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India plans to extend fence along Myanmar border

India plans to begin installing an additional 70 kilometers (44 miles) of border fencing over concerns about illegal immigrants entering Manipur state from neighboring Myanmar and an increase in arms and drugs smuggling.

India and Myanmar share a 1,600-kilometer-long (1,000-mile-long) border. Manipur state, where the additional fencing will occur, accounts for 400 kilometers (250 miles) of that border, of which less than 10% is fenced, leaving the region open for arms and drug smuggling, according to Indian media. 

Earlier this year, Indian authorities began installing barbed-wire fencing along Manipur’s border with Myanmar to curb smuggling, infiltration and other border crimes, according to Indian media.

“In view of the rise in illegal immigration and drugs smuggling from the neighboring country, safeguarding our porous borders has become an urgent necessity,” N. Biren Singh, chief minister of Manipur state, said at a meeting with officials from India’s Border Roads Organisation, Indian media reported on Sept. 24.

The organization develops and maintains road networks in India’s border areas and in friendly neighboring countries.

The move comes as nearly 60,000 Burmese civilians from Chin state and the northern Sagaing region have fled across the border into India’s Manipur and Mizoram states since the military ousted Myanmar’s democratically elected government in a February 2021 coup, according to ethnic Chin civil society organizations.

Junta forces have bombed and conducted armed attacks on civilian areas while trying to root out resistance fighters.

Over 5,000 of them have taken refuge in Manipur state, of which more than 70 have been arrested for immigration violations or other charges, according to India For Myanmar, a group that helps Burmese refugees in India.

Trapping civilians

Human rights groups and Burmese refugees have decried the move to extend the fence in Manipur because it would keep people from fleeing into a safe area.

“The closure of the border is only intended to fence off Myanmar refugees, but I don’t think it will prevent many other crimes and other illegal trade,” said Salai Dokhar, founder of India For Myanmar. 

“If India wants to end these illegal businesses, it should cooperate with the western countries and those with strong democratic values to be able to take more effective actions along the border,” he said.

In 2018, under Myanmar’s previous civilian-led government, travel was allowed through the Myanmar-India land border to promote trade between the two countries.

But now the Manipur government has accused Myanmar of allowing more arms and drug trafficking on the border, thereby worsening ethnic conflict in the state due to an influx of Burmese civilians fleeing violence at home.

Ethnic conflict

Manipur itself is experiencing an ethnic conflict between the mostly Hindu Meiteis and the mainly Christian Kukis, and state officials often accuse the Burmese refugees who seek a safe haven there of making the problem worse. 

In the meantime, Indian authorities in Manipur state arrested an alleged terrorist suspected of being associated with Myanmar-based rebel groups, and handed him over to the National Investigation Agency, India’s central counter-terrorism law enforcement agency, the Indian English-language daily newspaper Deccan Herald reported on Sept. 23. 

Refugees who fled Myanmar rest in a shelter at Farkawn quarantine camp in India's eastern state of Mizoram near the Myanmar border, Sept. 23, 2021. Credit: AFP
Refugees who fled Myanmar rest in a shelter at Farkawn quarantine camp in India’s eastern state of Mizoram near the Myanmar border, Sept. 23, 2021. Credit: AFP

Although Myanmar’s armed resistance groups have traveled across the border to India, they have done nothing to cause harm or damage, and have even helped arrest border drug smugglers, said Chin National Defense Force spokesperson Salai Kyung Gain. 

The Chin ethnic armed group in western Myanmar’s Chin state, which lies south of Manipur state and east of India’s Mizoram state, is the armed wing of the Chin National Organization.

“If we close these entrances and exits on the border, there will be some difficulties,” Salai Kyung Gain said. “Drug and arms trade always occurs along the border, but they have become more frequent lately during tough situations like there is now.”

“But since our defense forces and revolutionary forces have to commute to the Indian side of the border, such as to Mizoram, we help arrest some [weapons and drug smugglers] as much as we can to protect the people,” he said.

‘Will hurt Myanmar refugees’

If the Manipur state government extends the fence, it will hurt Myanmar refugees forced to flee their homes by Myanmar junta forces fighting anti-regime forces in Chin state and Sagaing region, said Salai Kyung Gain.

Indian authorities have driven back Burmese civilians from Sagaing and Chin who fled across the border to Manipur, forcing them to shelter along the border in difficult conditions, some of the refugees said. 

Pu Khaing, a displaced Burmese, told RFA that those who fled were civilians and not arms or drug smugglers.

“There is no problem for us with their fence because we are no longer building our refugee camps on the Indian side, but only on the Myanmar side of the border,” he said. “They [Indian authorities] drove us out, but the smugglers have their own way of crossing the border. Ordinary refugees don’t get involved with them.”

A Burmese refugee in Mizoram, who declined to be named for safety reasons, said the local office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in New Delhi should not ignore the situation.

“If they shut down the [Burmese refugees’] right to freedom of travel, we will have to see what kind of measures UNHCR will take,” he said. “Another thing is that we have to wait and see what kind of action the Mizoram state government will take against us.”

The Indian Embassy in Yangon and the UNHRC in New Delhi did not respond to emailed requests for comments.

RFA could not reach junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun for comment. 

Translated by Myo Min Aung for RFA Burmese. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.