes who will vigorously oppose this intrusion. Already, state authorities in Mizoram and Nagaland, as well as tribal bodies in Manipur and elsewhere are speaking out or issuing statements against it.

Even if only partially implemented in Manipur, where the demand originated, this move will place the Central Government in direct conflict with Kuki-Zo tribals over land acquisition and aggravate an already explosive situation.

Even if only partially implemented in Manipur, where the demand originated, this move will place the Central Government in direct conflict with Kuki-Zo tribals over land acquisition and aggravate an already explosive situation.

While the conflict in Myanmar is serious, it is an entirely internal conflict whose impact on India – despite an estimated 40,000 refugees mostly absorbed by Mizoram – is minimal. Illegal and informal trade has grown. The real reasons for that lie in the lack of trade, customs and enforcement infrastructure along the border; a lack of political will; and state complicity in this trade after the transition from border trade to MFN trade in 2016.

The IIG problem has been around for over 60 years and been much worse at different times. Yet,  although there were demands to erect fencing in some sections, these had less to do with long term solutions than with turf battles and competing models of border management espoused by the Assam Rifles, the Border Security Force (BSF), and the Centre. Except in Manipur, where demands have sharply increased with the outbreak of the ethnic conflict there since May, the government has in fact achieved a considerable amount through talks and accords.

A by-product of the Manipur conflict

The reality is that the decision to lift the FMR and to fence the India-Myanmar border is a by-product of the current conflict in Manipur between the state government and the majority Meitei community on one side and the Kuki-Zo-Hmar-Zomis (who inhabit the peripheral hills to the southeast and north), on the other. They are driven entirely by the Manipur government’s narrative about ‘illegal migration’ and ‘external aggression’ by Kuki-Chin from Myanmar and by radicalised Manipuri Meiteis as part of their ‘national war’ against the Kuki-Zo-Hmar-Zomi who they project as ‘foreigners’ and ‘narco-terrorists’. The evidence for such allegations is slender.

It would appear that the Centre either believes or has fallen hostage to this narrative peddled by the Manipur government at the expense of the other states and affected tribals in the region. It will reinforce the growing impression among the Kuki-Zo of Manipur that the Centre is tacitly backing the state government’s ethnic agenda.

Its consequences could be fateful. Its implementation will drag the Centre into a local conflict and needlessly alienate and create tensions with Northeast tribals who share cross-border ethnic and kinship ties. These groups include the Mizos, the Kuki-Zo and Tangkhul Nagas of Manipur, Nagas of Nagaland especially the eastern Nagas who have kith and kin on the other side, and tribes of eastern Arunachal Pradesh that successive governments in Delhihave been careful to keep on their side.

Further, it will also alienate friendly but already restive kindred tribes on the other side of the international border who are fighting their own war against the Myanmar military and who we ourselves have tried to win over by investing large sums in trade promotion and border area development projects besides the FMR.

In the end, the kinship and tribal ties are such that they will not be curbed by such measures. Rather, the same ties that bind them to their fellow tribals in India could be turned against the Indian Government. Given the cross-border tribal distribution, it has the capacity to spill over both internal and international borders due to miscalculations by the Indian state or ethnic and tribal resistance groups. If the government thinks it can prevail over such a scenario through its far superior military force, it would have learnt nothing from the resistance to the military in Myanmar or even the Naga and Mizo insurgencies in the Northeast that were managed at great cost in human life and reputation.

On the other hand, as resistance groups gain territory against the military junta in Myanmar, as is already happening with the Arakan Army in Rakhine and the Chins in Chin state (and likely the Kachin state and the Sagaing Region), they will become our de facto neighbours. It is in our interest to develop ties with them. With fencing and border strictures we will be doing just the opposite and leaving them open to overtures from others.

Ultimately, it will create more political bad blood than goodwill for the Indian ruling party and Central Government. It will reverse the impressive connectivity and economic gains in border states and the Northeast in general achieved under the Modi government, and severely damage our Act East policy through the Northeast. If pursued, it will result in a self-inflicted wound against our national interests. The Centre must not remain unaware or indifferent to this.

Reprinted with the author's permission from the Deccan Herald (3 Feb 2024, https://www.deccanherald.com/author/gautam-mukhopadhaya).

 


An experienced diplomat, Gautam Mukhopadhaya has worked with the media and cultural divisions of the Ministry of External Affairs and served as India‚Äôs Ambassador to Syria, Afghanistan and Myanmar, among others. He has worked at the United Nations Headquarters in New York as a Consultant on Social Development and has been a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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