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India-Myanmar share an imperfect, complex history. Insurgency, and drug trade led to the permit system

The Indian government’s plans to put an end to the Free Movement Regime with Myanmar has provoked extreme reactions. The policy allowed communities living on either side of the border to venture 16 km into each other’s territory. The Centre will now establish a smart fence along India’s 1,624 km border with Myanmar, which runs through five states – Manipur, Mizoram, Assam, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. The Meitei-dominated Manipur has welcomed the move, while the Kuki-Zo-Lushai state of Mizoram has expressed despair. Nagaland, too, has expressed serious reservations about upsetting the status quo ante. There is righteous indignation on every side, and almost all commentary on the issue bears the stamp of ethnicity; so much so that, in addition to politicians, even bureaucrats, academics, media and civil society are aligned with their respective groups.

Let us, therefore, dig deeper into the imperfect past that defines the border with Myanmar. Incidentally, the first demarcation of India’s border in 1834 was called the Pemberton Line (later the Pemberton-Johnstone-Maxwell Line). This is not as well-known as the Durand Line of 1893, which marked the border of British India with  Afghanistan, the McMahon Line of 1914 that demarcated our eastern border with Tibet, and, of course, the Radcliffe Line of 1947, which led to the very violent Partition of  India with  Pakistan.  It also bears recall that from 1886 to 1937, Myanmar (then Burma) was a province of British India, bordering the state of Assam and the kingdom of Manipur.

Interwoven history

The fates of the countries have been intertwined in more ways than one. The last Mughal Emperor of India, Bahadur Shah Zafar, died in exile in Yangon (then Rangoon) in 1862 and the Burmese king Theebaw breathed his last in internment in the port city of Ratnagiri in 1916.

However, even before Burma became a province of British India, FMR for tribal communities – Kukis, Zo, Chin and Nagas – living along the border was an accepted feature of the Frontier Policy. The Census operations of 1881 and the Manipur state gazetteer of 1886 confirm the presence of Kukis in Manipur.  But a distinction was made between the 8,000 Old Kukis, who had lived in the state traditionally, and the Kongjai Kukis, who had migrated from Lushai Hills as part of the British strategy to build a buffer between the Meitis of Imphal Valley, as well as the 20,000 Naga tribals who inhabited the surrounding hills.  Their sense of identity, though, was rooted in the tribe and its area of habitation, and not the imposed lines that divided nations, states and tracts.

This was the backdrop in which India achieved Independence in 1947, followed by Burma the next year. However, the Burma Passport Rules of 1948 allowed indigenous popular ions from all bordering regions to travel to the country without passports or permits, provided they lived within 40 km of the border. In 1950, India also reciprocated this offer.

Meanwhile, India reorganised internal boundaries to resolve the long-standing demand for ethnic and linguistic states – thereby leading to the creation of Nagaland in 1963, and statehood for Manipur and Union territory status for Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh in 1972. So long as land was abundant, and livelihoods were based on Jhum cultivation and subsistence farming, there was the occasional flashpoint. But with the growing contest for education, government jobs and natural resources, the rivalry among ethnic groups became acute. However, in 1968, following a variety of insurgencies in the Northeast, and the emergence of organised drug trade in the infamous Golden Triangle area (the porous borders of Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos), India unilaterally introduced a permit system for border crossings.

Fifty years later, as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Act East policy, the Land Border Crossing Agreement (LBCA) between India and Myanmar was approved in January 2018 to “safeguard the traditional rights of the largely tribal communities residing along the border, which are accustomed to free movement.” Under the LBCA, residents living within 16 km of the border on either side were issued border passes for up to 14 days. The Manipur government seeks the withdrawal of LBCA, contending that it is altering the state’s fragile demographics.

According to Bhagat Oinam of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), who is of Meitei ethnicity “the Kuki-Chin migration from Myanmar to Manipur has led to an explosion in poppy cultivation in Manipur’s Kuki-dominated districts backed by drug cartels and insurgent groups with a cross-border network, resulting in huge loss of forest cover.” In response, Ginza Vualzong, spokesperson for the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF) said: “Of course, some Kuki-Chin people have crossed over from Myanmar over the years due to the hostile situation there but that has never been in any alarming numbers at all. We have told the home minister that immigration is being used as an excuse to drive Manipur’s indigenous Kuki population out of their land.”

Mizoram Chief Minister Lalduhoma has also said categorically that the state government has a moral and social obligation to provide shelter and care to the 31,300 Chin people who fled the civil war in Myanmar in February 2021 and the roughly 12,000 Kuki-Zo people whose life was endangered in strife-torn Manipur from May 2023 onwards. Meanwhile, although the Nagaland government has not made its position on border crossings explicit, the Deputy CM of Nagaland, Y Patton, met Lalduhoma in January, expressing Naga reservations at the proposed border fencing and restrictions on FMR.

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