Repealing FMR in Manipur: Missing the Woods for the Trees

It is believed that the immediate solution is repealing of the Free Movement Regime (FMR) and construction of border fencing to prevent infiltration of militant groups and drugs.

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A woman gestures as she argues with an Indian army member in the village of Gamgiphai, Manipur state, India, August 31, 2011. (Manpreet Romana/The New York Times)

The last nine months in Manipur, one of the most vibrant states in Manipur has seen a serious deterioration of the political and as a consequence the security situation resulting in what now appears to be a permanent ethnic suture between the two main communities – the Meitei or the Valley people and the Kuki living in the hills.

The relationship between the two were always very sensitive if not fragile and had to be handled with utmost caution by ensuring open and transparent engagement by the State authorities. However, there were seeds of mistrust emerging from issues such as special status, forest rights and so on which has generated ill will between the communities which may take some time to heal provided the state and national leadership are willing to engage and assuage the grievances on both sides.

In the immediate time frame however the challenge is security and the focus appears to be on threats from across the border in Myanmar which is in a state of civil war.

State authorities including the Chief Minister contend that militants – North East groups as well as some claims of Myanmar’s anti government forces and drug and people running networks has led to deterioration of the security situation. This conclusion is debatable and can be done separately.

Given this conclusion by the state authorities, it is believed that the immediate solution is repealing of the Free Movement Regime (FMR) and construction of border fencing to prevent infiltration of militant groups and drugs.

What is the FMR?

The FMR is a result of deliberations over the past seven decades and more given the realities of division of a common home of communities living on both sides due to the Indo Myanmar border. FMR provides free access upto 16 kilometers to either side without having any formal documents such as Passport or Visa.

In the wake of the exploitation of free movement rights granted over these by militant groups and drug syndicates amongst others, these were curtailed during certain periods. With peace unfolding in the North East in the past half a decade or so the idea of FMR has borne fruite.

As late as in January 2018, the Indian Cabinet committed itself to the Free Movement Regime in terms of, “Agreement between India and Myanmar on Land Border Crossing”.

A Press Information Bureau release states, “The Agreement will safeguard the traditional rights of the largely tribal communities residing along the border which are accustomed to free movement across the land border”.

It should be noted that the FMR is granted through designated border points and is not a freedom for movement across the entire border as such including the local points.

Reasons for Repealing the FMR

India’s defence and internal security administration has determined that the FMR has been abused by anti national elements in the instance case giving rise to violence in Manipur which has now become a militant problem. Security officials claimed that arms are being smuggled by militants exploiting the FMR. Thus the solution is seen as repealing the FMR.

“Our government is reexamining the Free Movement Regime (FMR) provision that exists with Myanmar and now this facility, which allows free movement will be stopped,” said Home Minster Amit Shah at an event in the North East recently outlining the current thinking in the government on the provision of free movement.

Missing the Wood for the Trees

Repealing of FMR will expectedly lead to resentment in the communities living on the border having kinship across thus Kuki and Naga groups are speaking up against the same. Mizoram chief minister Lalduhoma, has told the Hindustan Times that he is not aware of any such plan. “We are not aware of any such development nor have we been informed about it. I am going to New Delhi later this week and will hold talks with both the Prime Minister and union home minister. If there’s any such decision taken, it will be discussed there,” he told HT over phone from Aizawl.

The NSCN (I-M) is also opposed to the move and sees this as one more step in perceived discrimination against the Nagas. In a statement to Newmai News Network, the NSCN (I-M) stated, “The recent move of the Government of India to abolish the time honored Free Movement Regime (FMR) has come as a rude shock to the NSCN in particular and to the whole Nagas in general”.

The challenge of security in Manipur is internal in nature. Proper administration of the FMR by establishing effective controls at the border crossing points such as Moreh should be an effective answer rather than wholly proscribing free movement.

The argument of weapons being inducted from Myanmar may fall flat given that it is a well known fact that over 6000 weapons and munitions was looted from Manipur state armouries during a period of internal chaos. Approximately 2000 of these have been reportedly recovered so far.

To relate the words of India’s most respected sage on statecraft Kautilya the Manipur situation is internally driven and internally abetted.

Foreign element is incidental, addressing the situation in the State requires sound and sage administration beyond security management.

Rahul K Bhonsle

Brigadier (Retired) Rahul K Bhonsle, MSc, MPhil, MBA is an Indian army military veteran with 30 years active field experience in counter militancy and terrorism operations. He is presently Director of Sasia, a South Asian security risk and knowledge management consultancy which specializes in future scenarios, military capacity building and conflict trends in South Asia.

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