India aims to fence 1,643km border with Myanmar to stem refugees and soldiers fleeing ethnic unrest

Proposed fencing is opposed by all four northeastern Indian states that border Myanmar

India aims to fence its 1,643km border with Myanmar to stem the inflow of refugees and soldiers fleeing the growing ethnic unrest under the neighbouring country’s military regime.

Home affairs minister Amit Shah said India would secure the country’s border with Myanmar, just as it had earlier fenced off most of its 4,096km frontier with Bangladesh.

India, he said, would also scrap a six-year-old free movement agreement with Myanmar which permitted border residents from both sides, many of whom share close ethnic and familial links, to travel 16km into each other’s territory without a visa for up to two weeks.

Mr Shah declined to provide details of the proposed fencing, which is opposed by all four north-eastern Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram that abut Myanmar.


Nagaland chief minister Neiphui Rio, whose state shares a 215km border with Myanmar – where thousands of ethnic Naga tribesmen live – said federal authorities could not unilaterally erect the fence without consultation with all the stakeholders as ”multiple complications” were involved.

Both sides of the border, he told reporters, had an ethnic Naga population that could not be separated. His own village was on one side of the border and his farmland on the other.

His counterpart Laludhoma, who uses only one name, from nearby Mizoram, which shares a 510km long frontier with Myanmar, said his government and different state organisations were opposed to the fencing and ditching of the free movement agreement as his Mizo (Highlander) people shared ethnic ties with Myanmar’s Chin tribes.

“The British,” he said, “had separated the Mizos by carving out Burma from India, but we now cannot accept the arbitrary border fencing and doing away of the FMA [free movement agreement]”.

More than 40,000 Chin refugees have fled to Mizoram in recent months following clashes between Myanmar’s military rulers and Arakan Army insurgents that, according to the United Nations, has caused he displacement of over two million locals.

Amongst those who fled to Mizoram were 635 Myanmar military personnel, including an army officer of colonel rank. Some 400 have so far been sent back to Myanmar, officials in Delhi say.

Security and diplomatic sources say India did not consult Myanmar on the fencing, which if pursued hastily could exacerbate diplomatic tensions between the two sides, and adversely impact India’s long-standing “Look East” policy. This is aimed at expanding India’s economic, strategic and political ties with all southeast Asian states, including Myanmar, to augment its regional standing and to dilute China’s growing hegemony in the area.

To this end India established close ties with Myanmar’s military government after it seized power in early 2021, but the recent surge of refugees into its northeastern states has triggered alarm bells in Delhi.

Last July Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar told his Myanmar counterpart, Than Swe, that India’s border states were ”seriously disturbed” by the inflow of refugees and illegal drugs, and called upon the neighbouring state to prevent all such activity.

A cross-section of Indian military officers who have served in the region said fencing even small portions of the rugged Myanmar border, which is criss-crossed with mountains, ravines and jungles, was ”logistically impractical”. They said it would take years to erect a fence at great cost, and given the ”demanding” topography the structure would not keep infiltrators out.

In addition to fencing 3,180km of its 4,096km border with Bangladesh to check the influx of economic refugees, India has also cordoned off 2,064km of its 3,323km frontier with Pakistan to curb narcotics drug smuggling and incursion by armed militants. The measure, however, has proven only somewhat successful.

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Rahul Bedi

Rahul Bedi

Rahul Bedi is a contributor to The Irish Times based in New Delhi