Crossing the Indo-Burmese Border on Motorcycle

Ehim Roell The Irrawaddy

MOREH/TAMU — After a long and thorough inspection of our documents and various exchanges with colleagues in Naypyidaw, the white-suited immigration officer finally laid down the phone, turned towards us, broke into a huge smile, and said: “Welcome to Myanmar. We have been expecting you.”

Thus we concluded hours and hours of waiting, first on the Indian side of the border at the town of Moreh, and then in Tamu town on the Burma side. Our hearts jumped. We had just been allowed to cross overland from India into Burma independently, and were probably the first foreigners to do so in decades!

We had been traveling for six weeks, setting out from Delhi on a classic Indian-built Royal Enfield motorcycle, to ride more than 7,000 kilometers across Uttar Pradesh, Nepal, West Bengal and Sikkim, Bhutan and India’s Northeastern States of Assam, Nagaland and Manipur towards our aspired destination, Rangoon. We were carrying a by now somewhat crumpled official letter from the Burmese government granting us and the motorcycle permission to cross, but had not been sure it would convince the border officials. Now, nothing else could get in the way of the successful completion of our journey.

For many days, our speculations on what we would encounter at the Burmese-Indo border had run wild. Not only in terms of our own doubtful passage; we were also very curious about the situation in India’s restive Northeast and what our trip through the border region might tell us about present and future Burma-India relations.

During colonial rule, the British security perception, her policy of frontier management, and, above all, her imperial interest did not allow local economic potential to grow across the border. And the security perception of post-colonial India and Burma has treated the borders as vulnerable peripheries. Whilst informal cross-border trade and movement of people have long taken place, generally the border at Moreh, in Manipur State, and Tamu, in Sagaing Division, has been characterized by an absence of intensive trading and cross-border economic cooperation.

But lately, after many years of such protectionism, the border at Moreh and Tamu has started to feature prominently on the agenda of diplomatic talks between India and Burma. Since the mid-1990s, the two countries have been discussing plans to expand border trade and build a four-lane, 3,200-km highway connecting India, Burma and Thailand. These ambitions form part of India’s Look East Policy, through which it seeks better connections with the increasingly prosperous nations of East and Southeast Asia, bolstering its standing as a regional power.

Now that Burma is opening up, reforming its growing economy and seeking to enhance regional trade relations, officials in both countries herald the border region at Moreh and Tamu as the future “gateway” between India and the regional bloc of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

However, when we crossed the border, we found that there is still little to show for this promising future.

We set out for Moreh on a Monday afternoon, leaving from Imphal, the capital of Manipur State, much later than planned due to a punctured tire. Already on the road towards Moreh, it was clear that this area was unlike any of India’s other frontiers we had passed during our journey. Rather than the hordes of trucks we had passed near India’s borders with Nepal and Bhutan, here we only met a trickle of small loaded trucks returning from border shopping. Actually, apart from the regular convoys of army vehicles, we mostly found ourselves alone on the road, where we were warned by regular road signs not to “pay money to anyone in uniform or UG [underground] groups.”

We had been traveling through heavily militarized areas for days now, but still not gotten used to the ubiquity of soldiers, guns and tanks in this part of India. From the start of our journey, traveling through India’s restive Northeastern states had worried us. This remote area—connected to the rest of India only through the precarious 22 km-long land corridor passing through Siliguri in West Bengal (appropriately described as the “Chicken’s Neck”)—used to be made up of autonomous kingdoms or chiefdoms, some of which lasted until after the departure of the British.

Resenting becoming a part of India after independence, a “mainland” they culturally felt and continue to feel little connection with, the region has as many as 30 armed ethnic minority insurgent organizations. Their demands range from secession to political autonomy and the right to self-determination. Internal fracturing among the insurgents and dubious performance by the Assam Rifles battalions that have long been deployed to bring security to the region, add to the troubles.

On the way towards the border we passed various check posts manned by these Assam Rifles regiments, and a couple of times we were waved down and asked what we were doing riding towards a closed border. Our crumpled official letter and elaborate explanations, as well as the granting of requests for “one snap” with our photo camera, were just enough each time to be allowed to continue, and so we finally arrived at what turned out to be a small outpost of dusty streets, a handful of shops, and an unusual range of prayer houses, which included a synagogue, a church, a Buddhist pagoda, a Hindu temple, a gurdwara and a mosque.

A surprisingly small number of people were out on the streets. When my travel companion disappeared into a little office to make more photocopies of our passports and letter from the government, I was immediately surrounded by a few of the townspeople who looked at me suspiciously. One young man asked whether I was intending to go shopping on the Burma side, because, if so, I would have to hurry up since the gates would close in a few hours. All in all, Moreh turned out to be a far cry from the bustling towns we had encountered at the borders between India and Nepal and Bhutan, where we had all but disappeared in the commotion.

Proceeding towards the actual border, we were intercepted by members of the local constabulary, who, like the soldiers earlier, were in disbelief our letter would actually get us into Burma. After some debating, the commander agreed to send two of his men to the Burma border to check, and whilst we waited for their return he complained how difficult relations with the Burmese officials on the other side are, since none of them speak Hindi or English. He also expressed his dissatisfaction with Burma’s lack of cooperation in matters of border security.

India is keen to maintain a close watch on the border in order to stop the illegal import of Chinese and Thai products, as well as arms and drugs, and to prevent Manipuri insurgent groups from preparing their attacks from territories in Burma beyond the reach of the Indian army. Although a few times Burma has taken action against insurgents hiding in its territory, overall it appears reluctant to cooperate with India’s counter-insurgency efforts, supposedly as Burmese officials enjoy tax-levies from the militant groups instead, or so the Indian commander alleged.

The commander kindly offered to show us the so-called Indo-Burma Barrier, India’s proposed solution to the problem. India has been working on this fence since 2003, after an agreement with Burma that sought to address the frequent deaths of Indian security personnel and civilians in the region. India has constructed such fences along itsborders with Pakistan and Bangladesh, and claims the measures have limited infiltration by insurgents and illegal migration.

Slated to run from India’s Arunachal State and Burma’s Kachin State in the north all the way down to Mizoram and Chin states in the south, the Indo-Burma Barrier has been a point of controversy since its inception, as it divides many ethnic communities in these regions. These include the Nagas, Lushei, Chins and Kukis, whose homelands straddle the regions between the two countries. Moreover, local communities in India claim that the fence actually cedes a substantial stretch of land to Burma, with recent rounds of protests in Manipur and Burmese objections over the border demarcation bringing the construction to a full stop till today.

Of course we were very curious to witness this contentious fencing project for ourselves, but sadly the offer was lost when the commander’s men reappeared with positive news and we immediately rushed us to the border so that we could still cross that day.

Passing customs, we noticed the basic facilities in place. Whilst India laments the porousness of the border, even at this inspection point screening and detection machines were lacking, and the villagers that crossed along with us under the Free Movement Regime—allowing the tribes residing along the border to travel 16 km across the boundary without visa restrictions—were not checked at all.

For us, another snap with the customs officer did the trick and soon we found ourselves swerving over to the right side of the road, approaching the Burma immigration office that would warmly welcome us an hour later.

Celebrating the successful cross-over, as well as one of our birthdays, later in the evening, we went for a few beers in a little beer garden. There, a group of young men sitting next to us started a conversation in surprisingly good English. The young men were Burmese citizens of Nepali origin, and students of English on the Indian side. Whilst we tried to get information from them about the roads ahead into Burma, they preferred to tell us about their student cards that allowed them to travel around India, using India’s excellent public transport system.

The young men spoke with excitement about the bustling cities and celebrations of India, and also mentioned India’s healthcare facilities as something many Burmese citizens would like to have better access to. The late hour notwithstanding, the young men were headed for a Hindu celebration on the Indian side of the border, and invited us to come along. An invitation we politely declined, of course, as we were quite content being on this side of the border.

Likewise, throughout India’s Northeast many people had told us how much they would like to visit Burma. Some were keen to go shopping in places like Mandalay and Rangoon. Others wanted to explore the country and its cultures, such as the participants of the annual Royal Enfield North East Riders Meet (NERM), who in October 2013 managed to organize a “never before experienced ride into the Union of Myanmar,” as it was advertised on their website. Those who were aware of it mentioned with enthusiasm the new air route Golden Myanmar is now operating between Imphal and Mandalay.

Strolling around in the market of Tamu the next day, we felt there seemed to be a bit more going on there compared to Moreh. The streets were wider, and we found larger shops selling Burmese, Chinese and Thai products. Talking with shopkeepers, we learned that India’s exports mainly consist of agricultural food items like edible buffalo offal, soya bari, skimmed milk powder, soya grid and wheat flour. Imports from Burma are made up of agricultural and forest produce like betel nut, dry ginger, serpentine root, and timber, as well as Chinese and Thai manufactured goods.

Formal trade, however, remains limited to 22 authorized products, outlined in a 1994 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Government of India and Burma on cooperation between the Civilian Border Authorities of the two countries.

Later that day, we set out for Kalewa, to the southeast in Sagaing Region. That India is keen to bolster the trade potential with Myanmar was clear from the road we traveled on. “YOU are travelling on India-Myanmar Friendship Road,” read a signboard on the 160-km Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road. The signboard was put up by Indian Army’s Border Roads Organization, which built the road.

But other than that, all traces of India quickly disappeared.

Tamu may well be heralded as the future overland gateway between India and Southeast Asia, but today it remains an isolated frontier. Whilst there is curiosity on both sides, it appears that misunderstanding and suspicion continue to rule relations between the local authorities. Little progress has been made in simplifying cross-border trade, and a long-awaited bus line connecting Imphal and Mandalay remains postponed. As for so many things in Burma’s future, the development of Tamu town remains a subject of speculation.

Emilie Röell is a writer based in Rangoon.