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India-Myanmar Border Problems: Fencing not the only solution

Dr Pushpita Das is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • November 15, 2013

    The unfolding events along the India-Myanmar border for the past few months have managed to bring the hitherto ‘neglected’ border into the consciousness of the policymakers in New Delhi. The first episode in the series started with the intermittent protests against the construction of a border fence since July, 2013 by various political parties and the affected people in Manipur. The protesters claim that the 10-km fence between border pillars no. 79 and 81, which is being constructed several metres inside the Indian territory because of Myanmar’s objections, would result in Manipur loosing substantial portions of its territory to Myanmar. They demanded that the Central government should first resolve the border dispute with Myanmar and conduct a joint survey of the border before constructing the fence.

    These protests got a further fillip when on August 22, 2013, the Myanmarese army reportedly tried to set up a camp by felling trees in Hollenphai village near border pillar no. 76. While the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) denied any intrusion into the Indian territory by the Myanmarese army, the local people alleged harassments by the ‘intruders’. The subsequent visits of the state Governor and other high ranking officials to the affected area failed to assuage the feelings of the local people and the protest against the construction of the fence continues even today. Despite these protests, the Central government has decided to go ahead with the construction of fencing – a decision based on the successful experiment along the India-Pakistan and India-Bangladesh borders, where the fence has been effective in checking infiltration and illegal migration to a large extent.

    But will a 10-km fence prevent the cross border movements of insurgents, gun runners and drug peddlers along the international border with Myanmar? The answer is no, because the vulnerability of the India-Myanmar border stems from a number of factors. First, even though the international boundary between the two countries had been formally delimited and demarcated following the boundary agreement on March 10, 1967, the boundary has not crystallised on the ground as lines separating two sovereign countries. This is because like most of the boundaries that India shares with its neighbours, the India-Myanmar boundaries is also an artificial line which is superimposed on the socio-cultural landscape of the borderland. As a result, the boundary line cuts across houses and villages thus dividing several tribes such as the Singphos, Nagas, Kukis, Mizos, etc., and forcing them to reside as citizens of different countries. These tribes, however, refuse to accept the artificial line and continue to maintain strong linkages with their kith and kin across the border.

    Second, the border traverses a region which is infested with numerous insurgencies. These insurgencies have hampered the nation building process in this part of India. This in turn, has delayed the crystallisation of the international border with Myanmar and has contributed towards sustaining these insurgencies for so long. Third, the India-Myanmar border has a unique arrangement in place called the Free Movement Regime (FMR). The FMR permits the tribes residing along the border to travel 16-km across the boundary without visa restrictions. While the FMR has helped the tribes continue maintain their age old ties, it has also become a cause of concern for the security establishment. The insurgents have been taking advantage of the FMR and have been crossing over to Myanmar to receive training in arms, establish safe havens and re-enter India to carry out subversive attacks. It is estimated that various insurgents operating in the Northeast India have set up 15-20 camps in Myanmar. Another provision in the FMR, which allows tribal people to carry head load has also facilitated smuggling of arms and narcotics from across the border as these head loads are seldom checked. Over the years, the India-Myanmar border has become the main conduit for the trafficking of arms and high quality heroin from Myanmar. Smuggling of ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine and trafficking of women and children from the Northeast to Myanmar and further to Southeast Asia are also rampant along the border.

    Fourth, the policymakers in Delhi have not given adequate attention to the India-Myanmar border and as a result it continues to be poorly managed. The Assam Rifles which has been deployed along the border to guard the boundary has also been straddled with responsibility of maintaining internal security. Given the security situation of the region, the force has deployed 31 of its 46 battalions for counter insurgency operations and only 15 battalions for guarding the border. Even these 15 battalions are not placed at the border but they operate from company operated bases which are located far inside the Indian territory. In short, the Assam Rifles functions more like a counter insurgency force rather than a border guarding force. As a result, they fail to dominate the border and prevent widespread infiltration and smuggling.

    Similarly, infrastructural facilities at Moreh and Zokhawatar – the two designated points for normal trade and border trade respectively – is poor. The land customs station lack screening and detection machines, communication devices, banking facilities, warehouses, parking and quarantine facilities. These infrastructural deficiencies along with a restrictive trading list and opening of Namphalong market by Myanmarese government on the other side of the border have been adversely affected normal trade at Moreh and has given rise to informal trade. While the Government of India in 2006-07 had decided to upgrade the land customs station at Moreh into an integrated check post (ICP) housing all regulatory and security agencies within a single complex with all modern amenities to boost trade and curb smuggling, nothing on the ground has materialised even today.

    Most importantly, India has been unsuccessful in garnering the cooperation of Myanmar for managing the border. Even though both the countries have set up a number of bilateral institutionalised mechanisms at various levels to discuss issues related to border security and management, these interactions have not borne any fruit. India’s frequent requests to the Myanmarese government for taking action against the Indian insurgent groups based in its territory have gone unheeded. And the border dispute which essentially involves disagreements over the placement of nine border pillars has remained unresolved. India’s patchy engagement with the military junta in Myanmar and its initial support to the democratic movement in that country have been largely responsible for Myanmar’s reluctance to cooperate with India.

    Given that the vulnerability of the India-Myanmar border is posing a serious challenge to the internal security of the country, the Government of India should pay immediate attention to effectively manage this border. It should first strengthen the security of the border by either giving the Assam Rifles the single mandate of guarding the border or deploying another border guarding force such as the Border Security Force (BSF). It should initiate a revision of the FMR and reduce the permitted distance of unrestricted travel. The construction of the ICP along with other infrastructure should be expedited. Finally, India should endeavour to meaningfully engage with Myanmar and solicit its cooperation in resolving all outstanding issues and better manage their mutual border.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.