Reconsidering the free movement regime | Explained

Why did Home Minister Amit Shah promise to fence the 1,643 km India-Myanmar border? Are there historical ties between people on either side of the border? Why was the FMR initially introduced? Why is the Manipur government opposed to the FMR?

January 24, 2024 10:36 pm | Updated February 08, 2024 03:57 pm IST

Indian women carry drinking water from the Myanmar side and cross the Indo-Burma international border fence in Moreh, Manipur.

Indian women carry drinking water from the Myanmar side and cross the Indo-Burma international border fence in Moreh, Manipur. | Photo Credit: File Photo

The story so far: At a passing out parade of the Assam police commandos in Guwahati on January 20, Home Minister Amit Shah said the 1,643 km India-Myanmar border would soon be fenced. He also said the Free Movement Regime (FMR) agreement with Myanmar would be reconsidered to stop border residents from moving into each other’s country without any paperwork.

What is the FMR?

Much of India’s present-day northeast was temporarily under Burmese occupation until the British pushed them out in the 1800s. The victors and the vanquished signed the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826, leading to the current alignment of the boundary between India and Burma, later renamed Myanmar. The border divided people of the same ethnicity and culture — specifically the Nagas of Nagaland and Manipur and the Kuki-Chin-Mizo communities of Manipur and Mizoram — without their consent. In some stretches, the border split a village or a house between the two countries. Wary of increasing Chinese influence in Myanmar, New Delhi began working on improving diplomatic ties with the Myanmar government a decade ago. After almost a year’s delay, the FMR came about in 2018 as part of the Narendra Modi government’s Act East policy. The Rohingya refugee crisis that began in August 2017 caused the delay. The FMR allows people living on either side of 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, to stay in the other country for about two weeks per visit. The FMR also envisaged the promotion of localised border trade through customs stations and designated markets apart from helping the people of Myanmar access better education and healthcare facilities on the Indian side of the border.

Why is the FMR being reconsidered?

Apart from a 10 km stretch in Manipur, the India-Myanmar border through hills and jungles is unfenced. The security forces have for decades grappled with members of extremist groups carrying out hit-and-run operations from their clandestine bases in the Chin and Sagaing regions of Myanmar. The ease of cross-border movement, even before the FMR was in place, was often flagged for inward trafficking of drugs and outward trafficking of wildlife body parts. The trigger for the rethink on the FMR was the conflict that broke out between the majority Meitei and the tribal Kuki-Zo communities in Manipur on May 3, 2023. Over the past decade, the Manipur government has been expressing concern over the “influx” of Myanmar nationals, a euphemism for Kuki-Chins, calling for an Assam-like National Register of Citizens to weed out the “illegal immigrants”. The theory gained currency after the conflict, which coincided with a few hundred Myanmar nationals taking refuge in Manipur to escape a civil war back home. In September 2023, Manipur Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren Singh blamed the ethnic violence on the free movement of Myanmar nationals into India and urged the Ministry of Home Affairs to end the FMR, which had been suspended on April 1, 2020, during the COVID-19 lockdown. The suspension was extended after the military coup in Myanmar in February 2021. Kuki-Zo organisations, on the other hand, have accused the Chief Minister of branding the community as “illegal immigrants” and “narco-terrorists” to justify their “ethnic cleansing”.

What is the scale of migration?

The civil war in Myanmar saw a drastic jump in the number of people seeking refuge in India. In September 2022, authorities in Manipur pushed back 4,300 of some 5,500 Myanmar nationals from the Moreh area along the border after recording their biometrics. A committee set up by the State government put the number of such migrants in 2023 at 2,187. The civil war in the neighbouring country also forced some 40,000 people into Mizoram, who, unlike Manipur, made them feel at home primarily due to their ethnic affiliation. The Mizoram government has been seeking funds from the Centre to look after the displaced people who it wants to be sent back only after the situation in their country normalises.

Why are Mizoram and Nagaland opposed to ending the FMR?

Mizoram Chief Minister Lalduhoma said his government does not have the authority to stop the Centre from fencing the India-Myanmar border for perceived security threat and scrapping the FMR, but said he was opposed to the move. According to him, the border was imposed by the British to divide the people belonging to the Zo ethnic stock. “We Mizos share ethnic ties with the Chin people across the border. We have the right to live together,” he said. The Nagaland government, in which the BJP is a stakeholder, has not reacted but the influential Naga Students’ Federation condemned the Centre’s move. It said the decision to fence the border and end the FMR was “regressive”, which would exacerbate conflicts in the region. “It is crucial for India to acknowledge the historical truth that these territories (between the Chindwin River in Myanmar and the Saramati mountain in Nagaland) belong to the Nagas,” the federation said in a statement.

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