Wednesday, May 29, 2024
HomeOpinionThe end of India's Free Movement Regime with Myanmar

The end of India’s Free Movement Regime with Myanmar

Guest contributor

Shalini Perumal

India’s Home Minister Amit Shah announced in February his government’s plans to construct a fence along the 1,643 km border with Myanmar, effectively ending the Free Movement Regime (FMR) agreement.

The FMR allowed citizens of both countries visa-free travel up to 16 km on either side using a border pass. 

This decision, aimed at bolstering internal security and preserving the demographic composition of India’s northeastern states, has sparked significant debate and concern.

On May 2, India carried out the deportation of the first group of Myanmar refugees who had sought shelter following the 2021 military coup. 

The deportation involved at least 38 refugees and was conducted by the border state of Manipur, which intends to repatriate a total of 77 people. This comes following violence, which has claimed the lives of at least 220 people since ethnic clashes erupted in May last year.

The ongoing deportations and the decision to end the FMR is widely seen as an attempt to shift focus away from Manipur State Chief Minister N Biren Singh. 

He blamed the ethnic conflict, which erupted between the majority Meitei and minority Kuki communities in 2023, as primarily fueled by “illegal immigrants,” “drugs, and arms traffickers” who could potentially infiltrate India from Myanmar.

The history of this border, shaped by colonial legacies and ethnic complexities, adds depth to the controversy. 

Much of India’s northeast was previously under Burmese control until the British intervention in the 1800s, leading to the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826, which established the current boundary. 

However, this demarcation divided ethnic groups such as the Nagas and the Kuki-Chin-Mizo communities across international borders without their consent.

The FMR, initiated in 2018 under the Act East Policy of the Narendra Modi government, allowed residents within 16 km of the border to move freely between India and Myanmar for up to two weeks without visas using a border pass. 

This facilitated familial and trade relations, benefiting communities on both sides. However, the recent decision to terminate the FMR has been met with opposition from various quarters.

Critics argue that the suspension of the FMR overlooks the historical and social ties that bind borderland communities. 

Its abrupt termination, which facilitated essential activities like agricultural work and trade, will undoubtedly impact the livelihoods and cultural exchanges between these frontier peoples’. 

In Mizoram and Nagaland, where sentiments against the border closure run high, state assemblies have passed unanimous resolutions condemning the decision.

Leaders emphasize the deep-rooted ethnic and tribal connections that span the international border, highlighting the impracticality and disruption caused by sealing off this frontier. 

Moreover, concerns are raised about the government’s motives behind this move. While it cites national security and demographic concerns, critics argue that similar measures are not applied to other porous borders with neighbouring countries like Bhutan and Nepal.

The fallout from this decision extends beyond diplomatic and political realms, impacting the daily lives and identities of borderland communities. 

*Esther Lotha, a 25-year-old ethnic Naga, said that this decision poses a problem for her family. “How am I supposed to see them, through flights and visas that I can’t afford?” 

“The government does not think about our situation. It needs to do better. It is not just Nagas. It is also so many other communities in the northeast that are impacted by this [decision].” 

Discussions are ongoing regarding the implications of fencing the border and the future of cross-border interactions that have defined these regions for generations. 

The decision to terminate the FMR and construct a border fence along the India-Myanmar border reflects complex geopolitical considerations and historical grievances. 

As debates continue, it remains imperative to prioritize the voices and concerns of those directly affected by these policy changes, ensuring a balanced approach that respects both security imperatives and the unique cultural fabric of India’s northeastern frontier.

Shalini Perumal is a creative international development professional who has worked previously in Mae Sot, Thailand at Mae Tao Clinic. She is currently a freelance journalist as well as Communications Officer at ActionAid India in New Delhi. The views expressed in the article are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation.

DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]

*name changed to protect identity


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