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A view of Namphalong market in Myanmar side along Indo-Myanmar border

Scrapping FMR Seen from the Vantage of India’s Act East Policy Will Amount to Throwing the Baby with the Bathwater

While many stakeholders oppose the decision of the India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to erect fencing along the entire 1,643 km Indo-Myanmar international border of which Northeastern State of Manipur shares 398 km and recommendation for immediate suspension of the Free Movement Regime (FMR), a section of Manipur society and Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren appreciated the Central Government for listening to the voice of the people of the State, and for taking the decision.

The Manipur government led by Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren has been asking the Central Government to remove the FMR since September 2023.  Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren’s government contends that militants from Myanmar, illegal immigrants from Myanmar, and arms and drug smugglers have been exploiting the FMR, and crossing over to Manipur to create trouble including the ongoing violent conflict between the Kuki-Zomi militants and Meiteis since May 3 last year.

The FMR between India and Myanmar allows people living on either side of the border to travel up to 16 km inside each other’s country without a visa.

More importantly, the FMR, which in its current form came into force in January 2018 as part of the Narendra Modi government’s Act East policy.

The FMR also envisaged the promotion of localised border trade through customs stations and designated markets apart from helping the people of Myanmar access better education and healthcare facilities on the Indian side of the border.

The FMR enables entry of Myanmarese and Indian nationals to either side of the border without visa and passport. It began as a system to allow people who share familial, social and ethnic ties on both sides of the border to keep in touch with their people.

After India became a republic, Governmet allows Indian and Burmese nationals to enter either side of the border without passport or visa upto 40km. Burmese nationals can stay for 72 hours in India, while Indian citizens can stay for only 24 hours in Myanmar, the then Burma.

In 1960s, the rise of insurgency in Manipur, Mizoram, and Nagaland had caused concerns on Free Movement Regime (FMR) in India.

Therefore, in 1968, India tightened the FMR with the introduction of a new permit system. The permit is to be issued by either side for their citizens for the temporary entry.

Again, in 2004, India limited the FMR distance to 16km from 40km. In addition, instead of allowing people to cross from multiple points along the Indo-Myanmar Border, only three places were allowed to be used as gateways – Pangsau in Arunachal Pradesh, Moreh in Manipur and Zokhawthar in Mizoram.

The MHA, in its 2011-12 annual report, observed that the FMR makes the Indo-Myanmar international border extremely porous, and the hilly and inhospitable terrain provides cover to the activities of various Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs). This prompted the Government of India to revise the FMR.

With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power in 2014, the provisions of Free Movement Regime between India and Myanmar were last revised in 2016. But the Rohingya refugee crisis that began in August 2017 caused the delay in enforcing the revised provisions.

Subsequently, India and Myanmar signed Agreement on Land Border Crossing and the Union Cabinet chaired by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 3, 2018 had approved the Agreement between India and Myanmar on Land Border Crossing.

“The Agreement will facilitate regulation and harmonization of already existing free movement rights for people ordinarily residing in the border areas of both countries. It will also facilitate movement of people on the basis of valid passports and visas which will enhance economic and social interaction between the two countries,” the Government of India said in a statement released by Press Information Bureau (PIB).

Further the statement said, “The Agreement is an enabling arrangement for movement of people across India-Myanmar border. It is expected to provide connectivity and enhance interaction of the people of North Eastern States of India with the people of Myanmar.”

More importantly, the Agreement would give a boost to the economy of the North East and allow us to leverage our geographical connections with Myanmar to boost trade and people to people ties, the statement added.

The Agreement will safeguard the traditional rights of the largely tribal communities residing along the border which are accustomed to free movement across the land border, the statement added.

Now, it is pertinent to ask – Will the suspension of FMR be able to stop the illegal immigrants and smugglers of drugs, arms, golds and other illegal goods, and other violent activities? Will the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government approve the recommedation of the Ministry of Home Affairs for immediate suspension of the FMR? Will the External Affairs Ministry (EAM) give the green signal to scrap the FMR without further delay or will the EAM buy time by engaging with the Myanmarese counterpart?

Here, it may be mentioned that the FMR in Manipur sector of Indo-Myanmar border has been under suspension since March 10, 2020 after the broke out of COVID-19 and followed by the military coup in Myanmar on February 1, 2021. Since then, the suspension of FMR in Manipur sector has not been lifted yet.

However, the influx of illegal immigrants, smuggling of arms, golds and drugs, and violent activities during the last four years can’t be stopped.

It is true that an open-border policy encourages illegal activities such as the trafficking of drugs, arms, golds and other illegal goods. But, is it not possible to address such illegal activities under FMR? Are there not other means to check such illegal activities and influx of illegal immigrants without scrapping the FMR? Has enough security guarding with most modern art of technologies ever been done along the Indo-Myanmar border? Can most modern technologies not be used to check the influx of the illegal immigrants and smuggling of drugs, arms, golds and other illegal goods?

Therefore, it would be wiser to diagnose the failure of proper implementation of the FMR before making the recommendation for immediate suspension of the FMR.

In fact, in good time before the Government has suspended the FMR before COVID-19 brokeout, Indian citizens enter Myanmar after getting a pass from Myanmarese authorities at the border gate by handing over an identity card, which has to be exchanged with the pass at the time of return to Indian side, and paying required fees.

However, unfortunately, this kind of practice is not evident on the Indian side of Moreh town in case of Myanmar citizens entering into India.

Even if the FMR is not properly regulated at the designated gateway – Moreh, the situation along the porous Indo-Myanmar border must be ovbiously a heaven for the illegal immigrants and smugglers of drugs, arms, golds and other illegal goods.

Despite drawbacks and improper regulation of the FMR, the Agreement between India and Myanmar on Land Border Crossing has also allowed a unique political economy to flourish and has protected centuries-old trading practices between local communities on both sides of the border.

If the FMR is scrapped, trade practices between local communities of small traders or vendors on both sides of the border will naturally be vanished. Is it the targetted objective of the Act East Policy?

Only the trade practices of multi-national companies and big businesses from mainland India will flourish with goods laden trucks and high speed vehicles passing through the Imphal-Tamu stretch of Asian Highway-1 while the people of Manipur remains bystanders.

Given the context of the India’s much ambitious Act East Policy, instead of proper implementation and regulation of the FMR and proper guarding of border, a termination of the FMR on the pretext to ensure the internal security of the country and to maintain the demographic structure of India’s Northeastern States bordering Myanmar particularly Manipur – controlling illegal immigrants, movement of militants, smuggling of drugs, arms, golds and other illegal goods – would be a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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