Foreign Policy Watch: India-Myanmar

India suspends Free Movement Regime (FMR) with Myanmar


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Free Movement Regime (FMR), 16km buffer

Mains level: India-Myanmar Relations

Free Movement Regime


About Free Movement Regime

  • Initiated in the 1970s, the FMR allowed people living within 16 km of the India-Myanmar border to travel up to 16 km into the other country without a visa.
  • India shares a 1,643 km-long border with Myanmar, which passes through the States of Arunachal Pradesh (520 km), Nagaland (215 km), Manipur (398 km), and Mizoram (510 km).
  • This regime recognized the deep-rooted familial and ethnic connections between communities on either side of the unfenced border.
  • The FMR was last revised in 2016, aligning with India’s Act East policy. However, it was suspended in Manipur since 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Historical Context of India-Myanmar Relations

India’s relationship with Myanmar has evolved over time, shaped by historical events and geopolitical shifts:

  • Pre-1937: Deep-rooted cultural and religious ties, marked by ancient Buddhist exchanges.
  • 1937 Separation: Burma’s separation from British India, leading to distinct political trajectories.
  • Post-1962 Coup: Strained relations due to Myanmar’s military rule and alignment with China.
  • 1990s Shift: India’s re-engagement with Myanmar under its Look East Policy, emphasizing economic and strategic cooperation.
  • 2015 Democracy: Improved bilateral ties following Myanmar’s transition to democracy.
  • 2021 Coup: Renewed challenges in relations due to Myanmar’s military takeover and ensuing instability.

Why is Myanmar important to India?

[A] Geopolitical Perspective

  • Border sharing: India and Myanmar share a significant land border of over 1600 km and a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal, emphasizing the importance of stability in Myanmar for India.
  • Geostrategic Location: Myanmar’s location is pivotal for India’s “Act East” policy and the development of the Northeast region, acting as a vital link between South Asia and Southeast Asia.
  • Multilateral support: Myanmar’s unique position as the only ASEAN nation bordering India makes it crucial for regional cooperation. It is a member of BIMSTEC, SAARC observer, and part of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation, facilitating India’s multilateral engagement.
  • Security Imperatives: Myanmar’s territory serves as a base for insurgent groups like NSCN-K, necessitating collaboration for counter-insurgency efforts. Additionally, addressing the drug trade originating from the Golden Triangle region is a shared security concern.
  • Chinese Influence: India sees Myanmar as a strategic partner to counterbalance China’s expanding influence in the region, emphasizing the need for enhanced bilateral engagement.

[B] Socioeconomic Perspective

  • Cultural Affinities: Beyond geographical proximity, India and Myanmar share ethnic, religious, and linguistic commonalities, fostering cultural bonds.
  • Indian Diaspora: Myanmar is home to a sizable population of Indian origin, estimated at around 2.5 million, strengthening people-to-people ties between the two nations.
  • Investment in Infrastructure: Infrastructure projects, such as the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project and the Sittwe Port, IMT Highway aim to boost connectivity, trade, and investment.
  • Bilateral Trade: India ranks as Myanmar’s fifth-largest trading partner, registering bilateral trade at USD 1.03 billion in 2021-22.
  • Energy Cooperation: Myanmar holds significance for India’s energy security. With an energy portfolio of over USD 1.2 billion, Myanmar is the largest recipient of India’s investment in the oil and gas sector in Southeast Asia.

Reasons for the Policy Shift

  • Drug Trafficking and Insurgency: Myanmar’s status as an opium producer fuels drug trafficking and supports insurgent groups in India’s northeastern states.
  • Refugee Influx Post-Coup: Following Myanmar’s military coup in February 2021, over 40,000 refugees entered Mizoram, and around 4,000 entered Manipur, exacerbating security concerns.
  • Local Government Stance: Manipur’s Chief Minister urged the Ministry of Home Affairs to cancel the FMR and complete border fencing, linking ethnic violence in the state to the free movement across the border.

Way forward

  • Border Fencing: The government plans to fence about 300 km of the border, with a tender expected soon.
  • Regulatory Revisions: Experts suggest refining the FMR to better regulate movement while maintaining cross-border ties.
  • Infrastructure and Trade: Enhancing infrastructure and formalizing trade at designated entry points could mitigate some negative impacts.
  • Community Engagement: Involving border communities in decision-making is crucial for effective and sensitive border management.

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