Free Movement Regime (FMR)

GS Paper III

News Excerpt:

The Union government is all set to scrap the Free Movement Regime (FMR) along the Myanmar border as border security is the Centre’s domain.

  • The Ministry had constituted a committee headed by Rina Mitra to examine various methods to curb the misuse of free movement along the Myanmar border.

Background:

  • India and Myanmar share an unfenced border, and people on either side have familial and ethnic ties, which prompted the arrangement in the 1970s. 
    • 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).
    • The migrants belonging to the Kuki-Chin-Zo ethnic group share ethnic ties with communities in Mizoram and Manipur.
  • Under the FMR, every member of the hill tribes, either a citizen of India or a citizen of Myanmar, who resides within 16 km on either side of the border, can cross the border on the production of a border pass.
    • The border pass remains valid for a year, and they can stay for up to two weeks per visit.
    • The FMR was implemented in 2018 as part of the Indian government’s Act East policy when diplomatic relations between India and Myanmar were on the upswing.
  • Under the upcoming regulation, around 300 km of the border will be fenced.
  • The Manipur government has suspended the FMR since 2020 following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Significance of FMR:

  • The British demarcated the border between India and Myanmar in 1826 without seeking the people's opinion in the region. 
    • The border effectively divided people of the same ethnicity and culture into two nations without their consent.
  • People in the region have strong ethnic and familial ties across the border.
  • Apart from facilitating people-to-people contact, the FMR provide impetus to local trade and business. 
    • The region has a long history of trans-border commerce through customs and border haats. 
    • Given the low-income economy, such exchanges are vital for sustaining local livelihoods. 
  • For border people in Myanmar too, Indian towns are closer for business, education, and healthcare than those in their own country.

Need to scrap FMR:

  • The move comes in the wake of the large-scale displacement of Rohingya people from the Rakhine State in Myanmar to India. 
  • The free movement regime is misused by militants and trans-border criminals who smuggle weapons, contraband goods and fake Indian currency notes. 
  • Taking advantage of the free-movement regime, they enter India, commit crimes and escape to their relatively safer hideouts.
  • After a military coup in Myanmar in February 2021, there has been an influx of undocumented migrants, over 40,000 refugees have taken shelter in Mizoram, and around 4,000 refugees have entered Manipur.
  • The illegal migration of tribal Kuki-Chin peoples into India from Myanmar is one of the key issues in the ongoing ethnic conflict between Meiteis and Kukis in Manipur.
    • It was reported that in 2023, armed Kuki militants comprising of the Kuki National Army (KNA) and People’s Defence Force (PDF) of Mynamar and security personnel arrived in India, paving the way for a major clash between Kukis and Meiteis in the border town of Moreh in Manipur’s Tengnoupal district.

Way forward:

  • The regime has been reviewed from time to time, and most experts agree that the FMR needs better regulation.
  • Given the interests of the local population, however, neither the complete removal of the FMR nor full border fencing may be desirable. 
  • Livelihoods will be impacted, and essential travel for health care and education may be hit. 
  • Oinam’s paper argued that “it is imperative for India to tackle the issue by pursuing ‘killing the snake without breaking the stick’ approach.”
  • FMR or no FMR, it is not an easy task. And all borders, even the fenced ones, are struggling to deal with drug trafficking.

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