Recent reports from Indian media indicate that officials from the Central government are contemplating the termination of the Free Movement Regime (FMR) with Myanmar. The move is seen as a strategic measure to counter the surge of illegal migrants and insurgents exploiting the existing policy. Allegations of misuse, leading to concerns about “illegal immigration, drug, and arms trafficking,” have fueled the deliberations.
Initiated in 2018 as part of India’s Act East policy, the FMR allows individuals residing within a 16 km radius on either side of the India-Myanmar border, belonging to hill tribes and citizens of either India or Myanmar, to travel across the border without a visa. However, the proposal on the table suggests terminating the FMR and replacing it with a comprehensive fencing project along the 1,643-km-long border. The new initiative is expected to be completed within the next four-and-a-half years, with individuals entering the border region required to obtain a visa, marking a departure from the current visa-free movement.
Officials, as reported by ANI, state that the primary objectives of this move are to curb the misuse of the FMR by insurgent groups for attacks on the Indian side before escaping to Myanmar and to prevent the inflow of illegal immigrants involved in various illicit activities, including drug and gold smuggling.
The process of tendering for an advanced smart fencing system covering 300 km of the India-Myanmar border is reportedly already underway, with implementation set to commence shortly. The smart fencing system is expected to significantly enhance border security and align with the government’s broader objectives.
Allegations of an influx of Myanmar’s tribal population into India, particularly Manipur and Mizoram, following the military coup on February 1, 2021, have added urgency to the discussions. It is claimed that a considerable number of individuals sought refuge in India and engaged in unlawful activities, notably drug smuggling.
In September 2023, Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh appealed to terminate the FMR, expressing concerns that insurgents exploit the regime for their activities. Manipur shares a porous border of approximately 390 km with Myanmar, with only about 10 km currently fenced. Similarly, Mizoram has witnessed an influx of anti-Junta rebels, with government estimates suggesting thousands of refugees settling in various parts of the state. Mizoram shares a porous border spanning 510 kilometres with Myanmar.
The proposed termination of the FMR also has broader implications for Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, both sharing extensive borders with Myanmar. Arunachal Pradesh has a 520-kilometre border, while Nagaland’s border with Myanmar spans 215 km.
The FMR is a mutually agreed arrangement between the two countries that allows tribes living along the border to travel up to 16 km inside the other country without a visa. Under the FMR, every member of the hill tribes, who is either a citizen of India or a citizen of Myanmar and who is resident of any area within 16 km on either side of the border can cross over on production of a border pass with one-year validity and can stay up to two weeks.
‘Unacceptable’: Mizoram CM to PM, External Affairs Minister on fencing Indo-Myanmar border
Recently elected Mizoram chief minister Lalduhoma has told Union external affairs minister S. Jaishankar that fencing the Indo-Myanmar border will be “unacceptable”. This statement came two days after the Union government decided to do away with the Free Movement Regime along the Indo-Myanmar border in four northeastern states.
“The British had separated the Mizos by carving out Burma from India. They divided the Mizo ethnic people’s land from the ancient days into two parts. That is why we cannot accept the border, instead we always dream of becoming a nation under one administration,” Lalduhoma told Jaishankar in a meeting in New Delhi on Wednesday (January 3), according to Deccan Herald.
Such a fencing, he said, would divide ethnic Mizos and approve the British-created border. “It shall be unacceptable for us,” he said.
According to The Times of India, Lalduhoma also expressed this sentiment in his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“The present border between Mizoram and Chin state of Myanmar was demarcated by the British government without consulting the Mizo people,” the 74-year old CM said to Modi.
The Free Movement Regime, put in place in the 1970s, allows people living near the border from India and Myanmar to travel up to 16 km into the other country without needing a visa.
Earlier, Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh had asked the Union government to cancel this Regime given the ethnic conflict in the state, between the Meitei and Kuki-Zo communities. Kukis share ethnic ties with the Mizos of Mizoram and Chins of Myanmar, and have been asking to be unified under a separate administration. Such a unification was also a promise Lalduhoma and his Zoram People’s Party had made in their election manifesto.
Manipur CM advocates scrapping of FMR
Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh has pointed fingers at earlier union governments, particularly those led by the Congress, for neglecting the northeastern state and its concerns over the 390-km long border with Myanmar. He contends that this neglect has contributed to ethnic violence between the Meitei and Kuki-Zo tribes in May last year, resulting in 175 casualties.
Speaking to NDTV against the backdrop of the violence and ongoing clashes with militants, Chief Minister Singh called upon the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to fence the international border and eliminate the Free Movement Regime (FMR).
Singh emphasized that if fencing and a pass system had been in place from 1947-49, when Manipur merged with India, problems like ethnic violence might have been averted. He expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of security at the border, highlighting the challenges faced by the Assam Rifles in managing both counter-insurgency and border protection. Singh argued that militants have now established camps within Manipur’s borders.
In September, Singh had previously underscored the need to cancel or modify the FMR and to fence the 1,643-km Myanmar border. He pointed out instances of people from Myanmar attempting to exploit the FMR to enter Manipur, raising concerns about porous borders.
According to the report, Singh criticized past governments for neglecting the indigenous people of Manipur and credited Prime Minister Narendra Modi for bringing attention to the northeast. He reiterated the urgency of border fencing and the cancellation of free movement.
Union Minister Rajkumar Ranjan Singh supported Chief Minister Singh’s calls, emphasizing that the current situation necessitates border fencing. The FMR, implemented in 1970 and revived in 2016 as part of the ‘Act East’ policy, allows hill tribe members from India or Myanmar to cross the border with a specific pass. The rule will soon be scrapped, and the border will be fenced, according to a senior government official, the report said.
Manipur has a 390 km-long border with Myanmar, with only 10 km currently fenced. In July, around 700 illegal immigrants were reported to have crossed over.
However, not all regional counterparts agree with Chief Minister Singh’s stance. Mizoram’s Chief Minister Lalduhoma recently conveyed to External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar that he opposes the idea of fencing the border.
Rising People’s Party opposes Central Government’s move to end FMR
The Rising People’s Party (RPP) has expressed deep concern over the central government’s decision to terminate the Free Movement Regime (FMR) along the India-Myanmar border. “The New Year has begun on an ominous note for the tribal states of Northeast and the Naga people. The decision of the central government to end the Free Movement Regime (FMR) which allows people residing on either side of the India-Myanmar border to venture 16 km into each other’s territory without visa, is alarming and a wake-up call for Nagas,” RPP said in a statement.
Apart from the proposed visa travel, the central government aims to construct high security fencing along the border. “Nagas are already the most geographically divided people and this proposal will only heighten the divide amongst the Naga people. Therefore, any policy that aims to further divide us should be opposed tooth and nail,” RPP added.
The RPP urged Prime Minister Modi to “uphold the age-old mechanism which allows people across borders to converge and live as honourable peoples, whether Nagas or Zo-Kuki.” It added that various forms of FMR have been in place since the creation of the state in 1963 respecting the needs and the sentiments of the Naga people living on both sides of the border, and this needs to be respected and upheld.
“The ineptitude of CM Biren Singh and his communal policies cannot be the excuse for the central government to scrap the FMR. It may be recalled that in 2017 the Burmese junta proposed to fence the international border nearPangsha under Noklak district but was subsequently dropped due to strong and spirited opposition by the people,” RPP also said.
The RPP also called on the NDPP-BJP coalition government to strongly oppose the proposed scrapping of the FMR. It suggested that if necessary, all 60 MLAs should meet with either the Prime Minister or the Home Minister to convey the strong sentiments of the Naga people, emphasizing that “under no circumstances the construction of the fencing will be allowed.”
(with inputs from agencies)