Complexities of free movement regime with Myanmar

The Central Government’s move to end the Free Movement Regime (FMR) between India and Myanmar and fence the international border is a cautious response
Complexities of free movement regime with Myanmar

The Central Government’s move to end the Free Movement Regime (FMR) between India and Myanmar and fence the international border is a cautious response to emerging geopolitics in the neighbourhood. Fencing of the India-Myanmar border on a war footing will be critical to the enforcement of a new regulated travel regime but is a herculean task given the difficult terrain along the border. Opinion over the move is divided, with the Mizoram government and organisations in Nagaland opposing it, while the Manipur government is pushing for it despite opposition by organisations of Kuki and Naga tribes. The lack of consensus is likely to pose hurdles to implementing the decision. The declaration by the Naga rebel group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), that it is opposed to ending FMR and “will not allow the proposed boundary fencing” is indicative of challenges on the ground. The FMR allows tribes living on both sides of the India-Myanmar border to travel 16 km inside the territory of each other’s country without a passport or visa at three designated points: Moreh in Manipur, Zokhawthar in Mizoram, and Pangsau in Arunachal Pradesh. Abuse of FMR by insurgents to infiltrate and attack security forces and civilians in Manipur, infiltration of refugees from Myanmar into Manipur and Mizoram, drug traffickers, and smugglers has led to expediting the central government decision to end the free regime. Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh has been advocating for scrapping the FMR to put an end to the influx of illegal migrants and cross-border drug trafficking. The two neighbouring countries have bilateral arrangements in place to facilitate the introduction of a new travel regime to replace FMR. India has already approved the agreement between India and Myanmar on land border crossing signed in 2018. The agreement was to facilitate the movement of people on the basis of valid passports and visas to enhance economic and social interactions between the two countries. Both sides agreed that it would facilitate the regulation and harmonisation of already existing free movement rights for people ordinarily residing in the border areas of both countries. The Union Cabinet said the agreement is an enabling arrangement for the movement of people across the India-Myanmar border. It is expected to provide connectivity and enhance the interaction of the people of the North Eastern States of India with the people of Myanmar. India and Myanmar also agreed to maintain security and stability along the borders, underscoring their mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and their shared commitment to fight insurgent activity and the scourge of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. Both sides have a mutual agreement not to allow insurgent groups to use their soil for hostile activities against the other side, which is essential for the stability of the border regions and the prosperity of the people residing along the border. Rebel groups in the Northeast continue to find safe haven in Myanmar, and reports of involvement of Myanmar-based rebel groups getting involved in attacks on Indian security forces in Moreh town in troubled Manipur, however, point towards ground realities. Besides, the violent fight between the Myanmar Army and rebel groups in Myanmar, leading to thousands of Myanmar refugees taking shelter in Mizoram and Manipur, speaks volumes about the changing geopolitics along the border. A Myanmar Army plane crashed after skidding off Mizoram’s Legpui airport while arriving in the border state to fly back their soldiers, who fled and took shelter in the north-eastern state. The developments have also resulted in a heightened internal security threat for India, to which the Central Government cannot turn a blind eye. Of the 1643-km-long borders shared with Myanmar by the four NE states, only a 10-kilometre stretch in Manipur has so far been fenced, and this leaves the border with hilly and rugged terrain porous. Unless the border is fully fenced, the mere withdrawal of FMR is not going to put an end to the cross-border movement of civilians and other elements. Guarding of the entire border by border guarding forces without the barbed wire fence is not feasible, given the inhospitable terrain and political turbulence in Myanmar. Myanmar is the core of India’s Act East Policy and serves as the gateway to ASEAN countries. A regulated travel regime is critical to strengthening India’s bilateral trade and commerce, people-to-people engagement with Myanmar, and multilateral engagement with Southeast Asian countries. The erection of a barbed wire fence will be beneficial for both countries to manage their borders. Both governments will facilitate an easy and smooth travel regime by undertaking the work of providing travel documents for tribes living on both sides, which will be essential to mobilising support for replacing FMR with a new travel regime. Pushing the new travel regime without such an arrangement is likely to trigger more opposition. The central and state governments holding consultations with people in these four border states will provide a way out.

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