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The Scrapping of the Free Movement Regime is Unlikely to Serve India’s Interests

Migration has to be understood historically and not be seen purely through the lens of "illegal immigration."

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India's international boundary with Myanmar is around 1600 kilometres long. The Free Movement Regime (FMR), implemented by the Modi government in 2018 with the Burmese government, as the name suggests, allowed unhindered movement by people up to 16 kilometres on both sides.

Besides encouraging more interaction between the same ethnic communities living along the Indo-Myanmar border, it was also implemented with the hope of giving a fillip to India's ambitious Act East Policy. India’s eastern corridor, incidentally, is the only border through which overland trade is feasible, and the government wants a slice of the Southeast Asian markets that are currently dominated by China.

While the current conflict in Manipur, the insurgency in the Northeast, and the imbroglio in Myanmar might have compelled the government to think of halting the FMR, one wonders if its withdrawal would reap any significant benefits.

So, given these factors, will scrapping the FMR and fencing the borders be in India’s best interests?

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Communities Lived Together for Hundreds of Years Before Boundaries Divided Them

Apparently, the government’s intended policy reversal stems from its desire to stop three things:

  • Illegal immigration

  • Insurgents in the Northeast using Myanmar as a safe haven

  • The inflow of drugs

However, in states like Mizoram and Nagaland, the opposition to the cancellation of the FMR needs to be understood in its historical context.

For hundreds of years, various communities, especially the hill tribes, lived in the undulating hills which are now separated by an international boundary. For instance, the Singphos of Arunachal Pradesh and the Kachins of Myanmar share very close cultural ties; the Nagas have people living on both sides of the border with a Naga Self-Administered Zone on the Myanmar side. The Chin-Kuki-Mizo (Zo) people have the Chin state besides controlling large parts of the Sagaing division. In India, besides Mizoram, they also live in other northeastern states, especially Manipur, which borders Myanmar.

The Meiteis are known as Kathe in Myanmar, and the Kabaw Valley was once under the suzerainty of the Manipuri Kings. Thus, the reality of communities living together for hundreds of years before different national and international boundaries divided them, needs to be taken into consideration.

In an interesting case, in the Konyak Naga village of Longwa, the international boundary runs through the middle of the village Chief’s house with one side in India and the other in Myanmar. The Rih Dil (lake) in the Chin State of Myanmar (that was bombed on 7 January by the Junta forces), which is about three kilometres from the Mizoram border, holds cultural and religious significance for the Chin-Kuki-Mizo (Zo) people.

While we talk only about people coming to India from Myanmar, reverse migration has also taken place over the years. The town of Kanan in the Chin State of has a considerable number of immigrants from India.

A Variety of Factors Need to be Considered

If one revisits history, Burma (now Myanmar) became a part of British India after the third Anglo-Burmese War, only to be separated again in 1937. Unlike India's western border, where the Partition involved lots of bloodshed, Burma in the east had a relatively peaceful transition when it became a separately administered colony of Great Britain.

One of the reasons for this was that various communities, now divided by the ‘artificial’ boundary created by the British, could still move across the line freely as they had done for hundreds of years. They felt ‘at home’ in both the countries.

Moreover, even before the FMR was implemented in 2018, there was free movement across borders, and it is not known to have changed the demography of India since its independence. Instead of curbing and disrupting the age-old ethnic relations that exist in this borderland, shouldn’t India instead think of developing closer ties to develop a natural ‘buffer’ in its eastern frontiers?

For one, in Myanmar's civil war, the tide is slowly turning in favour of the pro-democracy forces and the people who entered India might soon return. Secondly, the number of people who have migrated to India (roughly 50,000-70,000) cannot be compared to the humungous migrations to Assam and West Bengal from Bangladesh in the past.

Moreover, even if India fences 1600 kilometres of the international border, manning and patrolling these porous borders in a hilly terrain like the Northeast is going to be very difficult, if not impossible.

After having to spend so much money on the western and northern frontiers, India will have to squeeze the limited defence budgets. Is it worth it? While it might prevent migrations and interactions among common people, will it stop those with illegal intentions in a region with such thick vegetation, ravines, and gorges? Unlikely.

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India is Not the ‘Promised Land’ as It is Played Out to Be

Additionally, fencing the border is in no way going to stop the violence that is purely within Manipur. Though a narrative has been created that the Chin-Kuki-Mizo groups are getting help from their ethnic kin in Myanmar, one must not forget that they themselves are facing the might of the military Junta.

Though an exact survey is yet to be carried out, those who entered Manipur are believed to be roughly around 3000, belonging to diverse ethnicities including Myanmar’s majority Bamar community. They can’t be held responsible for a conflict of this magnitude. India should look within for the problems in Manipur as the state continues to be on the edge even after eight months, instead of pinning the blame on some migrants who fled their country just to save their lives

Myanmar had often been used as a launch pad to attack the Indian armed forces. Since many Meitei secessionist groups hiding in Myanmar have now entered India, the central government would want to stop them from returning and bring them to the negotiating table. The recent peace agreement signed with a faction of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) is a welcome development.

Trying to stop them from entering Myanmar again by fencing might be impractical. The insurgency problems in the Northeast are India’s internal matter that needs a political solution, and Myanmar as a country has never been a threat to India. At best, India can use its leverage over the Junta government to not give a haven to these insurgents like they did with the Bhutanese government with respect to the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA).

Many in India wrongly believe that it is an 'American dream' for the people of Myanmar to land in India. Since Myanmar is a much smaller country in terms of both size and population, many of the tribes fare much better there. Henry Van Thio from Chin Hills has served as one of the Vice-Presidents of Myanmar under the National League for Democracy since 2016 — a position no tribal from Northeast India has held so far. Moreover, unlike Bangladesh, scarcity of cultivable land is not a problem in Myanmar.

India is not the ‘promised land’ for the Burmese people as it is played out to be, except for those who have been forced to flee the civil war.

(Dr David Hanneng is Assistant Professor at Gushkara College, West Bengal, and is a Tata Samvaad Fellow. He writes on issues that affects the Northeast. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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