The Indo-Myanmar bridge at Moreh, Manipur (Reuters)
EVER SINCE THE coup d’etat of February 1, 2021 in Myanmar, the danger of turmoil in that country spilling over into India’s Northeastern states has been expressed time and again. These fears came true after a series of events in Manipur and Mizoram over the past one year. The Centre has finally begun taking steps to ensure that these events do not pose a threat to India’s internal security and stability.
On February 8, Union Home Minister Amit Shah announced in a post on X that his ministry was recommending the scrapping of the Free Movement Regime (FMR) between India and Myanmar “to ensure the internal security of the country and to maintain the demographic structure of India’s North Eastern States bordering Myanmar.” Shah said that since the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) is in the process of scrapping the FMR, his ministry has recommended the immediate suspension of FMR. On February 6, Shah had posted on X that the Centre had decided to construct a fence along the entire 1,643km-long Indo-Myanmar border. He added that a 10km stretch in Moreh, Manipur, had already been fenced. Shah further said that two pilot projects of fencing through a Hybrid Surveillance System (HSS) are “under execution.” Fence works covering 20km in Manipur have also been approved and work on them will start soon.
The FMR system dates to the 1970s under which citizens of India and Myanmar who reside in a 16km belt on either side of the border could travel freely across the border. In recent times, this system has been abused greatly and has caused havoc in Manipur even as massive inflows of people from Myanmar into Mizoram were reported in the past two years. These numbers, dangerously high for small states in the Northeast, have now become an acute threat to the demographic stability of these states. This is especially true for Mizoram and Manipur.
Alarmingly, the approach to the problem in the two states is very different and is now a serious security threat. In April last year, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) ordered the recording of biometric details of illegal migrants in Mizoram and Manipur. The process was to be completed by September. While Manipur started the process in late July, Mizoram did not comply with the orders. Manipur requested an extension as conditions in the state did not permit a timely completion of the process. In Mizoram, however, the state government did not agree to record the biometric details of illegal migrants. As reported by The Indian Express on September 29, the then Minister of Information and Public Relations Lalruatkima, said: “The people who have come from Myanmar are our relatives. When borders were drawn during the time of the British, some of our brothers and sisters got left on the other side. This is the condition of the Mizo. When the military coup happened, they came to take shelter here.” He went on to say that his government would not collect biometrics as after these had been collected, “the Centre, after taking it, will push them out.” This was an alarming statement that did not go unnoticed in New Delhi. It is one thing to offer humanitarian assistance to a people but something entirely different to place ethnic affinities above considerations of national security in sensitive zones. It is worth emphasising that Mizoram witnessed a long-drawn and painful insurgency in the 20th century, one that was brought to a close after a particularly harsh—but successful—counterinsurgency campaign.
The Mizo people are closely related to the Chin people of Myanmar as are the Kuki people of Manipur. These ethnic affinities often cross national borders. For a long time, the Centre under its liberal “people-to-people” contact policy—of which the FMR was a part—took a benign approach to these affinities. At that time, Mizoram was in election mode for the state assembly elections that were held on November 7 last year. Probably, that was one reason why the issue did not get traction beyond a point.
Amit Shah said that since the Ministry of External Affairs is in the process of scrapping FMR, his ministry has recommended its immediate suspension. On February 6, Shah had posted on X that the Centre had decided to construct a fence along the entire 1,643km-long Indo-Myanmar border. He added that a 10km stretch in Moreh, Manipur, had already been fenced
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But the situation in Mizoram— the influx of illegal migrants there— cannot be seen in isolation from events in Manipur. There, the Meitei people, the state’s majority community but one that is concentrated in a very small area in the Imphal Valley, is at the receiving end of massive illegal migration of Chin people in different districts of the state. The Chin people are close ethnic relations of the Kukis.
The picture in these two states should be seen from the perspective of events in Myanmar. Mizoram and Manipur share a border with the Chin state of Myanmar. This border extends all the way from the edge of Lawngtlai district, effectively a tri-junction of Bangladesh, India and Myanmar. The Chin state border extends all the way to the south-eastern edge of Chandel district. The restive Churachandpur district also shares a border on its southern edge with Chin state. From the edge of Chandel all the way north to Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh, another region of Myanmar—the Sagaing region— has a border with Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.
It is worth pointing out that conflict data shows these border regions of Myanmar—classified as Northwest Myanmar in data gathered by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)—while subject to the post-coup conflict, are much less affected when compared to Myanmar’s other four regions. In fact, data for six months from July 2023 until December 2023 shows that the number of violent incidents due to the conflict only range from 9 per cent to 17 per cent of overall incidents reported during this time. The theatre of major conflict lies elsewhere. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) database—another major independent conflict reporting database—show a similar trend even if its methodology of data collection and classification is different.
When conflict broke out in Myanmar, the first clashes and incidents were reported at the western and eastern extremities of that country, in Rakhine and Shan states. This was as early as mid and late-2020. At that time, Chin and Sagaing regions were wholly quiescent. The first incidents from the conflict were reported from the Sagaing region in March and April of 2021. These were in areas adjacent to Tengnoupal and Kamjong districts of Manipur. The border of Myanmar adjacent to Mizoram—Chin—was silent at that time. This timeline is necessary to keep in mind as the real influx of migrants began sometime closer to the internal disturbances in Manipur. While there is little doubt that conflict in Myanmar has a role to play in the flow of migrants, it would be a mistake to view them as solely driven by conflict. The danger of demographic changes driven by the politics of ‘buttressing numbers’ in Mizoram and Manipur are very real and cannot be ignored. There will be unpredictable consequences if this sort of politics goes unchecked.
The Union Home Minister’s February 8 post on X shows an acute awareness of this aspect of the difficult situation in these states. There has been some scattered commentary about how this will lead to a fraying of India’s Look East Policy. This is a shibboleth. If a country cannot secure its borders and preserve the demographic balance of its sensitive border states—and they are two faces of the same coin in India’s Northeast—it can do precious little to further economic prosperity. Regional connectivity has a place in India’s economic progress but not as a trade-off with the security of its borders. The two work as complements and not substitutes. That is the category mistake which afflicts some analysts of India’s geopolitics.