A New Dawn awaits Tusom and Somra

Dr. Puyam Rakesh Singh *

The world is full of stories, but I am not a good story teller. Despite this limitation, I am writing a story about the Tangkhul villages. The reason is to be found in the political acumen of the Tangkhul people and their striving for a better future. The Tangkhul tribes live on both sides of the India-Myanmar border like many other ethnic groups in the region. The Tangkhuls surely will have a better story to tell in the near future. The world is changing and they have been fighting to change their situations as well.

The story is focused on the strategic location of the Tangkhul inhabited areas and their farsighted leaders. To be specific, it is about the villages at Tusom in Ukhrul and their sister villages in Somra Tract of Myanmar. Somra Tract is located in Myanmar's Naga Self-Administered Zone. The Zone has three townships, namely Lay Shi (also written as Lashe or Leshi), Lahe and Nanyun. Unlike Hkamti, Htamanthi (also write Tamanthi) and Homalin on the bank of the Chindwin River (Ningthi Turel), Somra villages and Lay Shi are located in mountainous area on the India-Myanmar border. Geography matters in social formation.

 Fig. 1 Map showing location of Tusom and Somra villages
Fig. 1 Map showing location of Tusom and Somra villages

The Tangkhul villages in Tusom are close to Sagaing Region and Kachin State of Myanmar with abundant resources. In addition to one in Kongkan Thana, a border haat in Tusom area has been proposed. The locals want it. With the development of new infrastructure in Somra Tract by the Government of Myanmar under its border areas development programme, better connectivity between Somra and Tusom is in the offing. It was reported that an unpaved road was cut through the jungles by the villagers themselves. Things are changing and the three villages of Tusom could emerge into a border town. In this remote hilly part of India, a new history is being written as anthropogenic imprints are widely visible.

In this context, the then Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh's visit to Myanmar in May 2012 is very important. During the visit, the two countries signed a total of 12 deals including an agreement on India-Myanmar Border Area Development and an MoU on Establishing Border Haats. As a pilot project, a border haat at Pangsau Pass is being constructed in Arunachal Pradesh. Can we think of a border haat at Tusom? Also, Avangkhu is waiting to serve Nagaland.

Under the 2012 Border Region Development agreement, Indian government has agreed to provide development assistance of $25 million to Myanmar for development projects. It is divided into five rounds with $5 million each for five years. The projects are concentrated mainly in Chin State and Naga Self-Administered Zone in Sagaing Region. Securing the porous border is at the heart of the bilateral cooperation.

The projects funded include construction of road and bridge, school and health projects. As the fruits of trade and economic development are to be shared by the peoples of the two countries, coordinated projects can better serve the developmental goals. As a result, the Naga tribes living in India and Myanmar will reap the fruits of such development projects. As peace talks continue on both sides of the border, the Naga issue is on the agenda of bilateral exchanges. Thus, development assistance and projects in these villages are part and parcel of the evolving political and security dynamics.

 Fig. 2 New anthropogenic imprints in Somra Tract, Myanmar
Fig. 2 New anthropogenic imprints in Somra Tract, Myanmar

The Naga villages in Somra and elsewhere have corrugated iron sheets for roofing the houses. It is a change from the traditional thatched roof huts of the olden days. New roads are being constructed and old ones being renovated. Construction of schools and hospitals and provision for electricity are also part of the package. As transport connectivity along the Chindwin River improves, the pace of development and socio-economic changes in these villages will speed up. Time is telling it.

Good roads that criss-cross Somra and other Naga villages of Sagaing Region will bring more opportunities for the people living in Ukhrul district of Manipur. Also, Myanmar nationals living on both sides of the Chindwin River will eventually integrate their life with the rest of Myanmar and beyond. By and large, it will impact the worldview and dreams of the people living in Manipur and other Northeast Indian states. But the wind of change will not bring only positive results. We already have seen many examples.

Nevertheless, the positive fruits and negative consequences will be in full display only when Hkamti, Htamanthi and Homalin flourish as major trade and economic centres. And it includes opening of border haats including the opening of the border trading point at Avangkhu in Nagaland. As Lay Shi is the major town in the southern part of Naga Self-Administered Zone, greater opening of Avangkhu land customs station (LCS) is contingent upon developments in and around Lay Shi Township. Building a good road connecting Avangkhu and Lay Shi is just a matter of time. The ground report is positive.

In fact, an all-weather road connecting Somra and Htamanthi via Lay Shi will constitute the core infrastructure that can change the dreams of Tusom inhabitants. On the Indian side, Tusom villagers have been persuading the state government to improve the National Highway 202 that connects Ukhrul and Jessami. It is the shortest road for the Tusom villagers to reach Kohima and Dimapur in Nagaland. If border trade flows in this remote part of Asia, a small part of the world will revolve around Tusom. Again, the roads leading to Imphal, Kohima, Dimapur and Guwahati will start from Tusom. It will become a starting point and a talking point indeed.

The Tangkhul leaders seem to be clear headed when it comes to building the foundation for growth and prosperity of the Tangkhul people and other Naga tribes. Their engagement with Nagaland for the last few decades is markedly reflected in their articulation for a better future. The search continues unabated. As part of the peace deal with the Government of India, the Tangkhul leaders who play important role as decision makers in the NSCN (IM) will make the best of the changes taking place in Naga Self-Administered Zone. Unlike in the past, they are positioned to play an important role in changing the socio-economic landscapes in Northeast India. Therefore, it makes sense to say that the Tangkhuls will not remain at the periphery of things taking place in the region.

 Fig. 3 Somra-Htamanthi Road via Lay Shi in Sagaing Region, Myanmar
Fig. 3 Somra-Htamanthi Road via Lay Shi in Sagaing Region, Myanmar

However, the wind of change in Sagaing Region, particularly in the Naga Self-Administered Zone, is coming as a result of the new bridges across the Chindwin River. Over the years, Myanmar government has increased investment in several development projects in places located along the Chindwin River. It is reflected in several high-level visits paid by the successive Myanmar leaders.

During one of such visits in January 2017, the former Myanmar President Htin Kyaw inspected development projects in Hkamti and Lahe in Sagaing Region. His itinerary included inspection of Chindwin Bridge (Hkamti) Construction project which connects Hkamti district and Naga Self-Administered Zone. So far, Myanmar government has constructed bridges over the Chindwin in Hkamti, Homalin, Kalewa, Monywa and Sinphyushin.

 Fig. 4 Bridges on the Chindwin River including the sites of the proposed bridges
Fig. 4 Bridges on the Chindwin River including the sites of the proposed bridges

On 14 January 2019, a new bridge connecting Homalin Township on east bank of the Chindwin River and Kattha village on the west bank of the river located on the Homalin-Kattha-Aungzeya-Tamu road was open to traffic. Recently, Ministry of Construction of Myanmar has said that the government will build four new bridges on the Chindwin River. They include new bridges planned in Htamanthi, Phaungpyin and Mawleik. These bridges reflect commitment on the part of the Myanmar government to bring development in Sagaing region especially areas located to the west of the Chindwin River.

In fact, the recent visit to the border areas by Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi would have both political and developmental consequences for the greater Indo-Myanmar region. Myanmar is a neighbouring country and the people living in Northeast India should start following the only ASEAN country that shares borders with Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. With this note, the story has come to an end. But it is just one of the stories within the story. No doubt the best story tellers will be from Tusom and Somra villages.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council

* Dr. Puyam Rakesh Singh wrote this article for
The writer is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs and can be reached at khuman_mei(AT)yahoo(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on March 29, 2019.

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