Only a negligible number of Indians is likely to be impacted by the scrapping of the India-Myanmar free movement regime, while tightening the border with Myanmar will be immensely useful for the entire nation, a retired senior army officer who has been closely tracking the violence in Manipur and working on the ground told NDTV in an interview.
Lieutenant General LN Singh (retired), the third military officer from the northeast to have attained the second-highest rank in the Indian Army, pointed to problems caused by smugglers, insurgents and illegal immigrants who have been taking advantage of the free movement regime (FMR) to create trouble in Manipur.
“Removing the FMR was an appropriate step. At the end of the day, if we keep the FMR, how many people are going to be affected? How many Indians are going to be impacted? But look at the challenges. Insurgents can come, smugglers can come, there could be demographic invasion of the country. India, considering the security challenges and other factors, has done the right thing by removing the FMR,” Lt General Singh told NDTV.
“One must understand that those who are opposing the FMR do have a point. At the end of the day, what is the amount of harm done by removing FMR? It’s very, very negligible. Except smugglers, illegal immigrants and insurgents, genuine Indians will hardly be bothered. So removing FMR is the best thing that can happen to a state such as Manipur,” said the retired army officer, who led a rescue mission in Afghanistan after the Indian medical mission there was attacked in February 2010.
The FMR is an arrangement that allows people from both nations to visit either side up to 16 km without travel documents. In its current form, the FMR enables entry without visa and passport. It began as a system post-Independence to allow tribes who share familial, social and ethnic ties on both sides of the border to keep in touch with their people.
On whether India’s Act East policy will be impacted in the absence of the FMR, Lt General Singh said FMR had always been there in a different form before India had the Act East Policy.
“So not having FMR will not impact the policy. The Act East Policy is different. It means we have to be friendly with any government that’s running Myanmar, we have to be friendly with ASEAN, not those 100, 200, 1,000 people who create trouble,” the retired army officer said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Explaining why the misuse of the FMR can do more harm than not having it in the first place, Lt General Singh said, “You have to understand citizenship, visa, and their core concepts. For example, an Indian citizen can go anywhere in the country for medical treatment, and use facilities provided by the government. All these facilities cost money. This money is Indian citizens’ money, in the sense that when you want a government hospital, the building has to be constructed, the doctor has to be paid, these are all done from Indian taxpayers’ money. That is why we have visa fees when we go to other countries.”
“And you’re aware that when you apply for a visa for many countries, you need to get medical insurance. They won’t give you a visa without that (medical insurance) because they don’t want to waste their nation’s resources on aliens who are coming temporarily,” said Lt General Singh, who also headed the Intelligence Corps of the Indian Army before retiring in 2018, after 40 years of service.
Home Minister Amit Shah on February 8 announced the Centre has decided to end the FMR “to ensure internal security of the country, and to maintain demographic structure of north-eastern states.”
The suspension of the FMR and fencing of the border follows ethnic violence in Manipur last year between the Kuki-Zo tribes, who share ethnic ties with communities in Myanmar’s Chin State, and the Meiteis. Nearly 200 people were killed in those clashes and tens of thousands were displaced.
The Meiteis have argued that unchecked entry of illegal immigrants from Myanmar – using the FMR – over a period of decades was one of the factors behind the violence.
The Kuki-Zo tribes have refuted this charge, and have accused Chief Minister N Biren Singh, who belongs to the BJP, of inciting the Meitei community for votes. Mr Singh’s administration has also backed scrapping of the FMR and fencing of the border, claiming insurgents from Myanmar, as well as illegal immigrants and drug traffickers are misusing the policy.
Manipur Security Advisor Kuldiep Singh told reporters on January 18 there was a possibility that Myanmar-based insurgents may have entered Manipur, but there was no evidence yet. However, he pointed out “Kuki insurgents” had attacked Manipur Police commandos in the border town Moreh on January 17, killing two commandos. Moreh is at a walking distance from Myanmar’s Tamu.
Videos of a tense stand-off between the Assam Rifles and a group of armed men in Moreh emerged on social media on Saturday, raising questions over how a few armed men stopped the security forces from moving around in the town. The incident happened on January 17, the same day the two police commandos were killed in action while returning fire at insurgents.
Following this, calls to scrap the suspension of operations (SoO) agreement have become shriller. At least 25 Kuki-Zo insurgent groups have signed the tripartite SoO agreement with the Centre and the state. Under this agreement, the insurgents are housed in designated camps. There have been allegations that full attendance at many of the SoO camps has not been observed.
“Remove SoO Agreement”: Civil Society Group
A top civil society group in Manipur today requested the Home Ministry to end the SoO agreement with the Kuki-Zo militants to ensure the safety “of our security forces and the people of Manipur”.
“In the disturbing video, taken by Assam Rifles personnel on January 17, 2024, about 25-30 Kuki-Zo militants are seen taking aim with their automatic weapons, threatening to throw grenades, and plant an improvised explosive device (IED) under the armoured vehicle. They are also seen loading a round inside a rocket launcher,” the Meitei Heritage Welfare Foundation said in a statement.
“The Kuki-Zo militants successfully stopped the Assam Rifles’ convoy from heading to the area where the militants had ambushed and killed two Manipur Police commandos. Two others were injured,” the civil society group said. “The videos from January 17 add to the mountain of evidence of Kuki-Zo militants violating the tripartite SoO agreement signed between some 25 Kuki-Zo militant groups, the central government, and the state government,” it said in the statement.
Tensions between the hill-majority Kuki-Zo tribes and the valley-majority Meiteis have been lingering on for nine months since clashes broke out between the two communities over disagreements on land, resources, political representation, and affirmative action policies. The two communities are sharply divided now, with people from either community not going to areas where those from the other community live.
The Manipur government maintains it is trying to uproot insurgents from the strategic border town Moreh, while the Kuki-Zo tribes in Moreh have alleged the government wants to occupy the area before a political dialogue has even started on how to end the Manipur violence.