TODAY -

Indo-Myanmar Border Fencing : A long term peaceful solution for NE region

Brigadier Laiphrakpam Ibotombi Singh (Retd) *



(Those who have voiced against Indo-Myanmar Border fencing have their hidden agendas as they are directly or indirectly benefitting from drug trafficking, human trafficking and other illegal trades)

On Feb 8, 2024 the Hon’ble Union Home Minister Amit Shah announced that the Government of India has taken a decision that the entire border between India and Myanmar ranging 1,643 kilometres will be fenced, starting from Arunachal to Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram, will no longer be open and porous. The plan for fencing was announced in the 2022-23 annual report of the MHA published in Feb 2024, in which the Government said that there were 201 insurgency-related incidents registered in all the North East States and 137 such incidents in Manipur.

He further stated that the Free Movement Regime (FMR) of the people on the borders between the two countries, which had existed unofficially since independence in 1947 and 1948 and was first legalised in 1967, will now be scrapped. The FMR permitted citizens of both sides to travel up to 40–50 kilometres on either side and halt for up to 24–48 hours on both sides without passports or visas.

The construction will be based on Smart Fencing System (SFS) along the entire length of India-Myanmar border. This technologically advanced border security infrastructure aims to enhance surveillance and control in sensitive border areas.

The announcement comes at a time when unfenced border and unregulated migration from Myanmar have been blamed as factors responsible for the ethnic violence in Manipur, which has claimed more than 200 lives in the State since May 3, 2023. The SFS typically includes a combination of physical barriers, sensors, cameras, and communication systems, allowing for effective monitoring and response to border threats. Some key points regarding the India-Myanmar border and the progress of fencing are:

(a) India shares a long land border of over 1,643 kms with Myanmar, along with a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. The border passes through four States including Arunachal Pradesh (520 km), Nagaland (215 km), Manipur (398 km) and Mizoram (510 km). One of the most porous international borders, it frequently witnesses illegal migration and infiltrators indulging in activities including human and drug trafficking.

(b) As of now, a demarcation of 1,472 km has been completed along the India-Myanmar border, balance under progress.

(c) The construction of fencing for a border length of 10.02 mtrs at Moreh in Manipur awarded to the Border Roads Organization (BRO) have been completed. Because of the prevalent tense situation, further construction is awaited.

(d) The smart fencing system aims to address security challenges, deter unauthorized entry, and enhance surveillance in the region. Given the porous and unfenced nature of parts of the border, this proactive measure contributes to maintaining peace and stability in the North Eastern region.

Let us look back the time timeline leading to cross pollination between Burma (now Myanmar) and North Eastern Region of India as given below.

(a) The Treaty of Yandabo 1826. The Treaty of Yandabo was a peace treaty that ended the First Anglo-Burmese War. The war lasted for two years and resulted in more than 15,000 fatalities for the British-led Indian troops. The treaty was signed on February 24th, 1826 by the East India Company and the King of Ava. The treaty ceded Assam and other territories of North East India to the British, marking the start of British rule in the Region.

Its repercussion resonated far beyond the immediate territorial gains, shaping the region’s political landscape, ethnic composition, and cultural fabrics for decades to come. The British secured free trade privileges in Burma, opening up lucrative markets for their goods, besides introduction of western education, legal systems and administrative structures which had profound impact on local cultures, traditions and social hierarchies.

The colonial policies sowed the seeds of ethnic conflict, economic disparities, and border disputes that continue to challenge the region’s stability to this day. The FMR along Indo-Myanmar border is a legacy of this and continued post-independence India. The FMR was suspected to be the main reason behind the huge quantum jump in the population of the Kuki-Zo community. The Chins in Myanmar are called Paites in Manipur, while the Kukis bear the same name.

(b) 1967. Free Movement Regime was formalised between General Ne Win’s military Government and the Indian Government allowing free movement of the population on either side of the international border sans passport and visa up to 50 kilometres on both sides and permission to stay for 24 hours.

(c) 1984. Border trade between India & Myanmar formalised between the two countries, however distance allowed for travel under FMR was reduced to 40 kilometres. Thereafter, it led to India’s Look East Policy.

(d) 2001-2002. 15 Battalions of Assam Rifles were raised for guarding Indo-Myanmar border, as recommended in K Subrahmanyam committee report post Kargil War 1999, to stop drug and human trafficking, illegal smuggling of weapons, besides to regulate FMR.

(e) April 2002. A highway connecting Moreh to Mae Sot via Myanmar was first proposed at a trilateral Ministerial meeting on transport linkages in Yangon. The length of the four-lane highway is approximately 1,360 km. The 160 km long India–Myanmar Friendship Road, linking Moreh-Tamu-Kalemyo-Kalewa, was officially inaugurated on 13 February 2001, and it now forms a part of the trilateral highway. The BRO maintained the road until 2009, when it was transferred to the Government of Myanmar.

(f) 03 May 2023. Kuki-Meitei Tribes clashes in Manipur. Myanmar based Kuki Militants of PDF crossing over to Manipur and alongwith Zo-Kuki Miltants under SoO (approximately 24 Groups) creating mayhem against Meitei Villagers on the fringes sharing border between Zo-Kukis and Meitei Tribes. Primarily expansion of geographical areas for dominance & its control, and to halt war on drugs by the incumbent Government in Manipur.

Both the Kukis and the Naga communities have not taken lightly to the FMR being scrapped. The rationale for opposing the fencing by sections of Nagas and Zo-Kukis is hollow as movement of kith’s and kins of Nagas and Zo-Kukis can be regulated properly after fencing through suitable transit routes. Afterall, the Nagas living in areas of the Somra Tract and Hukong Valley are citizens of Myanmar.

Those who have voiced against fencing have their hidden agendas as they are directly or indirectly benefitting in drug trafficking, human trafficking and other illegal trade. Illegal immigration of Kukis and Zos (Chins) from across Myanmar would come to a halt sooner or later and would see the dwindling down of the poppy plantations in Manipur, which garner thousands of crores per year as revenue for their private ends. Some of the illegal tradings along porous Indo-Myanmar border are as under:

(a) Drugs. It is estimated that 90% of the smuggling of drugs in India has its origin in Myanmar and these drugs not only include opium and heroin but also amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS). The India-Myanmar border in Moreh of Manipur is known to be the major hub of drugs. In 2022-23, prior to 03rd May, 2023 incident in Manipur, Moreh and routes flowing out of it was experiencing large range of drug seizures and arrests as there was war against drugs by the Govt of Manipur.

Drugs reach Moreh through Myanmar’s Tamu village and then flow to Imphal to Nagaland’s capital Kohima and Dimapur. Another Indo-Myanmar border village New Somtal is used as a route for smuggling to Sugnu and Churachandpur in Manipur to Imphal, Kohima and Dimapur. The two other routes are Kheiman (a village in Myanmar) to Behiang and then to Imphal and Dimapur (Nagaland), the final known route starting from Somrah. All the stake holders, officials, non-officials, insur- gents and militant organisations have their fixed cut.

(b) Human trafficking, primarily entering Manipur and Mizoram, because of economic crisis and crackdown against ethnic communities by Myanmar’s Military Junta.

(c) Trafficking of weapons and other warlike military equipment primarily originating from China’s Kunming Region.

(d) Betel Nuts. These are smuggled in raw forms, transported through dirt tracks from Myanmar and after crossing Indo-Myanmar border consignment is ferried by second world war vintage ‘Shaktiman vehicle’ upto main roadhead thereafter transhipped to normal lorries. Primarily transported to railhead in Dimapur or Jiribam and further taken to Bihar, used for manufacture of ‘Gutkas’. All the stake holders, officials, non-officials, insurgent and militant organisations have their fixed cut.

(e) Chinese manufactured electronic and consumable goods including cigarettes.

(d) Other items are construction materials like cement, sand, tin sheets etc.

(e) Burmese teak.

Some lucrative and profitable items smuggled from Indian into Myanmar are as under:

(a) Red sandalwood (Pterocarpus Santanlinus). Also called Khewoo in Manipuri. Elements present in red sanders (Sandalwood) can make it an excellent coolant in nuclear reactors. Highly in demand by China for their nuclear reactors.

(b) Pharmaceutical goods

(c) Textiles mainly lungi.

The main conduit are Moreh in Manipur, Phek in Nagaland and Champhai in Mizoram. Post ethnic clashes in Manipur, Indian smugglers and their local contacts on either side of the international border used excavators to carve out a 10-km “jeepable road” in Myanmar for the ‘Dawn’ of a new drug route through Mizoram.

Dawn is the name of the nearest habitation from Lungkawlh, a village in central Mizoram’s Serchhip district situated near the border with Myanmar. While Tiddim in Myanmar’s Chin State feeds the narcotic substances to Zokhawthar, 234 km southeast of Mizoram’s capital Aizawl, Dawn–also in Chin State–is serviced from Thlantlang, the nearest urban centre across the border.

Challenges for Fencing the Border. No fencing is impregnable unless the area is monitored by physical patrolling by security forces, therefore there is a need to construct motorable tract astride the fencing in Indian Boundary. Though the SFS includes a combination of physical barriers, sensors, cameras, and communication systems, allowing for effective monitoring and response to border threats, it is men behind the fencing which will make it effective. After all the heavily guarded and fortified Korean border has been breached many times. Some challenges anticipated are: -

(a) Even in Assam when the decision to fence the border was taken in 1985 and reflected in Assam Accord but the work on fencing started seven years later in 1992 and it is yet to be completed, as per report tabled in Assam Legislative Assembly on 08 Feb 2024. Therefore, fencing of Indo-Myanmar Border need to be given to some big companies and may not be feasible by the BRO. Time bound completion is a necessity.

(b) The quality of fencing in Punjab is superior. It is two feet taller than in Moreh (Manipur). Observation towers and lighting of the fence have been provided in Punjab, all along the border. In Manipur observation towers are yet to be constructed. There is no lighting of the fence in Manipur.

(c) The density of troops guarding the fence is higher in Punjab. A BSF battalion in Punjab holds a frontage of approximately 30 kilometres. In Manipur, Assam Rifles Battalions in Manipur are deployed over frontages ranging 60 to120 km. Some of these troops are on dual role Border Guarding as well as counter insurgency. MHA must keep in mind that even during the peak of Punjab Militancy, the BSF were dedicated towards guarding Indo-Pak border only.

(d) Border Guarding Troops. In 2001, fifteen battalions of Assam Rifles were raised for guarding Indo-Myanmar border, now most of these troops are committed in dual role, thus the border remains as porous as before. The length of Indo-Myanmar Border is 1643 kms. Even by giving 60 km frontage to an Assam Rifles Battalion, the requirement is 28 Battalions, which means an additional 13-15 border guarding battalions are required to be raised. The MHA must make a serious note of this short fall and raise it on a war footing. Equally is importance of creating permanent infrastructure for the border guarding battalions as is being adopted by China all along the Line of Actual Control.

Positive Engagement of Myanmar. A stable and economically vibrant Myanmar will be good for India as it will facilitate to fulfil India’s long term goal of “Act East Policy.” Therefore, despite which form of Govt rules Myanmar, India need to engage Myanmar diplomatically in all fields including military diplomacy. Isolation, will only turn Myanmar away towards China.


* Brigadier Laiphrakpam Ibotombi Singh (Retd) wrote this article for The Sangai Express
An alumnus of Sanik School Imphal, Brigadier Laiphrakpam Ibotombi Singh, Yudh Seva Medal is a retired Army Officer having served the Indian Army for about 36 years.
He has vast experience in counter insurgency and border management while serving in Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Drass & Siachen in Ladakh Region, East Sikkim and Nagaland.
This article was webcasted on March 03 2024.



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