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Free Movement Regime: A Unique Feature of the India-Myanmar Border

Dr Pushpita Das is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 17, 2024

    In the wake of persisting ethnic conflict in Manipur, the Union government announced on 2 January 2024 that it will end the Free Movement Regime (FMR) which allows tribes residing on either side of the India-Myanmar international border to travel for 16 km inside each other’s territories without visa or passport.1 The Union government is of the opinion that the FMR is being misused by the insurgents to flee to Myanmar after carrying out attacks on the Indian side. It also argued that ending FMR will prevent influx of illegal migrants from Myanmar and demolish the drug trafficking and gold smuggling networks in the region. The Manipur government in September 2023 had also urged the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to suspend the FMR and fence the entire India-Myanmar border.

    As a matter of fact, the state government has already suspended the FMR in September 2022 to prevent largescale migration of refugees from Myanmar into Manipur following the February 2021 coup d’état.2 Furthermore, it is of the view that the conflict in the state is continuing because the Kuki insurgents are not only settling the Chin refugees in the protected and reserved forests of Manipur but also colluding with the mercenaries from Myanmar to carry out attacks against security personnel and civilians in the state in gross violation of the FMR provisions.3

    While the Manipur government have been strident in its stand for the scrapping of the FMR, the Mizoram and the Nagaland governments have voiced their opposition to this move by the Union government. They argue that the FMR allows the tribes residing across the borders to maintain their ethnic, social and cultural ties as well as contribute to economic wellbeing of people on both sides of the border. Both the state governments have also opposed the proposal of fencing the entire border with Myanmar stating that the international border was a colonial construct which has separated the Mizos and as well as the Nagas from their kith and kin in Myanmar. Therefore, the decision to end the FMR and construct fences along the India-Myanmar border is ‘unacceptable’ to them.4

    What is the FMR?

    Post-Independence, the Government of India realised that areas across the India-Myanmar international border comprise a single socio-economic space for the tribes, and the location of the border amidst it had created hurdles for the tribes, who habitually travel between the two countries to carry on with their traditional way of life and livelihood. This realisation propelled the Indian government to allow the hill tribes to cross the India-Myanmar international border without any travel documents.

    Accordingly, on 26 September 1950, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) published the Notification no. 4/15/50-F.I amending the Passport (Entry into India) Rules of 1950 whereby the ‘hill tribes, who is either a citizen of India or the Union of Burma and who is ordinarily a resident in any area within 40 km (25 miles) on either side of the India-Burma frontier’5 were exempted from the carrying passport or visa while entering into India.

    In fact, this decision of India was based on the Burmese decision to allow tribespeople of neighbouring countries to enter its territory. The Burma Passport rules of 1948 stipulated that the indigenous nationals (hill tribes) of those countries who share a common land border with Burma are exempted from passports or permits to enter into Burma, provided they reside within twenty five miles from the land border.6 In addition, the tribespeople were allowed to carry items equivalent to a headload. The Government of India also provisioned that citizens of Myanmar could stay for 72 hours in India, while the Myanmar government allowed only a 24 hours stay for Indians in Myanmar. This unique arrangement is called the Free Movement Regime.

    Changing provisions of the FMR

    While the FMR helped the tribes to maintain their age-old ties, unfortunately, its provisions were exploited by Indian insurgent groups. In 1956, the Nagas raised the banner of rebellion against India and they were followed by the Meiteis in 1964 and the Mizos in 1966. The rebels belonging to various insurgent groups used to cross over to Myanmar, receive training in arms, establish safe havens, and re-enter India to carry out terror attacks with impunity. The existence of FMR coupled with a poorly guarded border enabled the insurgents to intensify their activities thereby jeopardising the security of the region.

    Alarmed by the raging Naga, Meitei and Mizo insurgencies, the Government of India decided to reconsider the provisions of the FMR, and restrict the unhindered movement of hill tribes across the border. Consequently in August 1968, the MHA introduced the permit system for travelling across the Myanmar border. It stipulated that both Indian and Burmese citizens should carry permits issued by their respective governments while entering into India.7 This provision remained in place for next 40 years.

    However, during the 1990s and early 2000s, the security situation in the Northeast deteriorated tremendously. There were growing incidents of drug trafficking and arms smuggling as well as an increased movement of insurgents through the India-Myanmar border. The dire situation compelled the Indian government to yet again review the FMR to prevent its misuse by anti-national elements.

    Consequently in 2004, India decided to further reduce the FMR limits to 16 km and allow tribespeople to cross the international border only through three officially designated points — Pangsau, Moreh and Zokhawthar in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Mizoram respectively. Since no formal agreement on the free movement of hill tribes across their shared border existed between India and Myanmar at that time, the Indian government prepared a draft Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the matter to be negotiated with the Myanmar government. Finally, on 11 May 2018, India and Myanmar signed the Agreement on Land Border Crossing, which formalised the hitherto informal nature of FMR between the two countries.8

    Scrapping the FMR: Will it help?

    As stated earlier, the FMR was introduced to mitigate the difficulties faced by the hill tribes along the India-Myanmar border areas to carry out their day to day activities because of the existence of the international border. While the regime did facilitate the hill tribes to maintain cross-border links, it also allowed insurgents and traffickers to freely enter and exit the country thus endangering the security of the region. In response, the Government of India, over the years, tried to address the problems by introducing restrictions in the FMR.

    In reality however, the amended provisions of the FMR have not been enforced effectively. Consequently, the tribespeople continue to cross the international border from any point and mostly without permits. That the common tribespeople can move across the border freely highlights the fact that the India-Myanmar border continues to be poorly guarded. Unless and until the Union and the state governments as well as the border residents ensure that the border between India- and Myanmar is effectively secured and regulated, mere scrapping of FMR might not make any difference on the ground as demonstrated in the case of Manipur where FMR remains suspended since September 2022.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.