Crossroads of Contention

Union Home Minister Amit Shah has unveiled plans to fence the 1,643 km India-Myanmar border, signalling a potential end to the Free Movement Regime (FMR). Manipur’s push for fencing stems from ethnic conflicts, but recent incidents reveal the complex situation, risking insurgency. The challenges underscore the need for a nuanced approach, mindful of China’s influence and potential escalation in the northeast

By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch


On January 20, 2024, Union Home Minister Amit Shah announced that the Union Government would soon fence the 1,643 km border between India and Myanmar. Additionally, the government is considering ending its Free Movement Regime (FMR) agreement with Myanmar. The FMR, initiated in 2018 as part of India’s Act East Policy (AEP), permitted residents along the border of both countries to travel up to 16 km into each other’s territory without a visa. Speaking at the passing out parade of police commandos in Guwahati, Shah emphasised that the decision to fence the Indo-Myanmar border is analogous to the fencing of India’s border with Bangladesh.

The intention behind terminating the FMR agreement is to restrict movement between India and Myanmar. Manipur advocates for the fencing of the Myanmar border and the cessation of free entry for Myanmar nationals accused of fuelling the ongoing ethnic conflict. However, Manipur MLA Thaounaojam Shyamkumar Singh led a 100-strong mob, mostly women, on June 24, 2023, compelling an Indian Army column to hand over 12 armed Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) terrorists who are Meitei and Myanmar-based. This incident suggests that the Manipur Government invited KYKL terrorists to assist in attacking the Kuki-Zo tribals.

The mishandling of the ground situation, coupled with state-sponsored ethnic cleansing, is propelling Manipur dangerously towards the precipice of a full-blown insurgency, as highlighted by the author in a recent article published in South Asia Monitor.  The state administration’s decision to arm and instigate the Meitei, including the 50-60,000-strong Arambai Tenggol, against the minority Kuki-Zo tribals is playing into the hands of China. Chinese intelligence reportedly has connections with radical-terrorist organisations among Meiteis, Kukis, Nagas, and other groups inside Myanmar.

The mishandling of the ground situation, coupled with state-sponsored ethnic cleansing, is propelling Manipur dangerously towards the precipice of a full-blown insurgency

On February 3, 2024, Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh announced that the Centre was on the verge of making “significant decisions” in the interest of the state’s residents. This statement came after his meeting with Shah. Singh also wrote on X: “Engaging in a profound exchange, we discussed matters of paramount importance concerning our state.” While the discussion may have included the issue of fencing the Manipur-Myanmar border, it is crucial for the Centre to explore political solutions to address the bloodshed and ethnic strife in Manipur, rather than supporting Biren Singh’s efforts to forcibly evict the Kuki-Zo, who have been residents of Manipur for decades.

Media reports of January 23, 2024, had revealed the presence of Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA)-appointed team led by former Intelligence Officer special director AK Mishra in Manipur for peace holding talks over the next couple of days with both the Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity (COCOMI), an umbrella body of Meitei groups, and the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF) representing the Kuki community. Despite these efforts, further violence has erupted since then. The recent display of armed strength by the Arambai Tenggol in Imphal suggests that the AK Mishra-led MHA team will require a sincere and herculean effort to broker peace between the two warring communities.

Last year, Amit Shah had stated that only 5.6 km of the 390-km Manipur-Myanmar border had been fenced, and fencing for another 90 km was in progress. However, PKH Singh, ADG (East) at the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), recently informed the media that 10 km of completed fencing along the border in Manipur’s Moreh has been handed over to the Assam Rifles. Additionally, the next 80 km of the border stretch in Manipur has been identified, and a detailed project report (DPR) has been submitted to the MHA. Fencing of the remaining 250 km, including approach roads, is currently in the planning stage.

The prospect of fencing the entire 1,643 km border with Myanmar raises concerns about the borders of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram. However, both Mizoram and Nagaland oppose the idea, expressing disapproval of both fencing and scrapping the FMR between the two countries. The inhabitants on either side of the international border in these states share common ethnic ties, leading to resistance against such measures.

During his inaugural visit to New Delhi, the newly elected Chief Minister of Mizoram, Lalduhoma, conveyed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, and Home Minister Amit Shah that fencing the Indo-Myanmar border would be deemed “unacceptable.” Mizoram emphasizes its ethnic connections with Chin communities in Myanmar, asserting that such a fence would not only divide ethnic Mizos but also endorse the border established by the British. Notably, around 30,000 Chin people, displaced by the civil unrest in Myanmar since the military takeover in February 2021, have sought refuge in Mizoram.

Following Mizoram’s stance, Nagaland has also voiced similar reservations. Nagaland Deputy Chief Minister Y Patton, a senior BJP leader in Nagaland, expressed on January 8, 2024, in Aizawl, that any decision on fencing the Indo-Myanmar border would be unacceptable to the Nagas. This sentiment extends to the FMR, allowing cross-border movement without travel documents.

It is crucial for the Centre to explore political solutions to address the bloodshed and ethnic strife in Manipur, rather than supporting Biren Singh’s efforts to forcibly evict the Kuki-Zo, who have been residents of Manipur for decades

In light of these objections, it remains unclear whether the MHA still intends to fence the entire 1,643 km border with Myanmar. The process is anticipated to span a couple of years, given unresolved pockets and incomplete demarcation of the international border. The challenging terrain, distinct from the India-Bangladesh border, poses additional complexities. The India-Myanmar border is predominantly mountainous, with densely forested sections along Nagaland, Ukhrul region of Manipur, and Mizoram, where visibility is constrained, even during daylight, due to dense undergrowth.

While the idea of fencing the entire border with Myanmar is being considered, ensuring constant observation and responding to illegal movement would require a substantial troop deployment—potentially comparable to our presence in Jammu and Kashmir along the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan, or possibly even more. Despite suggestions of drone surveillance and sensors from armchair strategists, the efficacy of such measures in this challenging terrain is limited, as one would observe by walking along this border.

The abolition of the FMR could escalate violence in our northeast. As it is, the Myanmar Army is thinly spread out and was attacking radical-terrorists bases (including Naga, ULFA, UNLF and others) only occasionally – well described in the recently published book ‘ULFA – The Mirage of Dawn’ authored by Rajeev Bhattacharya. This was the state before the military junta took control of Myanmar in February 2021. The situation for the Myanmar Army is much worse today with the anti-junta forces taking control of townships, including along the border with India.

All these considerations must be thoroughly weighed before deciding to fence the entire border with Myanmar and discarding the Free Movement Regime (FMR), as such decisions may provoke the Nagas and Chins to take up arms. Additionally, it is essential to carefully examine how China might benefit from these developments. Instead of confining ourselves, the MHA, or more broadly, the Centre, should strategise to infiltrate into various groups within Myanmar for influence operations. The reported history of NSA Ajit Doval living in Myanmar during his youth, disguised as a Mizo, could serve as a valuable reference point.

-The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal.  The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda