TODAY -

Moreh : The Eastern Gateway

By BB Sharma *

Everyday about ten thousand people cross the international border from India at Moreh, a border town of Manipur for shopping at Namphalong, a small township in Myanmar situated just opposite Moreh town. People are seen queuing at Gate No. 2 on the Indian border awaiting the opening of the gate by the Myanmarese immigration officials at 7 a.m. each morning.

On March 15, 2008 I was in the queue along with some of my journalist colleagues to walk across the international border for a survey of Namphalong market which remains flooded mostly with Chinese goods.

Around 9 a.m. some army officers of 24 Assam Rifles posted at Moreh were seen holding talks with their Myanmarese counterparts at the Immigration Office of the same international border.

Apparently the Assam Rifles, who were manning the international border along Myanmar, were holding discussions on the attack by a Manipur underground outfit, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) on Assam Rifles post at T. Meenou village just near the international border.

By then the exchange of fire between Assam Rifles and insurgents, which began at 4:00 a.m. with heavy guns and lethod bombs had ended.

However, an uneasy situation still prevailed in the entire border town-ship after the gun battle. That morning also witnessed an unusual troop movement in the town and at one point of time Assam Rifles troops were seen all over the Excise and Customs outposts at Moreh Gate No. 2.

Army sources at Imphal said that one Assam Rifles jawan and a civilian were killed and several others injured in the exchange of fire between the insurgents and the Assam Rifles. The dead and wounded jawans were immediately ferried by helicopters to the Army Hospital, Leimakhong Headquarters, 57 Mountain Division. However, UNLF claimed that six jawans were killed and ten wounded.

Though a small town Moreh has been commercially important after the opening of the Indo-Myanmar border trade in 22 items with an annual turn over of Rs. 1,600 core. It is inhabited by various ethnic groups like the Kukis, Manipuri Meiteis, Muslims, Tamils, Nepalese, Punjabis etc.

Thus, there is a high ethnic resonance among the groups and each time the ethnic balance becomes tilted towards a group unwittingly either by the local administration or by security forces, tension grips the entire township.

Following the unfortunate June 9, 2007 incident in which 11 persons were killed by militants, several non-tribal families of Moreh town took shelter for several days in the "No Man's Land" between Myanmar and India. Since then security in this small town of about twenty thousand population has been tightened by setting up as many as eight police posts all over the town.

Shops, markets and other business establishments in Moreh town routinely shut down by 7 p.m. sharp as the night curfew, which was imposed since the June 9, 2007 incident, was till date not officially lifted. Even Lai Haraoba (a festival of the Meiteis) which normally continues till late night had to abruptly end on that day after seeing the unusual troop movement in the town.

The next day (16th March, Sunday) at dawn an Azan "Allah-o-Akbar..." from the nearby mosque woke me up. I got up and came out for a morning walk down the road leading to Gate No. 2.

There I could also hear the Gurubani "Awwal Allah, Noor Lipaya Kudarat De Sab Bunde... (God is one, and all human beings are His reflections) from a nearby Gurudwara. At around 6 a.m. some shops opened and started playing cassette "Om Bhoor Bhu vah Swah...".

As soon as I returned to my room, the Christians took out a "Palm Sunday March" along the streets of Moreh town holding tree branches for peace and harmony. All these diverse religiosity would reflect the cosmopolitan character of this commercial center.

The poly-ethnicity has been transcending the Moreh commercial township since the Second World War, when thousand of Indian refugees passed through Moreh town on their back to their original homes.

But few thousand stayed back in Moreh and are still controlling the business of the town. Rather, the poly-ethnicity has been the driving force of the economic life and culture of the people there.

However, what may remain itched in my mind is the marked difference between the lives on the two sides of the border. The eastern side is a country ruled by military junta where any semblance of freedom of press is non-existent and one would naturally expect a claustrophobic environment associated with any military rule.

But surprisingly the Namphalong market in Myanmar was bubbling with activities. The Myanmarese currency kyat being exchanged for the Indian rupees, and that too openly on the roadside. Such a scene is undreamed on this side.

All the eating joints, big or small, were working in full capacity belying its military rule. And just barely 10 meters from the international border on Indian side where democracy is so "vibrant", press freedom is "well protected" and people elect their own representatives routinely, people have always felt insecure for obvious reasons.

Hopefully, all then will change for the better with the upcoming Trans-Asian Railways across Manipur from Sichar (Assam) via Moreh further to Mandalay old capital of Myanmer and beyond the other South East Asian countries.




* BB Sharma wrote this article for The Sangai Express . This article was webcasted on August 22, 2008.

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