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Look East Policy: An Opportunity Or Uncertainty

Most of the border town along the international borderline remains deserted and standstill as export of Indian goods to Myanmar under the trade agreement signed between India and Myanmar on January 21, 1994 has befallen under uncertainty.

UNDER THE Look East Policy of the Central government, Moreh an Indian town in Chandel district of Manipur bordering Myanmar was projected as one of the Land Custom Station (LCS) in the North-East region and was bustling with trading activities worth crores of rupees. Besides, the land routes connecting Myanmar could give a boost in the development of the region and the country at large was also the hope of the million Indians.

However, the actual ground scenarios seem to differ from the nation’s projection in the metros. Most of the border town along the IB (international borderline) remains deserted and standstill as export of Indian goods to Myanmar under the trade agreement signed between India and Myanmar on January 21, 1994 has befallen under uncertainty.

A field trip en-route to the border towns including the strategic Moreh town to have a glimpse of ground reality concerning the Northeastern India gives an account of the prevailing insecurity. Situated at a distance of 110 km from Imphal on NH-39, the town appears to be at much distance due to several check-post set up by the state and the central forces.

Further interrupted by unmetalled road; extortions by the underground outfits coupled with inhospitable nature of the security forces deployed on the highway, the Look East Policy of India through land route in Northeast India is a nightmare. NH-39 still remains unsafe both for passages and transportation. The highway is abundant with pit-holes, un-repaired culverts and bridges and landslides, being left unattended by the concern authorities.

Moreover, various militant groups active in the region are levying illegal heavy taxes for passing through the hills. Despite the deployment of Assam Rifle troops for every 10kms from Pallel (36 km) to Moreh, with another two post of Assam Regiment, the insurgents namely the United Nations Liberation Front (UNLF), Kuki National Front (KNF), Kuki National Army (KNA), National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) both factions I-M and K groups pose a big threat to the vehicles applying on the highway.

Every group charges an amount ranging from Rs 100 to Rs 1000 per trip depending on the transport vehicle and the goods transported. In addition, the police and the customs post also charge equally. They allow transportation of any kind of goods (both legal and illegal) after payment of specific amount laid down personally by the officer whosoever is in charge of the post. Nevertheless, the outfits take the privilege of frisking the vehicles and the passengers, alike the security forces.

According to N Naresh Meitei (a taxi driver), ‘Everyday, we are not only checked by the AR (Assam Rifles) at different check-post, but also by the KNA and KNF for the vehicles receipts of tax paid to them. We are ask to buy and come along with eatables and other items whatever they say on way back from Moreh. Above it we are also charged heavily by the police for carrying goods on top of the taxis.’ In the mist of all these inhospitalities, the local mischievous youths never fails to steal the moment to loot the vehicles with knives and barrel guns.

Recalling the recent years, it was the vision of taping the economic potential of Northeast region, the government of India initiated the Look East Policy towards East and South East Asia passing through the Moreh gate. Quite a number of politicians, policy makers, academician and the media have also highlighted the issue. However, contrary to the projection, the enforcement of the policy is a dilemma. In concern with the vision the Border Roads Organization of India has built 165 km long Tamu-Kalaymyo-Kalewa road in Sagaing Division of Myanmar at the cost of Rs 100 crores within three years and named it as Indo-Myanmar Friendship Road connecting India’s NH-39 at Moreh.

In response to it, the Myanmar Junta government has set up the Namphalong market adjacent to the Moreh to stall goods for sale with full cognizance of the potential of border trade, providing all necessary facilities to the retailers on their side. An immigration office and two layered security check post were positioned at the market maintaining strict vigil by the concerned authorities.

Since, a mutual agreement between the Indian government and the Myanmar Junta allows trans-border movement of people on each other’s side after getting a gate pass of Rs 10 from 9am to 4pm, reaching up to Tamu and further few kilometers inside Myanmar during the day time is feasible. Captivatingly, as soon as one comes back to the Moreh town area after crossing over from the other side of the border, two comparatively distinctive scenarios was visible. When the Namphalong-Tamu-Kalamyo areas are well constructed, maintained and the governing authorities focusing on trade and development, Moreh town areas are under-developed and out of order.

Drastic shifting of the road condition from metalled to broken ones is sure to realize everyone that we have reached on Indian side. Moreover, the customs are busy collecting their own shares from the petty traders, while the police wait for any heavily loaded vehicles moving out of the town to charge some extra amount and the government occupied with deliberations on counter-insurgency policy and distribution of contract construction assignments for contractors.

The town is yet to be secured from the yoke of insecurity and infrastructure developed on its way to establish as trans-national hub town. Despite, the presence of the several security forces including Manipur Police, Assam Rifle (AR), Border Security Force (BSF), Indian Reserve Battalion (IRB) and Manipur Rifle (MR) forces, the outlawed KNF and UNLF groups rule the Moreh market and town areas. As narrated by Ranjit, (a shopkeeper at Moreh Bazar), ‘At night the UNLF and KNF groups roam in the town streets with arms, while the security forces remain confined within their respective camps. They (UGs) even walk in front of the Moreh police station and verbally challenge the police personals, while the police kept silent.’

Furthermore, Moreh is famous for all kind of illegal arms and drug consignment deals meant to enter the India’s Northeast region, destined for various part of the country. Since the Indo-Myanmar border area is unfenced, porous with thick forest and unmanned, drugs coming from the old Golden Triangle of South-East Asia have their easy entrance. Contraband drugs are brought in by Burmese smugglers and transshipped to inner part of Manipur by the various militant groups after deducting their share of percentage. However, they allow the purchaser to resell outside the state only. Proliferation of small arms in the area is an open secret and there is no lack of contacts at the Moreh market for illegal deals, though problem lies with further transshipment. The positioning of Assam Rifle (AR) troops along the Indo-Myanmar doesn’t make much difference and illegal trans-movement of men and goods even takes place at a few meters from the observatory RP-post of the AR camp positioned at a distance of one kilometer East of Indo-Myanmar border gate number two.

Above it, the Meitei and the Kuki-Chin insurgent groups active in Chandel district are engaged in arms-conflicts trying to settle old scores. Ethnic tension between the two remains a primary reason for unrest in the town while the common men are miserably helpless victims. These two groups are trying to gain an upper hand over the other in controlling the trade in the town and has been a basis for conflict. Frequent encounter between them breaks out at any moment and is often resolved after a meeting between the leaders of the groups. Most of the time during night there is curfew in the town from 8pm till next morning 6.30am, imposed by the district commissioner but, no one complies with it. When the KNF and UNLF came out in the town area no security forces personals are seen and chance of another encounter between the groups when any scuffle occurs remain high.

In fact, the town is well-known as one of the most insecure area in the entire Northeast region. Most of the underground groups have their transit camps on the Myanmar side and is visible from a few hundred meters across the border.

Moreover, some Kuki armed groups who had emigrated from Myanmar in recent years after 1997, have started involving in the town affairs. Interestingly, the Kuki militant groups have cease-fire with the Indian Central Forces and not with the state forces. This has been a reason of confusion and misunderstanding among the security forces deployed in the area. Moreover, lack of will and focus by the Indian state and Central government has also lead to the feeble power projection of the forces in the border town and is kept positioning as mere observers. In short, the Look East Policy of India through the Northeast still remains stagnant under the limits of documents only. The need of the hour is the co-relational linkage between the policies with the ground realities so as to give a boost to the development activities in the country at large.

* The article is written by Shivananda.

* The article was originally published on February, 2010.

(Courtesy: merinews.com: India’s First Citizen Journalism News Portal)

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