Recent press reports indicate that guarding of the India- Myanmar border is being handed over to the Border Security Force (BSF), which in turn will raise 46 new battalions to carry out the assigned border-guarding role. The issue of guarding borders with friendly countries is once again on centre stage, but the solutions offered appear hackneyed and stereotyped. Border guarding is not just about placing an ever-increasing quantum of troops on the border. It also relates to capability development to deliver on set parameters so that the envisaged threat is minimised if not eliminated in its entirety.
The complicated nature of the terrain and human geography of the border region makes it vulnerable to a plethora of security challenges. The 1,643 km-long international boundary between India and Myanmar, formally delimited and demarcated on 10 March 1967, following the boundary agreement between the two countries, remains an artificial line, dividing tribes such as the Singphos, Nagas, Kukis, Mizos etc. These tribes however, continue to maintain strong linkages with their kith and kin across the international divide. To enable them to maintain their age-old ties, a unique arrangement called the Free Movement Regime (FMR) is in place, which permits the tribes residing along the border to travel 16 km across the boundary without visa restrictions.
Raging insurgencies on either side of the border have given rise to a host of insurgent groups. In India, multiple ethnic communities have participated in armed movements, with demands ranging from greater autonomy within India to outright secession. In Myanmar too, armed ethnic groups have been fighting against their government, with demands mirroring those of Indian armed groups. The transverse mountains, inhospitable terrain, surging rivers and dense forest canopy astride the border offer safe havens to the ethnic militias, which ipso facto control the region. Terrain difficulties enable anti-India rebel groups such as the NSCN-K, NSCN-IM, ULFA, PLA, (UNLF-M) and the like, to operate from the remote hills of western Burma. Their base camps are exceptionally mobile and their information networks remain very reliable, thus facilitating their continued resistance. The Burmese military (Tatmadaw) lacks the ability to disarm such groups in Myanmar, resulting in New Delhi’s expectations remaining unfulfilled. Money laundering, fake Indian currency notes (FICN), drug dealing, and illegal sales of light military equipment are commonplace along the Indo-Burmese border because of the region’s flourishing underground economy and the poor living conditions of Tatmadaw soldiers and low-ranking officers. Indian insurgents take advantage of the FMR to cross over to Myanmar to receive training in arms, establish safe havens and re-enter India to carry out subversive attacks. The FMR provisions allowing tribal people to carry head loads, also facilitates smuggling of arms and narcotics from across the border.