India’s Myanmar Border Fencing Plan Opposed By Tribal States – OpEd


Indian Home Minister Amir Shah has announced plans to erect barbed wire fencing on the country’s 1,643 kms long border with Myanmar, overriding objections of chief ministers of the tribal states of Nagaland and Mizoram.

Shah said his government also plans to put an end to the free movement regime (FMR) that exists on this border to allow local tribesmen on either side to move in and out up to a distance  of 16 kms. That’s a British era vestige but one that was formalized six  years ago through a bilateral agreement on border crossings. 

While Mizoram Chief Minister Lalduhoma, a former Indian Police Service officer turned regional politician, expressed shock at Shah’s announcement, Nagaland Deputy Chief Minister Y Patton said the, “decision was not acceptable to the Nagas since many of them lived in both India and Myanmar.” 

But Delhi’s move follows Manipur’s BJP Chief Minister N Biren Singh’s push for border fencing and cancellation of the FMR on grounds that it encouraged illegal migration and drugs-wrapons trafficking and cross-border rebel movement.  His views are in sync with his BJP-RSS overlords in Delhi who turned illegal migration into a national issue in the last two decades and pushed the erection of barbed wire fencing along a much longer 4096 kms border with Bangladesh. 

Only 10 kms of the 1,643 kms border between India and Myanmar remain fenced, allowing residents of either side to travel up to 16 km inside the other country without a visa and stay up to two weeks under the Free Movement Regime (FMR).

India started fencing its border with Bangladesh in 1986. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), which oversees the fencing of India’s international borders, is likely to miss the March 2024 deadline to complete the fencing of all of the 4,096.7 km border between India and Bangladesh, an analysis by Indian website ThePrint suggested. 

According to the ministry’s latest annual report (2022-23), MHA’s Border Management I-Division had fenced 3,180.65 km of the border, while 915.35 km remained to be completed, mostly  in  five districts — Malda, Murshidabad and Cooch Behar in West Bengal, Karimganj in Assam  and West Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya.  

The border fence with Bangladesh has not exactly led to a drop in border crimes, smuggling and illegal migration , various analysis of data circulated by Border Security Force and the Home Ministry shows. For example, if higher seizures indicate rise in smuggling volumes, gold smuggling on the South Bengal frontier has almost doubled.

Analysts say the Hindu nationalist government of PM Narendra Modi seeks to make, “fighting illegal infiltration” a key issue in the rundown to the National parliament polls barely five months away. “The fever pitch against illegal migration wonderfully fits into the BJP-RSS election playbook now hyped with the politics of demonstrative religiosity around the opening of the Ram Temple in the Holy town of Ayodhya,” says Sukhoranjan Dasgupta, author and veteran commentator. “It reinforces the India-in-danger narrative. “

But for the Naga and Mizo-Kuki-Chin tribespeople straddling the India-Myanmar frontier, the end of FMR means the end of an era of free movement for cross-border tribes that, former Manipur MP Kim Gangte feels, “reinforced kinship and ethnic solidarity.”

The ethnic conflict between Hindu Meiteis and Christian Kukis that has spiraled unabated for eight months now and the huge influx of Chins from Myanmar may have heightened Meitei fears of demographic change that may undermine their majority status in Manipur.  “That is something the BJP wishes to exploit,” Ms Gangte, who resigned from BJP last year, said. 

“Why should events in Manipur lead to national decisions that will affect our people,” said former Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga. “We opposed Central restrictions on blocking refugees on humanitarian considerations and we should now oppose plans to end the FMR regime.”

Most refugees entering Mizoram are Chin tribespeople who are ethnic cousins of Mizos and Kukis in northeastern India. Local ethnic dynamics are often trans-border in nature and clash with national priorities.

Subir Bhaumik

Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC and Reuters correspondent and author of books on South Asian conflicts.

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