Bridges on the Borders

Fencing of Indo-Myanmar border is not the solution to the problems in Manipur

Sanjiv Krishan SoodS.K. Sood

The government of India has expressed its intentions to end the Free Movement Regime (FMR) with Myanmar, especially on the Indian border in the state of Manipur. This was stated by home minister Amit Shah during his address at the Border Security Force (BSF) Raising Day parade on 1 December 2023 at Hazaribag.

While there were reports that the government was also considering fencing the India-Myanmar border, the confirmation of its intentions came from Shah’s address during the passing out parade of newly appointed commandos of the Assam Police in Guwahati on 20 January 2024. Shah said, “Our border with Myanmar is an open border. The Narendra Modi government has taken a decision that the India-Myanmar border will be secure and the whole border will be fenced like the Bangladesh border. The government is reconsidering our Free Movement Regime (FMR) agreement with Myanmar and is going to end this ease of coming and going.” This announcement comes after reported requests by the chief minister of Manipur to suspend FMR due to ethnic strife in Manipur.

Before we attempt an analysis of the impact of ending FMR and fencing the India-Myanmar border, it is important to put things in perspective by understanding the significance of FMR for locals and the economy of the border region in this area. The British while culling out a separate Burmese (Myanmar) territory divided communities on both sides of the border. The border was no impediment for local tribes to retain their age-old ethnic ties. Marriages and exchange of local goods between the villages located within the vicinity of the border continued unhampered. The FMR was, therefore, necessitated in order to regularise these informal arrangements and to ease the problems of local tribes created by the division in 1937. FMR aimed to safeguard the interest and welfare of local tribes residing on both sides of the border. The FMR therefore gave impetus to local trade and business by simplifying movement of local tribals across the border by doing away with the formalities of documentation and the related financial burden on them for obtaining those documents.

The introduction of FMR dates back to 1950. Paragraph 41 under Section VII of the report of the ministry of home affairs 1950-51 is reproduced below for context.

“41. Exemption from the Indian Passport Rules.

(a) Members of hill tribes on the Indo-Burmese border—As a result of the revision of the Indian Passport Rules the free movement between India and Burma of members of Indian and Burmese hill tribes living in the territories adjacent to the Indo-Burmese land frontier who habitually travel between these countries, was hampered. In order to remove this difficulty and since members of Indian hill tribes entering Burma by land who do not proceed beyond 25 miles from the land border are exempt from the provisions of the Burma Passport Rules, similar exemption has been granted to members of hill tribes entering India by land.”

One of the busiest trading points between the two nations is in the state of Mizoram on River Tio Rihkhawdar
One of the busiest trading points between the two nations is in the state of Mizoram on River Tio Rihkhawdar

Initially, FMR provided that residents of Myanmar (then Burma) could stay in India for 72 hours whereas the residents of India were permitted to stay in Myanmar for 24 hours. Provisions of FMR were tightened by the Government of India in 1960 after the rise of insurgency was witnessed in Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. A permit system to be issued by both sides was also introduced. In 2004, the provisions were further tightened by restricting the crossing points to only three from the multiple entry points from where they could enter and exist earlier. These crossing points were Pangasu in Arunachal, Moreh in Manipur and Zokhrawthar in Mizoram. The distance from the border to where they could now travel was also reduced to 16 kilometres.

The FMR was strengthened in 2018 when India and Myanmar signed an agreement on land border crossing to facilitate regulation and harmonisation of already existing free movement rights for people ordinarily residing in the border area of both countries. It also aimed to facilitate the movement of those people who were travelling on valid passports and visas. The aim of this agreement was to enhance economic and social interaction between the countries.

The FMR has been more or less defunct since 2020 because of restrictions imposed on international movement due to the Covid pandemic and thereafter, the coup in Myanmar, leading the government of India to suspend its operation in September 2022 because of the influx of undocumented refugees in Mizoram and Manipur.

Ending the FMR completely and enforcing it will be extremely difficult because of several factors. Firstly, even though the formal crossings are allowed only from three designated points, informal crossings take place from all across the border. It is extremely difficult to supervise these unregistered crossings because, firstly, the villages are located very close to the border. Some of the villages have houses located on both sides of the border. Secondly, the borders are not under continuous supervision as these are not manned in forward position as is the practice along India’s borders with other countries. This forward posture is also not possible even in the midterm future because of the difficult terrain and logistical difficulties in establishing and maintaining border outposts (BOPs). The practice therefore is likely to continue uninterrupted even if it is formally ended. The second factor is that ending of the FMR will put the tribes living along the border in extreme hardship. It will deprive people from both sides of the opportunity to dispose of their local produce which is mostly perishable. The existing road and transport infrastructure makes it more difficult for them to bring their produce to the interior as it will perish and will remain of no use by the time it reaches there.

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