“If There Was Border Fencing Then…”: Manipur Chief Minister’s Jab On ‘Free Movement Regime’
Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh

Imphal(Agency): Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh has accused earlier union governments – specifically those led by the Congress, though he did not mention the party – of neglecting the northeastern state and its concerns over the 390-km long border with Myanmar, and has argued that this negelct led to the ethnic violence between the Metei and Kuki-Zo tribes in May last year, in which 175 people were killed.

Speaking to NDTV against the backdrop of that violence – for which illegal immigrants from Myanmar were blamed – and clashes with militants in the region – the Chief Minister called on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to fence the interntional border and scrap the contentious Free Movement Regime.

“See… whatever is happening in Manipur… I am not blaming other central goevrnments but from 1947-49 (when the state merged with India)… it is a 390-km border (with Myanmar) and communities on this side and that are the same tribe. They speak the same language… have the same culture. At that time, if there had been fencing and a pass system, there would not have been problems today.”

“But the centre at that time left us alone. There is (still) no security at the border. There is Assam Rifles… but they can’t handle both counter-insurgency and guard the border. And now we have (militants) camped inside our borders,” he said.

In September too Mr Singh had highlighted the need to cancel, or at least modify, the Free Movement Regime, or FMR, and to fence the 1,643-km Myanmar border.

He said there were instances of people from Myanmar trying to take advantage of the FMR to enter his state. Many were forced to return by security personnel, but there may be others who slipped through, thanks to the porous border, he said.

The FMR – implemented in 2018 as part of the Narendra Modi government’s ‘Act East’ policy – allows hill tribe members from either India or Myanmar to cross the border with a specific pass (valid for one year) and stay for two weeks per visit. This rule will be scrapped soon and the border will fenced, a senior government official told PTI this week, adding the fencing will be completed within five years.

The Manipur Chief Minister has been one of those most vocal for the fencing and for the FMR to be scrapped and also for redeployment of security personnel to the border rather than within Indian territory.

Manipur has a 390 km-long border with Myanmar, of which only 10 km has been fenced so far. In July, the state said around 700 illegal immigrants crossed over.

“No one thinks about the indigenous people of Manipur. Only after Modi came to power was attention paid to the northeast… earlier governemnts, I don’t want to mention names, they left us aleon. So what is happening now is because of that.”

“So, border fencing is a must and free movement must be cancelled,” Mr Singh told NDTV. “Yes, of course, please come and visit… but there is an international norm for visiting foreign countries,” he said, referring to visas and passports.

Mr Singh’s calls have been backed by Union Minister Rajkumar Ranjan Singh, who this week told NDTV “the situation today is such that fencing is a must”.

However, not all of the Manipur leader’s regional counterparts agree.

Lalduhoma, the newly elected Chief Minister of Manipur’s neighbour Mizoram, recently told External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar he does not want the border with Myanmar to be fenced, according to a report by Deccan Herald. Mizoram has given shelter to over 35,000 refugees from Myanmar fleeing the conflict between the junta forces and insurgents.

The comment was seen with concern in neighbouring Manipur, where the valley-based Meiteis have accused illegal immigrants from Myanmar crossing over to India over a matter of decades, and a huge network of drug traffickers fed by thousands of acres of poppy cultivation in the hills, as the core factors behind the violence that began on May 3, 2023. (courtesy: NDTV)