The construction of border fence by Myanmar has led to resentment among the people on both sides of the Indo-Myanmar border. The affected people mainly are Konyak, Khiamniungan and Yimchunger Nagas who inhabit the areas of Eastern Nagaland in India and the Naga Self Administered Zone (NSAZ) in Myanmar. The formation of Myanmar as a separate State in 1935 and decolonisation of the sub-continent in 1947 divided ethnic communities living along the Indo-Myanmar border. These communities, particularly Nagas, found the newly created boundary to be inconsistent with the traditional limits of the region they inhabited. And they felt a deep sense of insecurity because they became relegated to the status of ethnic minorities on both sides of the border. To address their concerns and enable greater interaction among them, the Indian and Myanmarese governments established the Free Movement Regime (FMR), which allowed Nagas to travel 16 kilometres across the border on either side without any visa requirements.
The people living in the Eastern districts of Nagaland and in the areas of NSAZ in Myanmar have close family ties and engage in cultural and economic exchanges. In some instances, the imaginary border line cuts across houses, land and villages. People, especially those living on the Indian side, own land holdings including cultivated lands and forested areas across the border and are completely dependent on such areas for their livelihood. From the Myanmar side, a lot of villagers come to the Indian side to buy basic essentials. Taking advantage of the FMR, a sizeable number of students from NSAZ also study in schools on the Indian side of the border.
The four border districts of Eastern Nagaland – Mon, Tuensang, Kiphire and Longleng – are extremely remote and backward mainly due to lack of development and neglect by successive state governments. Mon district and corresponding areas across the border are mainly inhabited by the members of the Konyak tribe. Konyaks have the maximum representation in the population of Nagaland and also have substantial numbers within NSAZ. About three fourths of the total population of Khiamniungan tribals reside in NSAZ with the remainder being present in Tuensang district. The Yimchungers straddle the border areas with a sizeable presence in the Kiphire and Tuensang districts of Nagaland.
The ongoing activity of fence construction by Myanmar, which the locals perceive as being carried out with the concurrence of Indian authorities, has triggered apprehensions among the people living on either side of the border. They contend that the border fence would deprive them of the produce from their land and forest resources, which spread out on both sides of the border. From the security perspective, possible anti-establishment sentiments that could flow from such apprehensions, if unaddressed, could reinvigorate the presently weakening Naga insurgency in the region. An aggravation of this issue at a time when peace talks between the central government and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) are being held in a congenial atmosphere may fuel discontent.
It is pertinent to note that the region presents serious security challenges. The FMR has been misused by locals to smuggle contraband in their head loads, which are not subject to inspection. Militant groups have been using the porous border for moving cadres and war-like stores. Along with other active Indian insurgent groups, the NSCN-Khaplang (NSCN-K), which had unilaterally abrogated the ceasefire with the Government of India (GoI) in 2015, maintains its camps and training bases in NSAZ. All these groups have benefited from the open border in terms of carrying out illegal activities including launching strikes against Indian security forces and returning to their safe havens in Myanmar. China has also been reportedly aiding some of these groups. Indian insurgent groups in the region are also known to collaborate with Myanmarese insurgent groups like the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Kachin Independent Army (KIA), among others.
Policing such a large area marked by harsh terrain and dense forest is difficult. The attempt to create physical infrastructure to secure the border in the midst of the prevailing public resentment presents a real challenge. Suitable measures aimed at addressing the people’s concern on the Indian side as well as on the other side in collaboration with Myanmarese authorities therefore need to be initiated in order to establish trust and confidence amongst the affected populace. Tripartite talks involving the local stakeholders (through the concerned state government), the Myanmarese government and the GoI could be organised to address extant concerns. Socio-economic initiatives on either side of the border aimed at benefitting the local inhabitants by alleviating poverty and bringing greater development in the region could be worked out. A mutually acceptable arrangement addressing the security concerns of both the countries with minimum discomfort to the local inhabitants would be prudent.
The GoI on its part could provide an assurance that no construction of border fence will be undertaken on the Indian side without taking the affected population into confidence. This is pertinent given that in March 2003 the GoI, in consultation with its Myanmarese counterpart, had attempted to erect a fence along the India-Myanmar border in Manipur. However, the work had to be stopped due to protests by local communities. It is therefore essential that the pros and cons on the requirement of border fencing in this region need to be deliberated upon in order to weigh the impact of action taken vis-a vis corresponding benefits accrued in the context of regional security and India’s ‘Act East’ policy initiatives.
In case national security concerns dictate the necessity of constructing a fence along the India-Myanmar border, options such as selective fencing, better use of technology, and regulated flow of cross-border movement, among other initiatives, can be examined. It is however essential to take into confidence the affected populace and the local stakeholders prior to the finalisation and implementation of such plans. Regulated borders with greater emphasis on developing people-to-people contact and cross-border trade initiatives are likely to yield greater security benefits as against a closed border that may lead to a disturbed security environment amidst popular discontent.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.