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Suspending the Free Movement Regime for Internal Security is Not the Right Move

It will make tribes living along the India-Myanmar border endure extreme hardships for several reasons.

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The Government of India has reportedly scrapped the Free Movement Regime (FMR) along the India-Myanmar border. Home Minister Amit Shah had made his intention to scrap the FMR clear in December 2023, followed by an announcement at a gathering in Assam's Guwahati on 20 January to fence this border.

The FMR has proved to be extremely beneficial for the economy of remote border regions that have no markets for the disposal of local produce which is mostly perishable.

It has helped the local tribes on both sides of the border sustain themselves and also ensured that they maintain their age-old ethnic linkages. 
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A Brief History of the FMR

The British, while separating Myanmar from their Indian empire in 1937, created an unnatural border as they did to several of their colonies (including the Partition of India in 1947). The unnatural border along Burma divided the local tribes on both sides. But it did not impede them from moving across it. Marriages and the exchange of local goods between villages located within the vicinity of the border continued unhampered.

The FMR introduced in 1950 by the Government of India formalised this arrangement (Annual Report Ministry of Home Affairs 1950–51, paragraph 41 under Section VII). This was done in response to the exemption given by the Government of Burma (Myanmar) to the Indian citizens “normally residing in the vicinity of the border” under the provisions of Burma Passport Rules.

Indian citizens could go to Burma without a passport or a VISA (Visitors International Stay Admission) up to 25 miles (40 kilometres) inside along with a headload of local goods. The Government of India extended similar facilities to the citizens of Burma by relaxing the provisions of the Indian Passport Rules for them. Additionally, the FMR allowed Burmese citizens to stay in India for 72 hours. 

The FMR thus safeguarded the interests and welfare of tribes residing close to the border. It gave impetus to local trade and business by doing away with documentation and other formalities, and the consequent financial burden of getting them done. 

With the rise of insurgencies in the North East from the 1960s, a system of permits to be issued by designated authorities on both sides was introduced. Provisions were further tightened in 2004 by reducing the number of crossing points to only three, namely Pangasu (Arunachal), Moreh (Manipur), and Zokhrawthar (Mizoram).

The distance to which they could travel across the border was also reduced to 16 kilometres.

The present government strengthened the FMR in 2018 under its Look East policy by signing an agreement on Land Border Crossing with the government of Myanmar to facilitate “regulation and harmonisation of already existing Free Movement rights”. The agreement also aimed to facilitate the movement of people travelling on valid passports and VISAs through the aforementioned three points and to enhance economic and social interaction between the two countries. The FMR, however, has been more or less defunct since 2020 because of COVID, and after that, the military coup in Myanmar.

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The Concept of 'Border Haats'

Enforcing the suspension of the FMR, however, will be extremely difficult because of several factors.

Firstly, even though formal crossings are allowed only from three designated points, informal ones can take place from every place along the border which will be difficult to supervise. Villages are located very close to the border with some having houses on both sides of it. The borders are not under continuous supervision as these are not manned in a forward position, unlike the other borders of India. This forward posture is not possible even in the near future because of the tough terrain and the logistical difficulties in establishing and maintaining such outposts.

The second factor is that scrapping the FMR will make tribes living along the border endure extreme hardships by depriving them of the disposal of the mostly perishable local produce.

Existing road and transport infrastructure in remote border areas of the Northeast makes it extremely difficult for them to bring their produce to markets in the interior, as it will perish by the time it reaches there. This, therefore, will alienate tribes living close to the border unless alternate markets and means of sustenance are provided to them in these remote areas.  

Instead of scrapping the FMR, the government should have initiated steps like expanding the network of border haats as agreed upon in the MoU (memorandum of understanding) signed between India and Myanmar on 28 May 2012. Some of these haats are successfully functioning at a few places along the Myanmar border, and are a great help to locals in the early disposal of their produce, besides providing the advantage of facilitating transactions in either currencies or barter.

By expanding the network of border haats and their frequency, the dependence of border residents on the FMR would have gradually reduced, thus facilitating better regulation of the movement of personnel across the border. These haats have also proved to be very beneficial along the India–Bangladesh border. Additionally, a focus on establishing these would have facilitated the development of a wider area closer to the border without affecting the fragile ecology, flora, and fauna of the region. These steps would have gone a long way in integrating border residents with the mainstream.

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Conclusion: Better Monitoring and Alternative Means of Informal Border Trade

The FMR has been scrapped due to security concerns arising out of the ethnic violence in Manipur. However, the external influence on the violence is exaggerated, even though some hostile elements infiltrating from Myanmar mixed with refugees to foment trouble cannot be ruled out.

The strife in Manipur is due to internal factors like a governance deficit in ensuring development in the remote hilly areas, besides the inability to enforce the rule of law. The Myanmar border along three other states is equally open with ethnic linkages across the border being equally strong. But these states have remained peaceful even though these too have witnessed an influx of refugees.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the chief minister of Mizoram and the deputy chief minister of Nagaland, have both taken strong exception to the scrapping of the FMR and the proposal to fence this border.  

Better monitoring of the people crossing over, and the creation of alternative means of informal border trade by way of border haats would have been more a effective move. The objective has to be to ease the hardships of the border population and integrate them with the mainland.

Scrapping the FMR will adversely impact the traditional bonds between the tribes and may lead to unwanted tensions. This will lead to heavier government investments to contain the resultant security concerns.  

India must put better border management efforts in place and work in close coordination with Myanmar to manage the border effectively. Better intelligence efforts are imperative to detect the illegal drug trade and weapons smuggling. The trend internationally is to convert borders into bridges, and not barriers. Ending the FMR will reverse this trend for India.

(Sanjiv Krishan Sood [Retd] has served as the Additional Director General of the BSF and was also with the SPG. He tweets @sood_2. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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