Easing the India-Myanmar border tiff
The bilateral relations between India and Myanmar have gradually shifted over the past two decades. A major change began with the introduction of India's "Look East" policy in 1991, triggering a shift from support of the then pro-democracy movement to the pro-military government.
By establishing full diplomatic ties with Myanmar, India, as a regional power, is attempting to maximise its national and security interests, and to counterbalance the strategic influence of China in the region.
Myanmar, the only Southeast Asian country which shares a 1,000-mile-long border with India, serves as its gateway to the other 10-member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Though the bilateral relations have been largely peaceful and mutually beneficial, recent border disputes in the state of Manipur in Northeast India have caused concern among the local communities, as well as the state and central government officials.
As in many other border disputes, there are controversies surrounding the issue. There are claims and counterclaims which have further complicated the situation. The underlying problem is over the pending issue of alleged territorial encroachment.
By constructing a border fence, India hopes to curtail illegal cross-border activities, including transport of goods, arms and counterfeit Indian currency smuggling, drug trafficking and insurgency.
The decision to construct a border fence was necessitated by a gradual accumulation of events through the years. During the years 2001-2003, Indian security forces blamed the porous border for the deaths of 200 security personnel and civilians in the region.
The governments of India and Myanmar agreed to conduct a joint survey before erecting the fence. Subsequently, the Indian Home Ministry and its Myanmar counterpart completed the survey within six months and in March 2003, both sides agreed to erect a fence along the border.
However, the work was stalled in 2004 when the local communities, mostly from the Kuki ethnic group, protested against the government's move. The main concern among the local communities was that by erecting a fence, a huge stretch of their land would become part of Myanmar's territory and therefore would divide the people into two different countries.
In 2007, the sensitivity of the fencing issue was further complicated by a dispute over the ownership of border pillars. As the central government directed the Manipur state government to look into the matter, different political parties joined the local people's protest, beginning in 2013.
Similar to the concerns of the local people, political parties voiced strong opposition to the fence on the grounds that at least 18 villages from Manipur were likely to be affected. Political parties and Non-Governmental Organisations objected to the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) continuing with construction of the fence.
On Dec 3, 2013, Prime Minister Manmohon Singh assured representatives of political parties from Manipur that not an inch of India's territory would be compromised. The next day on Dec 4, Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde instructed the BRO to suspend the construction of the border fence until an amicable solution is reached with the Myanmar government.
The porous nature of the international boundary entails counterclaims from across the border. Not just the Indians, but the Myanmar authorities and the local people in the disputed areas claim that India has encroached on its territory.
In the midst of the territorial dispute, Myanmar's army set up a temporary camp in Hollenphai village in Manipur in September 2013. The Myanmar authorities claim that some of the houses in the village are constructed within its territory. Moreover, the Myanmar army asked Indian authorities to stop the construction of an integrated checkpost in Moreh, which it claims is within Myanmar's territory.
On Dec 24, 2013, a large number of people rallied from Namphalong to Tamu district headquarters, holding placards and shouting anti-India slogans. The demonstrators demanded the Indian government respect the international boundary. The international border was closed for the day, and businesses were greatly affected.
The international boundary dispute has affected the lives of thousands of people along the India-Myanmar border areas, particularly under Moreh township of Chandel district in Manipur state. While the construction of the border fence has been halted temporarily, a mutually acceptable solution is yet to be agreed upon.
As it appears now, it is only a matter of time before construction work will resume. Though the primary objective of the fence is to control illegal cross-border activities between the two countries, it will also bring inconveniences to thousands of families and relatives who settle along the border areas.
Whether a barbed wire fence will achieve its stated objectives of checking illegal movement of goods, arms and counterfeit Indian currency smuggling, drug trafficking, and insurgency is a question that remains to be answered.
Construction of the fence might help ease the job of local law enforcement agencies, but the authorities should also consider organising public awareness campaigns and workshops on the implications of illegal trade and businesses.
Local authorities from both countries should also help design and implement programmes that can benefit the local people, many of whom are poor and have limited education in competing with highly skilled workers and entrepreneurs.
Only when the haves and have-nots have equitable access to the available resources, will the people come forward to support and cooperate with the initiatives of the authorities, which in turn will help check illegal cross-border activities.
More importantly, the rising momentum of India-Myanmar relations should not be dampened by this border dispute.
While Myanmar's democratisation process continues, the cooperation and collaboration of the two countries is critically important.
Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum. His research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia, with a specialisation on Myanmar.