India’s North-East Protests Over ‘Smart Fence’ With Myanmar That Threatens Ancient Bonds, Family Ties

Signals of discontent are rising along the Indo-Myanmar border as New Delhi moves to fortify its frontier with barbed wire and smart fencing. From the lush hills of Manipur to the winding valleys of Mizoram, rallies have erupted in a resounding protest against New Delhi’s decision to scrap the decades-old ‘Free Movement Regime’ that allowed families divided by borders to reunite.

For generations, the imaginary lines drawn by colonial cartographers meant little to the ethnic Zo tribes whose lives have straddled the Indian and Myanmar sides. A significant number of people from the Kuki-Zo tribal community held rallies in Manipur, Mizoram, and Nagaland to protest the Indian government’s decision to cancel the ‘Free Movement Regime’ (FMR) with Myanmar and to construct a fence along the international border.

The central government announced these plans to curb illegal immigration from Myanmar. This initiative, along with increased military checkpoints, is intended to address various challenges in India’s North East Region (NER), such as drug trafficking and the influx of refugees from Myanmar.

However, it is important to recognize the complications this decision presents, particularly due to the shared ethnic ties among communities on both sides of the border, which complicate the effective implementation of these measures.

What Will Change

Four north-eastern states—Arunachal Pradesh (520 km), Nagaland (215 km), Manipur (398 km), and Mizoram (510 km)—share a 1,643 km long border with Myanmar. Recent media reports have indicated that India plans to spend US $3.7 billion to fence this international border.

Sources from the Manipur government stated that in the first phase, the barbed wire fencing will cover a 10 km stretch of the border in the state, followed by an additional 70 km. Modern smart fencing will soon be installed along the entire border with Myanmar.

Historically, such border projects have faced significant delays. For example, it took a decade to fence just 10 km of the Manipur-Myanmar border. Officials now estimate that completing the entire project could take four to five years.

The Free Movement Regime (FMR) currently allows people on both sides of the border to move within a 16-km radius without a visa, requiring only a single permit. Once the fencing is completed, people crossing the border will be required to obtain an Indian visa.

Families Fear Scattering

The scene is one of profound irony.

Since the 1970s, the bilateral arrangement between India and Myanmar has facilitated the maintenance of age-old relations among people who share kinship across the border.

Now, the fencing initiative, meant to enhance security, has stirred angst among the very ethnic minorities it aims to protect from the crossfire of Myanmar’s civil war. At the crux of this tangle lies the dilemma of fighting 21st-century threats while preserving age-old communities.

The Zo Reunification Organisation (ZoRO) contends that members of the Zo tribe reside in various parts of India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, with many families spanning multiple countries. Revoking the FMR would scatter families and sever vital connections.

ZoRO, based in Aizawl, advocates the reunification of all Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi tribes from India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar under a single administration.

As a result, communities, including the Zo tribe in Mizoram, the Tengnoupal district of Manipur, and tribal areas of Nagaland, oppose the Central Government’s decision.

Rallies have drawn thousands of participants from both sides of the border, including refugees and residents from nearby districts. Despite the border gates being closed, gatherings like these have demonstrated the strong bonds shared by communities on either side, with people from Myanmar observing and participating in meetings held on the Indian side.

Myanmar’s Political Turmoil

In February 2021, the military in Myanmar staged a coup, overthrowing the democratic government and seizing control. Numerous leaders, including State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, were detained.

Subsequently, Myanmar’s army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, proclaimed himself Prime Minister, and the army imposed a two-year state of emergency. Since then, Myanmar has been embroiled in a civil conflict, resulting in a significant displacement of people.

Myanmar-India security
The Assam Rifles (AR) with the Myanmar Army at a border meeting. AR guards India’s border with the neighboring country. (AR photo)

High Crime Rate In The Region 

The escalation of Myanmar’s opium production, reaching the pinnacle of global production in 2023 with illicit cultivation expanding from 99,000 to 116,000 acres, exacerbates the threat of drug trafficking in the NER.

During the fiscal year 2022-23, the NER states alone seized contraband worth over INR 2,000 cr (approximately $267 million). The main substances trafficked include heroin, YABA tablets, ganja, brown sugar, etc.

These illicit narcotics are trafficked through India’s NER, utilizing Manipur and Mizoram as transit routes for further distribution to mainland India, according to an Observer Research Foundation (ORF) report.

Security Concerns

Ethnic violence took place in India’s north-eastern state of Manipur in May of last year. Indian intelligence agencies believe that weapons and militants are slipping across these unfenced borders and fueling the ethnic conflagration that has engulfed Manipur.

Conversely, since the onset of guerrilla warfare against military rule in Myanmar, thousands of individuals have fled to Mizoram, seeking refuge in camps established across the state. According to recent government data, the current count stands at 34,141 refugees from Myanmar sheltering in Mizoram.

As modern and ‘smart’ fences are erected, one wonders: Can such barriers truly protect against the pervasive insecurity engulfing the region?

“India’s decision to fence the 1,643 km Indo-Myanmar border was long overdue. The Free Movement Regime (FMR) has, in fact, encouraged illegal migrants from Myanmar, fueling ethnic violence in the state of Manipur. And let’s not forget that India has already fenced its border with Bangladesh. However, the FMR has to be modified in this age of globalization, considering human relations”, said Prof. Avinash Kolhe, retired professor of Political Science at the University of Mumbai.

From Arunachal to Nagaland, the human tapestry woven across these frontiers is imperiled. As New Delhi cites the need to combat the deluge of meth pills and heroin flooding in from the Golden Triangle (a large, mountainous region in northeastern Myanmar, northwestern Thailand, and northern Laos, has been one of the largest opium-producing areas of the world since the 1950s), locals fear their centuries-old kinship ties could be the next casualties.

India walks a geopolitical tightrope: bolstering its security while respecting ethnic realities. The fenced borders may halt the traffickers but could drive a deeper wedge into communities already torn asunder by territorial lines.

As smart fences rise, India must ensure its porous frontiers don’t divide more than they unite.

  • Shubhangi Palve is a Defence and aerospace Journalist. Before joining the EurAsian Times, she worked for ET Prime. In this capacity, she focused on covering Defence strategies and the Defence Sector from a financial perspective. She offers more than 15 years of extensive experience in the media industry, spanning print, electronic, and online domains.
  • Contact the author at shubhapalve (at) gmail (dot) com.