By Rupesh Dutta
New Delhi/Kohima, Jan 1 (IANS) India is likely to turn 3,500 fertile acres into “No-Man’s Land” on its eastern border with Myanmar as construction of a fence has started between the existing border pillars demarcating the two neighbouring nations.
The fencing is going ahead despite an agitation by Naga villagers who said the move will affect their livelihood as the area has been used by them for years.
The district administration, located in the border town of Noklak, has begun preparations to seal off farmers’ passage to the 3,500 acres of land, according to sources.
Village Councils say the fencing between existing border pillars 139 and 146 will leave 10,000 villagers belonging to the Khiamniungans Naga tribe, living on both sides of the border, without a livelihood.
Seeking the urgent attention of both the Indian and Myanmar governments, the Khiamniungan Tribal Council (KTC) has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Myanmar President U. Htin Kyaw, urging them to halt the fencing work, as they were not consulted on the issue.
“In the history of Khiamniungans, though divided and living separately across the imaginary boundary between India and Myanmar, there have been no land disputes and encroachments. Our land and people cannot be divided by any external forces or aggressors by putting up fencing and drawing any imaginary lines under the guise and pretext of national security,” said the letter which is with IANS.
According to the KTC, the border pillars were set up in the 1970s on agricultural lands without understanding that people on both sides belonged to the same community.
“We have been using the land for Jhum cultivation for so long. Though the border pillars were set up in the middle of our lands all of a sudden, we did not object as it did not stop our people from passing through. Now all of a sudden what is the meaning of constructing fencing between the border pillars?” S. Puthein, Chairman of Village Council Dan, a village of Khiamniungan on the Indian side of the border, told IANS.
When contacted, the Ministry of Home Affairs said that India was not involved in the construction of the fence.
“Ministry of Home has not proposed any fence on the Indo-Myanmar border. On this issue the MEA has been apprised as it is their subject. We have told our people that there will be no construction in our zone and also there will no construction in non-construction zone. Assam Rifles will ensure that,” Pradeep Gupta, Joint Secretary (Border Management) in the ministry, told IANS.
“If the Myanmar government is doing this, then we will ensure that no construction is done in the 10 metres of no-construction zone. The government is trying to clear all the doubts of the locals living in the border areas on this,” said Gupta.
Sripriya Ranganathan, Joint Secretary, (Bangladesh, Myanmar) in the Ministry of External Affairs, was not available for comment.
Myanmar, the only Southeast Asian country which shares a 1,600-mile-long border with India, serves as its gateway to the other 10-member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Four North Eastern states — Arunachal Pradesh (520 km), Manipur (398 km), Nagaland (215 km) and Mizoram (510 km) — have unfenced border with Myanmar.
In 2013, the Indian government had to stop fencing work across Manipur’s border with Myanmar following allegations that it passed through Indian land in many parts.
Khriezo Yhome, an expert on Indo-Myanmar affairs at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) said: “It is important for the two countries to understand the ground realities. The fencing will have an adverse impact on the lives of local people living there.”
He said the challenge was that, on the ground, the boundary lines are not crystallised. “India and Myanmar have a free movement regime (FMR), which allows local tribals to travel 16 km on each side of the boundary. In such situation, if the fencing comes, then it will be contradicting the FMR,” Yhome told IANS.
A lot of villagers from the Myanmar side come to the Indian side to buy basic essentials. “The boundary lines cut across houses, lands and villages of the tribal people living there. This is not just confined to Nagaland but in several bordering areas of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Manipur,” said Yhome.
(Rupesh Dutta can be contacted at [email protected])