January 25, 2024


đź“° FEATURE STORY

Should the Free Movement Regime between India and Myanmar be intact?

A country having borders with others can turn into a complicated proposition and existence. There are obvious trade and economic benefits, but it can also become contentious. Migration is always a sensitive issue, and India has its fair share of border challenges on several sides, with Pakistan and China in particular.

One country that India does have a border and a past with is Myanmar. It’s a porous border, with the Free Movement Regime (FMR) allowing people from both sides to pass without travel documents. That’s supposedly coming to an end with the government announcing that the border will be fenced and the FMR scrapped. Did the government make the right call?

Context

Borderlands in Asia are sometimes seen as marginal and remote. They have two distinctive features – topographical diversity and the arbitrariness by which colonial powers delineated boundaries in South Asia. This meant territorial disputes and large porous areas. The Manipur-Myanmar border is one example.

The northeastern states share over 5,400 km of borders with five neighbouring countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar, and Nepal. Folklore tells us the importance of migration of ethnic groups from different parts of Southeast Asia. Concerning Myanmar, relations with India since the end of World War II determined the making of the borderland on whether it remains neglected or militarised.

The international boundary between India and Myanmar was formally delimited and demarcated following the 1967 boundary agreement. However, that never materialised on the ground as definitive lines separating the two countries. That’s because it got complicated when several tribes were divided and forced to reside as residents of different countries. The topography also posed a challenge. There are low mountains in the south and high ridges and peaks in the north, adjacent to the Himalayas.

There’s little to no fencing or intense security presence; certainly not compared to the India–Pakistan or India–China border. It’s home to ethnic groups like the Chin, Kuki, Mizo, and Nagas. To address their concerns and those of others, the Indian and Myanmar governments established the Free Movement Regime. It allows tribes living along the border to travel 16 km across the boundary without travel documents like a visa.

What’s happened in the decades since is endemic violence in the region. It resulted in frequent cross-border insurgencies. There were also concerns about drug trafficking. With increased calls for fencing, both countries did a detailed survey in 2003. By the end of 2006, a 400-km border with Myanmar was already fenced, and its height extended. Historically, people in the border regions engaged in trade and depended on each other. That remained intact throughout the decades. In 2004, some local communities protested the decision to fence a certain portion. Any option for fencing would need to account for decades-old cultural and economic connections between people in the region.

Cut to the present day, and the Centre announced its decision to scrap the FMR and fence the border. Home Minister Amit Shah announced the decision, saying the border will be fenced similarly to how it’s fenced with Bangladesh. Some states in the northeast have been asking for this to help prevent illegal migration and insurgency. However, would fencing actually help and given its historical significance, is ending the FMR the right decision?

VIEW: Reassess for security reasons

While the relatively porous border meant free movement of people thanks to the FMR, it has come with its share of challenges. In the aftermath of the political instability in Myanmar, there was an influx of refugees into the northeastern states, and some struggled to provide rehabilitation. The FMR allowed people to carry some luggage exempt from customs procedures. Militants used this to their advantage to smuggle weapons and fake currency.

Having porous borders has meant a lack of government control over remote areas and resulted in instability. It’s often been neglected for fear of backlash from local communities. However, it’s now a national security vulnerability. Over the years, the Manipur-Myanmar border became a hub for narcotics production and a gateway to traffic drugs from Myanmar. With Myanmar being an important source, drug addiction has become a problem in the border areas.

It’s hard to have patrols due to the hostile and harsh terrain. If insurgents in the region are allowed to continue their activities unabated, they’ll eventually become dangerous and unmanageable. The Indian security forces estimated that the porous border resulted in the deaths of 200 personnel and civilians from 2001 to 2003.

COUNTERVIEW: Shortsighted political move

Any sort of considerable fencing would be a blow to the borderland communities on both sides. Severing age-old ties would be detrimental to their economic and cultural lives. Their reliance on each other was the natural result of the fact that they lived in remote areas. Certainly, things have gotten complicated since Myanmar’s civil war broke out. On India’s side of the border, ethnic clashes in Manipur have resulted in many deaths. It’s important to remember that the Manipur clashes are the result of internal strife, not a porous border.

If Manipur wants to be peaceful, the government needs to address the sociopolitical and economic underdevelopment of the Kuki-Zo communities and ensure the Meitei communities are disarmed. The scrapping of the FMR could be a distraction from the government’s failure to prevent further conflict. The FMR represents a unique arrangement between two postcolonial nations to challenge and rectify the colonial politics of border-making.

Merely scrapping the FMR might not make much of a difference on the ground. Both countries need to look at this differently with better security options. The government’s decision hasn’t been met with universal acceptance. Mizoram Chief Minister Lalduhoma has opposed fencing the border and scrapping the FMR. The state’s apex student body, Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP), wrote to the Prime Minister saying that fencing and scrapping the FMR will divide the ethnic Zo people living in both countries.

Reference Links:

  • Security challenges along the India-Myanmar border – LSE Blog
  • Explained: Why India-Myanmar Free Movement Regime Will Be Scrapped – NDTV
  • Ghost of partition past lingers as Delhi mulls fencing British era India-Myanmar border – Mint
  • Calls for Fencing the India-Myanmar Border Gather Steam Again – The Diplomat
  • Mizo student body urges Centre to reconsider its decision to fence Indo-Myanmar border – The Telegraph
  • Closing of India-Myanmar border will not restore peace in Manipur – Nikkei Asia
  • Free Movement Regime: A Unique Feature of the India-Myanmar Border – Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses

What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) The Free Movement Regime between India and Myanmar should be scrapped.

b) The Free Movement Regime between India and Myanmar should be intact.


🕵️ BEYOND ECHO CHAMBERS

For the Right:

The easier option

For the Left:

Lalu, Nitish restricted Karpoori Thakur’s legacy. He was Bihar’s Ambedkar