Manipur Crisis: What Is Free Movement Regime & Why Does CM Want It Cancelled?

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The regime was implemented in October 2018 in sync with the Narendra Modi government’s ‘Act East’ policy.

Published: 25 Sep 2023, 7:44 PM IST

 What Is Free Movement Regime & Why Does CM Want It Cancelled?


Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh, who has repeatedly blamed "illegal immigration from Myanmar" and drug trafficking for the ongoing months-long violence in Manipur, listed at least two ways for "safeguarding" India's "porous borders" in the northeast, over the past weekend.

One, Biren Singh on Sunday, 24 September, held a meeting with the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) about an additional 70 km of border fencing along the Indo-Myanmar border.

Two, he urged the Union Home Ministry to cancel the free movement regime (FMR) along the India-Myanmar border.

Held a meeting with the officials of BRO and deliberated the plan to begin construction of an additional 70 km of border fencing along the Indo-Myanmar border. I was joined by Chief Secretary, DGP & officials from the Home Department.

In view of the rise in illegal immigration…

— N.Biren Singh (@NBirenSingh) September 24, 2023

The "illegal immigration" of tribal Kuki Chin people into India from Myanmar has been a contentious issue ever since ethnic clashes broke out between Meiteis and Kukis on 3 May.

As per several local accounts, told to The Quint, Meiteis believe immigrants are responsible for creating trouble in the state, and the Kukis blame the Meiteis and the chief minister – who is a Meitei himself – of using this as a pretext for ethnic cleansing.

As the chief minister rakes up the issue again, The Quint explains what the free movement regime is – and what it has to do with the current crisis.

What Is the Free Movement Regime?

India shares a 1,643-km-long border with Myanmar, which runs through the states of Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh. Of the 1,643 km, nearly 390 km lies in Manipur – and only about 10 km of this has been fenced.

The free movement regime is a mutually agreed arrangement between the two countries that allows tribes living along the border on both the sides to travel up to 16 km inside the other country. It allows communities on both sides to stay up to 72 hours, with valid permits, on either side on production of a border pass (one-year validity) issued by competent authorities.

When and Why Was This Regime Established?

The regime was implemented in October 2018 in sync with the Narendra Modi government's 'Act East' policy.

As Munmum Majumdar, a professor of political science at the North East Hill University, Shillong, elaborated in her paper titled 'India-Myanmar Border Fencing and India's Act East Policy':

"Historically, Manipur-Myanmar borderland is home to many ethnic groups, namely, Chin, Kuki, Mizo, Nagas, and Tsinphos. Before the colonial period, these ethnic groups and their homelands were never annexed or conquered by either India or Myanmar."

Myanmar (then Burma) was separated from the rest of the Indian Empire in 1937, just 10 years before India became an independent country, in 1947. That divided these ethnic communities living along the Indo-Myanmar border.

After the erstwhile independent kingdom of Manipur merged with India in 1949, the India-Burma Boundary Agreement was signed on 10 March 1967, following which a joint India-Burma Boundary Commission was constituted to work out the modalities.

"The drawing of the borders divided these people living along the artificially constructed borders... The borderland communities found they were not only divided but also became relegated to the status of ethnic minorities on both sides of the border," Majumdar added.

To address the concerns of these ethnic groups and enable greater interaction among them, the Indian and Myanmar governments established the FMR.

A research paper (CAN WE ADD THE SOURCE OR WHEN IT WAS PUBLISHED?) highlighted how the arrangement benefitted people:

"Tamu (a border town situated in Myanmar) looks towards Moreh (a border town in Manipur) for meeting all its daily necessities. The electric supply comes from Moreh, higher education is sought for in Moreh. Tamu has two high schools but no college – the nearest is Moreh College. Tamu has a General Hospital, yet healthcare is sought for in Manipur... critical cases are brought to RIMS, Imphal. The residents have Indian bank accounts, even Aaadhar cards."

So, Why Is It Under Lens?

Over the past four months of violence in the state, the FMR has been under scanner.

Earlier, in July, an official told The Economic Times that the arrangement between India and Myanmar was "brought keeping in view traditional social relations among border people. It helps genuine people living in close proximity to the border."

However, the official added that it was being "misused by militants and criminals who smuggle weapons, narcotics, contraband goods and fake Indian currency notes but after the Junta government crackdown on the Kuki-Chin community in neighbouring Myanmar, it is being used by migrants."

Since the military coup in Myanmar in February 2021, over 40,000 refugees are estimated to have taken shelter in Mizoram, and around 4,000 are said to have entered Manipur, according to The Indian Express. A panel set up by the Manipur government to identify such migrants recently pegged their number at 2,187.

Anuradha Oinam, a research assistant at Centre for Land Warfare Studies, wrote in her paper, 'Revisiting FMR: Challenges and Implications', "One of the deadly implications of FMR is the increasing trend of drug trafficking and illegal arms and weapons import, through the porous border, to Northeast India, by insurgents, criminal gangs, and drug lords."

Earlier this year, the Manipur government alleged that village chiefs have been illegally settling migrants from Myanmar in new villages in the hills, leading to deforestation. An eviction drive against these new villages is what became the flashpoint between Kukis in the hills and the government this March, leading to violence in the state.

In fact, on 2 May, a day before clashes erupted in the state, Biren Singh said at a press conference in Imphal:

"Illegal immigration from Myanmar to Manipur is such that we have so far detained 410 people from that country who have been staying in the state without proper documents. There is an additional 2,400 of them seeking shelter in detention homes along the border areas… who have fled Myanmar…"

"We have reasons to believe that there must be many more Myanmarese residing illegally in Manipur," he added.

"There is this provision in the FMR that allows tribal people to carry a head load. These head loads are seldom checked and militants and trans-border criminals use this method to smuggle drugs and weapons, contraband goods and fake Indian currency notes," Majumdar told The Quint.

As per the data from the Manipur CMO, 500 cases were registered and 625 individuals were arrested under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act in Manipur in 2022.

Is Shutting Down FMR or Fencing the Border Feasible?

As the crisis in Myanmar escalated and the influx of refugees purportedly spiked, India temporarily suspended the FMR in September 2022. But as the demands to cancel the arrangement altogether are being raised, experts told The Quint that the FMR needs better regulation.

Majumdar noted in her paper, "Fencing would be a retrograde step since fencing is seen in this region as a barrier, which interferes with their lived experience."

Apart from the Manipur chief minister indicating additional fencing over the weekend, the Centre had earlier in the year announced that the entire India-Myanmar border would be fenced. On 1 June, Home Minister Amit Shah said fencing had been completed on a 10-km stretch along the Manipur-Myanmar border, and an 80-km-long stretch would soon be fenced.

"For a permanent solution, the Manipur and Myanmar border will be sealed," he said.

Sources in the security establishment, however, told The Indian Express, "Even with robust patrolling and intelligence, people sneak through, especially when there is no hostility towards the immigrant on our side. FMR or no FMR, it is not an easy task. And all borders, even the fenced ones, are struggling to deal with drug trafficking."

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