Despite grands plans to increase security and connectivity on Burma’s border with India, international experts as well as citizens living in the area say the governments of both countries will face daunting challenges as they seek to control their shared 1,624-km-long frontier.
For India, the renewed attention to the country’s remote Northeast is part of a pivot to Southeast Asia, a region that has seen remarkable economic growth in recent decades.
“The locus of regionalism in South Asia is increasingly moving to the East,” said Sanjay Pulipaka, a senior consultant with the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. Improving the situation along the border with Burma is a key part of this new focus, he added.
“There are proposals for the Mekong-India Economic Corridor involving Myanmar [Burma] … and therefore proper management of the Northeast Indian border to facilitate faster development becomes important,” he said.
Speaking to DVB, Pulipaka pointed to infrastructure projects like the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) transport agreement as evidence of the shift. The BBIN transport agreement, which was signed in June 2015, allows shipping trucks and other motor vehicles easy access to border crossings. It’s the type of agreement that the Indian government would like to replicate in Southeast Asia.
While Pulipaka notes that there has been “significant improvement” in border security over the last several years, he adds that “there is still substantive scope for improving the connectivity networks in the border regions. The India-Myanmar border region is very porous and hence, there is significant formal and informal movement. As a consequence, armed groups can easily move across the border region undetected.”
While the movement of illicit goods and armed groups has long been a fact of life on the border, the issue has taken on a new urgency as the Indian government looks to jump-start these connectivity projects.
Much of the illegal activity stems from the Manipur armed groups that have been fighting the Indian government for greater autonomy for decades, and which largely keep their bases on the Burmese side of the border.
These rebels camps have long been a tense subject between New Delhi and Naypyidaw. In June of last year, tensions came to a boil when Indian media reported that commandos had carried out a raid on the rebel camps in Burma without informing local authorities. The Indian government later claimed the encounter had happened “somewhere” in the border areas, according to local media.
When contacted by DVB, the Indian embassy in Rangoon declined to respond to questions about this incident.
Several residents of Sagaing Division’s Tamu Township, which sits on the border with India’s Manipur State, said the presence of smuggling and armed groups is just a fact of life.
“Living in the border area, we are familiar with the sounds of guns and bombs. But nothing happens in town, so we are not afraid,” said Ma Khine Soe Oo, who works as a delivery person in Tamu.
In interviews with DVB, the Tamu locals said drugs were by far the biggest commodity being smuggled across the border, though illegal timber is also common. Even items like longyis are smuggled through the jungle so merchants can avoid paying taxes at border crossings.
Several residents said the illicit trade is only made possible by the complicity of border guards on the Burma side.
“Only very small traffickers who carry drugs on their own motorbikes are arrested,” said Tin Aye, a long-time Tamu resident.
“Big traders are seldom arrested. Their goods don’t go through official border trading points and are sent by armed groups. Those who accept [the goods] on our side are also well known or ‘big’ people, so they are usually not arrested.”
Others said the problem is the outright incompetence of the Burmese troops.
“There are security forces but comparing them with [India] is like joking. The other side, when they go for patrol, they are ready, their guns are already loaded,” said Ma Khine Soe Oo.
“On this side, police may patrol by motorbike or bicycle but don’t seem ready for any emergency. On our side, many people in uniforms are drunk.”