Debate intensifies over scrapping of Free Movement Regime on India-Myanmar border

While the Centre wants to scrap it to curb crime and refugee movement, the people of Mizoram and Nagaland cite years of trade and socio-cultural ties.

Published : Feb 08, 2024 09:24 IST - 13 MINS READ

Manipuri women crossing the fenced India-Myanmar border in Moreh town, on June 12, 2011. The Centre has decided to fence the entire border and scrap the free movement regime, but border residents in Manipur, Mizoram, and Nagaland have opposed the move.

Manipuri women crossing the fenced India-Myanmar border in Moreh town, on June 12, 2011. The Centre has decided to fence the entire border and scrap the free movement regime, but border residents in Manipur, Mizoram, and Nagaland have opposed the move. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

The India-Myanmar border is witnessing unrest on both sides: in Myanmar, ethnic communities are fighting for their civil and political rights and a democratic government, while on the Indian side, ethnic communities are fighting for the protection of their sociocultural and economic rights. The porous border between the two nations is at the root of the ongoing ethnic conflict in Manipur, and the illegal activities, including smuggling, going on there. It is also responsible for the influx of people from Myanmar into the north-eastern States in India.

The solution to these problems, the Central government believes, lies in the removal of the Free Movement Regime (FMR) and the construction of border fencing. However, local communities, especially in the border areas, are opposed to any move that will disturb their sociocultural relations with communities on the other side.

While the governments in Nagaland and Mizoram are not in favour of scrapping the FMR and constructing a border fence, the fact is that hundreds of Tatmadaw (Myanmarese military) soldiers have sought refuge in Mizoram following the ongoing intense fighting with armed anti-junta ethnic groups in that country. The collection of biometric data of such Myanmarese nationals is in progress in both Manipur and Mizoram. People in border areas are not only connected, they also depend on the open border for their socioeconomic life.

Mizoram Chief Minister Lalduhoma has said that his government will “continue to shelter displaced Chins from Myanmar and the Kuki-Zo communities from Manipur”. According to him, the Centre is also ready to work with the Mizoram government to assist the displaced people. The Union Home Ministry cannot grant refugee status to the displaced people from Myanmar, as India is not a signatory to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

Mizoram government data show that the State is currently sheltering some 31,000 Chin people who fled Myanmar, and about 12,000 Kuki-Zo people who escaped an ethnic conflict with the majority Meitei community in Manipur. (Trouble in Myanmar began after a military coup in February 2021 deposed the elected government of 2020, while ethnic violence broke out in Manipur on May 3, 2023.)

The Mizoram government sought Rs.10 crore from the Centre for providing humanitarian assistance to the internally displaced persons sheltering in Mizoram for over eight months, but it is yet to be sanctioned.

Narcotics issues

A surge in drug production in Myanmar has further complicated the situation and the security implications for the region. Both Manipur and Mizoram are grappling with the problems of drug addiction and smuggling, which are linked to the Manipur unrest and were prominent issues in the Mizoram Assembly election in 2023. The porous international border saw large-scale smuggling of goods, drugs, arms, and wildlife into India in 2023. The border town of Zokhawthar in Mizoram’s Champhai district is the centre of narcotics smuggling in the Mizoram sector. According to latest reports from Assam Rifles officials, a total of 248 operations were conducted in 2023, leading to significant seizures.

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There is also the issue of influx of Myanmarese nationals into India, which has necessitated the collection of biometric data in order to restrict their access to certain documents. It is estimated that there are around 44,000 displaced people or migrants from Myanmar who are on the negative lists of Voters’ Identity Cards and Aadhaar in the four States that border Myanmar. A total of 718 people from that country also entered Manipur on July 22 and 23, 2023, following the Myanmar army’s air strike on the Chin State near the Indian border.

Border history

The India-Myanmar border was demarcated after two bilateral agreements on March 10, 1967. It is 520 km long in Arunachal Pradesh, 215 km in Nagaland, 398 km in Manipur, and 510 km in Mizoram. Incidentally, residents of all three autonomous district councils in Mizoram have the right to exercise their customary practices and tribal laws, which they share in common with their communities on the other side of the border.

Following the clashes in Manipur in May 2023, the Centre decided to examine ways to fence the border. It is now planning smart fencing of the 1,643-km border and the project is set to be completed in less than five years. A pilot project of 10 km was completed in 2023 and the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) finished the work over another 10 km the same year. The BRO will execute the second phase of border fencing work for a distance of 70 km in Manipur. The remaining work over 300 km in Manipur is yet to be finalised. Addressing the passing-out parade of 2,551 Assam Police commandos in Guwahati on January 20, Home Minister Amit Shah said the Centre had decided to secure the border with Myanmar and that the government was planning to end the FMR agreement too. However, border trade promotion is likely to continue.

The Mizoram government’s opposition to the border fencing is on the grounds that it will further divide the Zo people already separated by inter-State and international boundaries. On January 8, Lalduhoma and Nagaland Deputy Chief Minister Yanthungo Patton met and discussed the issue. At the meeting, Patton made it clear that Nagaland was also opposed to any fencing. He said: “Almost half the Naga people live in Myanmar and Naga people on both sides will never agree to fence the border.”

Joel Naga, leader of the Rising People’s Party, is also opposed to the idea. He said: “Fencing the India-Myanmar border will hurt Naga sentiments and lead to conflict, shattering the peace in the region.”

At a relief camp for refugees from Myanmar, in Champhai border town in Mizoram, on November 14, 2023. The Mizoram government said that it is currently sheltering some 31,000 Myanmarese refugees who have fled the civil war.

At a relief camp for refugees from Myanmar, in Champhai border town in Mizoram, on November 14, 2023. The Mizoram government said that it is currently sheltering some 31,000 Myanmarese refugees who have fled the civil war. | Photo Credit: ANI

Speaking to Frontline, Keneisano, a political science scholar in Nagaland, said: “The lack of awareness among locals, ambiguity, and uncertainty on FMR posed a major problem, which has further led to fear among border residents that their traditional rights will be unfairly curtailed or they will not be able to communicate with their relatives across the border or access their livestock and cattle.”

The Central Young Mizo Association (CYMA), the biggest civil society organisation in Mizoram, is against scrapping the FMR and building a border fence, as is K. Vanlalvena, Rajya Sabha MP from Mizoram.

Cultural linkages

The FMR has played a crucial role in maintaining ethnic and cultural linkages between Mizos on both sides of the border and recognising and strengthening the brotherhood and integrity of the Mizo people. Its abolition would have a detrimental effect on these vital ethnic and cultural connections. People in border areas visit each other for weddings and funerals, traditional sports and cultural events, and in times of humanitarian crisis.

The CYMA therefore said it firmly believed that scrapping the FMR would disrupt harmonious coexistence and cultural exchange integral to the lives of the Mizo people.

The largest student body in Mizoram, MZP (Mizo Zirlai Paw), said in a release on January 24, 2024 that “the open border is a safety means for the people of border areas and Mizoram”. MZP president K. Lalthianghlima also said: “The Zo people have been divided by administration divisions since colonial times and international boundaries in the post-colonial period. Despite these divisions, we do not feel separated, thanks to the FMR.”

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The MZP has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, citing the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous People 2007 (UNDRIP), to which India is a signatory. Article 36 of the UNDRIP asserts the right of indigenous peoples, divided by international borders, to maintain and develop contacts, relations, and cooperation across borders for sociocultural and economic purposes, with their own members as well as with others across borders.

Until 1968, both Myanmar (then Burma) and India operated a Free Movement Regime for border residents. Then, India introduced a border pass system that was in force until 2018, when both countries signed a Land Border Crossing Agreement to strengthen trade and economic ties. The FMR became part of the Act East Policy.

It allows people people living on the border to travel up to 16 km inside each other’s country without a visa. A border resident needs to have a border pass, valid for a year, which will enable them to stay in the other country for a maximum of about two weeks at a time. Under the existing border area regulations, security personnel can detain anyone who moves into the defined border areas without a border pass. The detained person will be handed over to the local police by the Assam Rifles. There is no check-post on either side to check people or goods crossing the border. The Zokhawthar border trade centre does not have a check-post. If the FMR ends, villagers will require visas to travel across the border.

Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh has reiterated the need for border fencing, claiming that miscreants based out of Myanmar were involved in the ongoing violence as well as cross-border crimes. However, the United Naga Council (UNC), the top Naga organisation in the north-eastern region, wants the FMR to continue in the Naga areas along the border in Manipur’s Ukhrul district, and it is also against any fence. The Kukis in Manipur, too, are opposed to the Manipur Chief Minister’s demand.

The current state of affairs on both sides presents new challenges to both countries, dragging them into a complex situation with historical links and evolving conflict dynamics in the border areas.

Myanmar conflict

Myanmar’s junta and anti-junta ethnic groups are engaged in armed conflict in several key areas near the border with Mizoram and Manipur. The People’s Defence Force, the armed wing of the government in exile, has reportedly taken control of most key towns and military bases near the border with India, and air strikes by the Myanmar army have created a volatile situation that has forced scores of Myanmar citizens to take refuge in Mizoram.

As on January 14, a total of 692 Myanmar army personnel had crossed over to India, and on January 17, 276 more entered Mizoram. A total of 968 Myanmarese soldiers had entered Mizoram as on January 18 and all of them had been repatriated as on January 25. They had escaped the fighting between the Myanmar army and Chin-based armed ethnic groups.

Two hundred and seventy-six Tatmadaw soldiers fled the Paletwa camp in Chin State and entered Bandukbangsora border village near Zorinpui check-post in Mizoram on January 17. The soldiers, headed by a colonel and consisting of 36 officers and 240 lower-rank personnel, fled after their camp was overrun by Arakan Army militants, who have been waging war against the Tatmadaw.

The soldiers directly surrendered to Assam Rifles personnel and the State police authorities were kept in the dark about their entry into Mizoram. Assam Rifles personnel took them to Parva camp near the India-Myanmar-Bangladesh tri-junction and airlifted them to Lunglei airport in Aizawl, after which they were airlifted by the Tatmadaw air force to Sittwe airport in Myanmar. On January 23, a Myanmar army plane crashed at Lengpui airport in Aizawl, injuring eight on board. They were treated at a hospital in Aizawl. The Three Brotherhood Alliance, led by anti-junta resistance groups, launched Operation 1027, the ongoing offensive against the Tatmadaw, which has further complicated the situation on the India-Myanmar border. The rising incidence of junta soldiers seeking safety in Mizoram presents a new background against which India must rethink its policies with Myanmar.

A Myanmar military plane that crashed on the outskirts of Aizawl in Mizoram on January 23, 2024.

A Myanmar military plane that crashed on the outskirts of Aizawl in Mizoram on January 23, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

In December 2023, Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra called for the cessation of fighting between Myanmar’s army and the armed anti-junta groups, and urged the country to return to the path of federal democracy. Fearing a possible spillover effect, India has deployed 20 battalions of Assam Rifles at the border.

There are various issues in the north-eastern sector of the India-Myanmar border that are interrelated, and are both political and strategic. Ethnic proximity across borders is the main cause of the multiple issues arising in these areas. Myanmar’s government is losing its grip over certain parts of the resource-rich country, which has led to a rethink in New Delhi on ways to readjust its approach in dealing with a difficult neighbour, which is critical in many ways.

The Central government is understood to be considering various ways, including negotiations with various ethnic groups residing in the Chin and Rakhine States. These latest developments have also led the government to rethink the FMR protocol. The government hopes to control illegal activities on the border and at the same time help Myanmar’s military government control its border areas. The plans for fencing and scrapping the FMR, it believes, will help achieve these two strategic objectives.

Key challenges

Border management in this region presents three main challenges: first, the military coup in Myanmar in February 2021; second, illegal cross-border goods movement after the COVID-19 lockdown; third, a surge in drug production in Myanmar. A recent fourth challenge is the ethnic conflict in Manipur from May 2023.

Security forces of both sides are beneficiaries of the FMR protocol, as they too are allowed to operate in areas up to 8 km across each border. Similarly, infrastructure development companies or agencies also stand to gain from the protocol, being able to implement their development projects within the free movement distance inside both nations. Without it, border communities will not be able to reap the benefits from land connectivity projects such as the Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan project.

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There are other ways in which the government can tackle the challenges arising from open and unrestricted movement on the India-Myanmar border. Most important of these, the Central government must launch outreach activities for border communities to address the root cause of illegal activities.

Assam Rifles personnel, in a joint operation with Mizoram Police, arrested five Myanmar nationals and recovered 2.61 kg of heroin valued at Rs.18.3 crore, in Champhai district on November 11, 2023.

Assam Rifles personnel, in a joint operation with Mizoram Police, arrested five Myanmar nationals and recovered 2.61 kg of heroin valued at Rs.18.3 crore, in Champhai district on November 11, 2023. | Photo Credit: ANI

The Centre can also use border management committees, with the help of State governments, and exercise its soft power on Myanmar authorities, especially in tackling the issue of anti-junta activities of the ethnic groups and restoring federal provisions in the troubled regions of Myanmar. The junta must restart pending and incomplete developmental projects with Indian collaboration.

The Central government must provide more job opportunities to people in border areas. It must use civilian and democratic means and strategies rather than security and military strategies in those areas. The collection of biometric information of migrants from Myanmar must be done with the cooperation of local authorities and border communities. To resolve the ongoing ethnic conflict in Manipur and curb Naga insurgency, the Centre must complete the ongoing development projects in the border areas.

A simplistic removal of the FMR will harm cross-border trade and impede the exchange of jobs, not to mention people helping each other in times of natural crises. Inflation and joblessness will increase among local people if the cross-border trade is shut down. (After the COVID-19 lockdown and the coup in Myanmar, border trade between in Mizoram has been on the decline.) It will also destroy the well-established long and deep traditional, historical, and people-to-people ties between ethnic communities on both sides. It will discourage the participation of local communities in the government’s engagements through land border strategies.

The construction of a fence is likely to weaken the regional cooperation with the eastern neighbours, built over the last 75 years. It may even lead to an upsurge in cross-border terrorism, regional separatism, and ethnic insurgency. Lastly, as the Centre’s presence increases, so will the bordering States’ dependency on the Central government. Instead, the Central government would do well to rope in federal bodies such as the North-East Council and the North-East Parliamentary Forum to promote inter-State cooperation and coordination on issues relating to ethnic conflicts and inter-State disputes.

Suwa Lal Jangu is Assistant Professor, Political Science, Mizoram University.

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