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India flays tribal warning against sealing Myanmar border

India maintains that an open border with Myanmar gives scope for arms smuggling and illegal immigration
A bridge over river Tiau at Zokhawthar in northeastern state of Mizoram in India.  The India-Myanmar Free Movement Regime is located at Zokhawthar.

A bridge over river Tiau at Zokhawthar in northeastern state of Mizoram in India. The India-Myanmar Free Movement Regime is located at Zokhawthar. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 20, 2024 10:58 AM GMT
Updated: May 20, 2024 11:36 AM GMT

India’s home ministry has disapproved of the threat of violence from a primarily Christian tribal group against a federal move to seal the Myanmar-India border and end the free movement of people.

“Separate reports have been sought from police, Mizoram administration, and other federal agencies" to decide on action, a home ministry official in New Delhi told UCA News on May 20.

The federal ministry’s move comes three days after the Zo Reunification Organisation (ZoRO) in Christian-majority Mizoram state threatened violence if India proceeded with a plan to end the Free Movement Regime (FMR).

The FMR policy allows people in India and its eastern neighbor Myanmar to cross up to 16 kilometers into each other's border without travel documents under a 1950 pact. Several tribal groups live divided between the borders.

India’s Home Minister Amit Shah announced the plan to end the FMR in January, and media reports said the government was advancing.

On May 16, the ZoRO, which seeks reunification of all tribal communities scattered in four north-eastern Indian states and neighboring Bangladesh and Myanmar, asked India to abandon the move to fence the border.

"If India ditches the FMR, the youths will have no other alternative but to take up arms again,” said ZoRO general secretary Ramdinliana Renthlei at a rally in Zokhawthar in Mizoram.

The tribal leader's remark was "parochial and unwarranted,” said the home ministry official, seeking anonymity as he is not designated to speak to the media.

The threat of violence is “not a democratic way to ventilate grievances and hence are unwarranted,” the official told UCA News.

The ZoRO seeks a single administration for all Chin, Kuki, Mizo, and Zomi tribal communities in India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Most of them follow Christianity.

The Mizos and the Kukis in India share ethnic bonds with tribal communities in Myanmar’s western Chin state, where 85 percent of its 478,000 people are Christians.

Christians account for over 87 percent of Mizoram’s 1.27 million people. India’s two other Christian-majority states, Meghalaya and Nagaland, are in the northeast.

The move to seal the border "will impact" years of social kinship, tribal leaders say.

In 1950, India and Myanmar agreed to allow “natives to move freely” into each other's territories along the 1,643-kilometer border on four northeastern states -- Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh.

The pact underwent several changes over the years, and in 2004, both countries decided to limit free movement to 16 kilometers.

Many people from strife-torn Myanmar, a leading opium producer in the world, have taken shelter in Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland after the military took power in 2021 through a coup, toppling a civilian government.

Since then, the Buddhist-majority Myanmar has been witnessing a bloody civil war between the ruling army and ethnic armed rebel groups that included tribal Christians. India has been cautious since the 2021 coup.

India maintains that an open border with Myanmar gives “scope to unscrupulous elements” to indulge in arms smuggling and will increase "immigration.”

Over 30,000 Myanmar nationals are reportedly staying in Mizoram since 2021.

Earlier this month, the Manipur state government claimed to have detected over 5,457 “illegal immigrants” from Myanmar.

India’s northeast region, divided into eight states, shares borders with Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, and China. It has witnessed several armed conflicts since the former British colony’s independence in 1947.

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