With Manipur on the boil and ethnic tensions riding sky high, the issue of completing the fencing along the 400 km long Indo-Myanmar border in Manipur have come up once again. Defence analysts as well as the powers that be have opined that this could well be one of measures needed both in the interests of national security, as also to defuse the hostile situation in the border state. The protagonists justify fencing as being a key solution to pertinent issues plaguing the region, namely criminal activities like the smuggling of narcotics and illegal arms, a safe inward passage for insurgents who have sought refuge across the border, as well as the increasing entry of illegal migrants especially post the recent military coup in Myanmar. Apart from creating a demographic imbalance, the migrants are viewed as a key cause of disturbances in the law and order situation.
An important question being asked however, is whether fencing the entire border would provide a long lasting or permanent solution to the problem. Doubtful because the border in Manipur is highly vulnerable owing to historical reasons. The border was first demarcated in 1934 when Burma was only partially conquered by the British. The line of demarcation was known as the Pemberton Line, named after its creator an English government officer. Subsequently as more and more chunks of Burmese territories came under British control, modifications were continually made to the Pemberton Line, especially when the conquest of Burma was completed in 1885, and the border between the Chin Hills of Burma and Manipur was delimited. Further alterations however continued to be made up to the first quarter of the 20th century, when in 1922 the border was modified for the last time. The line then came to be called the Pemberton-Johnstone-Maxwell line, a tribute to its moderators.
Burma after its annexation was incorporated as a province of British India. In the Imperial Government’s true style of functioning, the original Pemberton Line and its subsequent modifications were arbitrarily drawn across a map without taking into account the demographic or geographical ground realities. Till 1937 when Burma remained a province of British India. and even after its creation as separate country, up to the time that the British ruled the subcontinent, the need for a clearly defined border was never felt and hence not a priority. Post independence the border between the two countries was officially formalised by the India Burma Border Agreement in 1967 which in effected granted official recognition to the loosely defined border along the Pemberton-Johnstone-Maxwell Line as the international border.
Historically, the entire border zone has been home to many ethnic tribal communities like the Chins, the Nagas, the Kukis and Mizos to name a few. For generations the people on either side have engaged in barter trade and have survived in an environment of mutual economic dependence. Agriculture is the main means of livelihood, with each family cultivating small patches of land. Besides, jhum or shifting cultivation has been the norm and has gone on for generations, unhindered by any political boundaries. In addition, many depend on minor forest produce on both sides of the border to eke out a living.
The arbitrarily created border together with subsequent attempts at fencing, have created an artificial division within these communities. The border cuts through settlements and villages. People on either side suddenly found themselves belonging to different nationalities. Instances have come to light where the house falls into one country and the fields or the forest in the other. Worse still the communities find themselves reduced to ethnic minorities in both countries, creating in its wake a sense of alienation from the mainstream, a factor largely responsible for the growing discontent.
Partly as a fallout, the construction of the fence had to be abruptly halted a few years ago owing to protests of the local population. Their contention was that in certain segments the fence would eat into Indian territory and inadvertently cede a considerable chunk of land to Burma. A 10 km, stretch between border posts 79 and 81 is a case in point.
A remedial measure to address the concerns of the divided communities was the establishment of the Free Movement Regime (FMR) by the Governments of India and Myanmar in 2018. The FMR permits tribal residents from the border areas to travel up to 16 kms, across the border without a visa or any restrictions, the intention being not to disrupt the daily lives of the affected communities. Today the FMR is increasingly being looked at as a threat to national security on the grounds that it facilitates undeterred border crossing by both insurgents and illegal migrants.
It cannot be denied that while a porous border is not in the best of national interests, at the same time a sealed border could work to the detriment of the communities involved. Essentially a viable solution needs arrived at on an urgent basis. The authorities need to adopt a “middle path” approach that balances a strong crack down on criminal activities, while simultaneously adopting a conciliatory and accommodative approach to the concerns of the border communities.
Understandably fencing may not be the appropriate option. The need of the hour then is more effective border management, and a more stringent vigil particularly at vulnerable spots, as a first step. The Assam Rifles, deployed ostensibly for border vigil and protection, has also been saddled with the responsibility of maintaining internal security. As a result, a large chunk of its battalions are involved in counter insurgency operations, thereby hampering vigilance at the border. The two functions need to be completely separated, with as many battalions as required being given the sole responsibility of maintaining a vigil at the border. Moreover, the battalions guarding the border need to be stationed right at the border itself, unlike at present where they operate from well inside Indian territory.
Secondly to arrive any solution, the involvement of the local communities on both sides of the border, and possibly civil society as well, is absolutely imperative. Round Table discussions with opinion leaders of the communities as well as representatives of civil society, wherein their concerns are objectively heard and understood and later taken into consideration, could well be an amicable path forward.
Significantly, India’s efforts at garnering the support and co-operation of the Myanmarese authorities in dealing with the border situation have not made much headway. Numerous bilateral discussions at various levels have borne little fruit. Myanmar has also been turning a deaf ear to India’s requests to take firm action against insurgents using Myanmarese territory as a base to launch operations. India’s support to the pro-democracy movement, and its initial “cold shoulder” approach to the military authorities, are partly responsible for this attitude of indifference. A more pragmatic approach at the government to government level is also called for.