India to end free movement regime at Myanmar border | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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India to end free movement regime at Myanmar border

By, New Delhi
Feb 09, 2024 12:34 AM IST

The government plans to fence the India-Myanmar border to facilitate better surveillance and prevent unauthorized entry.

The Union government has recommended the immediate suspension of the free movement regime (FMR), which allowed people from both sides of the India-Myanmar border to travel 16km into each other’s territory without paperwork, home minister Amit Shah said on Thursday.

Union home minister Amit Shah made the announcement on Thursday. (ANI)(HT_PRINT)
Union home minister Amit Shah made the announcement on Thursday. (ANI)(HT_PRINT)

The regime was introduced in 2018 as part of India’s effort to boost the region’s economy by encouraging trade with Southeast Asian nations. But government and security officials cautioned in recent months that armed insurgents were repeatedly using FMR to enter India, and to escape undetected, sparking internal security problems in the country’s northeastern states.

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Also read: Along the border, Free Movement Regime a boon for some, a bane for some others

In a post on X, Shah referred to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s resolve to secure borders, and added that the home ministry decided the regime should be scrapped to ensure internal security and maintain the demographic structure of India’s northeastern states bordering Myanmar.

“It is Prime Minister’s resolve to secure our borders. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has decided that the Free Movement Regime (FMR) between India and Myanmar be scrapped to ensure the internal security of the country and to maintain the demographic structure of India’s North Eastern States bordering Myanmar. Since the Ministry of External Affairs is currently in the process of scrapping it, MHA has recommended the immediate suspension of the FMR,” Shah posted.

The move comes just two days after Shah announced that the India-Myanmar border will be fenced — a move that would effectively end FMR anyway. This will make Myanmar the third frontier that India will fence, after the borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Shah said the fencing of the India-Myanmar border would facilitate better surveillance, and added that a patrol track will be paved along the border. He said that a 10km stretch of the border in Moreh in ethnic violence-hit Manipur has already been fenced, and two pilot projects of fencing through a hybrid surveillance system were being executed in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur.

Manipur government officials have accused Myanmar-based militant groups of stoking violence in the state. The ethnic clashes in the state have already led to over 200 deaths and displaced nearly 50,000. In Myanmar, the infighting between military junta and rebel forces have led to thousands of Myanmar nationals fleeing the country and living as refugees in Mizoram.

The Assam Rifles mans the India-Myanmar border across all the four states.

While security officials and experts welcomed the decision, residents of the villages in the north-eastern states that share border with Myanmar, said that ending FMR would impact the lives of tens of thousands of people living in such villages.

FMR allowed residents of border village to cross the border for work and employment. For example, residents of Zowkhatar village in Mizoram cross the border to work in Myanmar. There are also cases of Myanmar villagers who work as loaders. Some also run a poultry business in India and sell the stock to villagers in Myanmar.

Robert Zoremtluaga, a resident of Champhai, who is also chairperson of Champhai district refugee committee, said, “People in the border villages of both countries share same ethnic ties. People from here have got married to residents of the Myanmar border villages. Ending FMR and building a border fence will change the lives of thousands of Indian nationals. There are children from Myanmar villages who come to study in India. There are even people from villages here who work in Myanmar. Lives will change overnight.”

During the October 2023 airstrike in Myanmar’s border villages, around 5,000 Myanmar nationals crossed the porous border and stayed at refugee camps and with their relatives in India. In Manipur, too, when ethnic clashes broke out in May 2023, more than 2,000 residents crossed over the border in Moreh and took shelter in Myanmar.

In all, the free movement regime led to influx of nearly 30,000 Myanmar refugees to Mizoram and Mizoram since 2021 because if the political instability and rebel forces fighting with Myanmar’s military junta. Many of the refugees told HT in November last year that a few Myanmar people had even travelled to cities such as Delhi and Guwahati in search of work.

The decision to end the free cross-border movement was based on an assessment from central intelligence and security agencies as part of efforts to check insurgencies, smuggling, and the drug trade. Manipur chief minister Biren Singh has claimed that the violence in the state’s ethnic conflict was exacerbated by insurgents from Myanmar. Such allegations have been denied by Kuki groups. In September 2023, Singh had also urged the Union government to end the system.

After home minister Shah’s announcement, Singh wrote on X that the decision to end FMR is crucial for “our internal security and the demographic integrity of our north eastern-states”.

According to the agreement, citizens from both sides were allowed to cross the border by producing a border pass with one-year validity for a stay of up to two weeks per visit. But with the porous border line across the four states -- Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh -- and border check points at only a handful of places, residents could enter each other’s territory at several stretches along the 1,643km border.

A security officer on the ground, who asked not to be named, said, “The border check point by Assam Rifles is only at a few points. Hundreds of kilometers of the border are unmanned. At most stretches in Mizoram, especially in summer when the river(River Tiao separates the two countries), people can easily cross the river. Smuggling of drugs is a huge concern but the only way to check smuggling or infiltration is a border fence. But this is an exercise, which will take a long time because of the terrain.”

But the locals, and organisations and legislators representing them, were concerned.

Ginza Vualzong, spokesperson of the Manipur based Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum ITLF), who met home ministry officials on Wednesday, said,” We met MHA officials and told them about the FMR issue. The ministry officials said the decision was not taken because of one particular state or region. The government was working on it for a long time.”

Giving an example of one such village, Vualzong added: “There is a village(Nagaland village) where one room is in India and the other room is in Myanmar. There are many examples like this. How can the government build a fence and divide the same people.”

Mizoram chief minister Lalduhoma, who met Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month, said he had urged government to reconsider the move on fencing the border because it would not be accepted by Mizo people.

But security experts said the cost was too high.

“It will take time and will be logistical challenge but fencing will be done. Maybe security forces will have to provide security to the workers at certain stretches. But they will not face hostility at all places. Placing fence will also be difficult on hills where the slope gradient is over 70 degrees. At such places, government may have to use surveillance of other types. But it is important and will be done soon,” a senior officer posted in Manipur said.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Prawesh Lama covers crime, policing, and issues of security in Delhi. Raised in Darjeeling, educated in Mumbai, he also looks at special features on social welfare in the National Capital.

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