Familiarity across Borders

Reshmi Banerjee explores issues which unify North East India and Myanmar.   

As a researcher, I have been working on challenges facing North East India for quite some time now. Although the region is widely known for its natural beauty, vibrant culture and rich biodiversity, I was particularly drawn towards it for its complex ethnic mix, political history and conflict ridden past. The fact that the region has always been referred to as the ‘periphery’, even though it consists of eight states of India, is a question which motivated me to explore further. Is it a marginalized zone because of its geographical location (although it shares critical international borders with its regional neighbours) or is it because of the way some policy makers, sections of the media and even members of civil society have repeatedly defined the terms core and periphery, thus depriving this region of the attention it required and deserved? Certainly pre-colonial history shows otherwise, with the region enjoying a powerful presence – porous frontiers with trans-border communities creating unique spaces of identity.

North East India and Myanmar have always enjoyed close historical and ethnic linkages. Informal trade and markets flourished in pre-colonial times with overland and maritime routes connecting both.

The Ahoms, a Tai Shan tribe, entered the Northeast Indian state of Assam in the 13thcentury and remained there till the British defeated them.[i] The Tangkhul Nagas and their legends talk of the association with Makhel and Samsok (Thungdut) in the Kabaw valley with the Kabaw valley being connected with Manipur’s political history (Manipur is a state in North East India).[ii] The Kuki-Chin tribes were brought by the British from the Chin Hills in Myanmar to create a buffer zone for themselves against attacks from the Nagas or Mizos, which in turn increased the inter-ethnic rivalries.[iii]

Daily functionality somehow co-existed with vulnerability, the dual aspect of continuity and fragmentation affecting this varied landscape as conflicts between tribes/communities for control did occur. This fluid but dynamic region saw multiple movements of inquisitive travelers, exploration and cartographic drives by British colonial officers (to understand the terrain, its resources and their territorial possessions) and religious exchanges. North East India thus enjoyed socio-economic ties with Burma, Bhutan and Nepal which defined and enriched its ethnography and created a shared history. The presence of the official colonial state was matched with a frontier zone which was perhaps more deeply culturally rooted than politically created, thus allowing a certain degree of freedom and inclusion which characterized  interaction between ethnic communities across frontiers (even after Burma separated from British India in 1937).

A colossal disruption, however, occurred later due to independence and partition in the 1940s, aggravating the inflexible processes already created by the earlier colonial enterprise of setting fixed territorial boundaries (for administrative and commercial purposes). This led to the drawing of rigid boundedness over social relationships with dilemmas and restrictions of post-colonial nation-building. Subsequent mapping and redrawing of the North Eastern region of India reflected not only the constant identity-formation and people’s demands (resulting in the formation of different states such as Nagaland and Mizoram) but also the increasing alienated divergence from the rest of India. Border areas increasingly became difficult zones of governance where the presence of non-state actors posed a challenge to central authorities. Many ethnic communities, like the Nagas, found themselves on both sides of the Indo-Myanmar border. Meenaxi Barkataki Ruscheweyh, in her book Dancing to the Statediscusses the Tangsa population which has not only lived in upper Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in North East India but also in Myanmar where they are called the Tangshang or Heimi Naga.[iv] The cultural and ethnic connections with Burma survived in spite of severance of ties brought by border-control.

Common challenges shared by both North East India and Myanmar have also created unifying threads; the euphoria of independence was short-lived with both areas experiencing insurgency and a powerful military presence. The presence of ‘men in boots’ in civilian areas was devastating: young men forcibly taken away for military/security purposes, women being physically and emotionally harassed, villages being dismantled and finally fear taking over people’s daily lives. Military presence has been deeply disliked and resisted for years in both places. Vocal protests, by local people, including women have shaped the discourse in this region.

Whether struggles for autonomy or conflict over dispossession of land; xenophobia or abandoned grievances of people – North East India and Myanmar have been united by their shared concerns. Deep distrust of the ‘other’, insecurity over control of livelihoods and resources along with economic differentiation coinciding with religious dissimilarity has often resulted in violent social conflict. While North East India has seen indigenous Bengali Muslims and ethnic minorities facing trouble (the former group has often been mistaken as an illegal migrant group from Bangladesh), the Rohingyas and other ethnic minorities in Myanmar like the Chins and Karens have faced the brunt of non-inclusive decision-making by successive Bamar majority governments. Several communities in North East India and Myanmar are still fighting for their identity and rights. The space for dignified co-existence is still an evolving and much contested one.

Over the years, this region has seen mobile citizens (moving out of their comfort zones in search of opportunities), an increase in forced migration, spiraling aspirations of the youth, ecological refugees, increase in social inequalities and erosion of a social connectedness, thus creating a world of precarious lives marked by restlessness. Devastation of the environment has occurred on both sides of the border, resulting in ruptures in the symbiotic relationships enjoyed by the people of this region with nature. The beauty of the River Brahmaputra in North East India and the serenity of the Irrawaddy in Myanmar have been interrupted by unwanted intrusions into the ecological beauty of the landscape.

This region needs economic development yet the fast changing nature of the commercial cum industrial projects has at times led to a confused and distressed populace, often kept outside the decision-making corridors even though their lives are impacted the most. Drugs and arms trafficking, trafficking of women, opium addiction, increase in HIV/AIDS infections, lack of proper education and health facilities, rapid climatic changes along with regular occurrence of natural disasters have not only aggravated the already delicate situation in the region but also given rise to a familiar narrative across borders. Insurgent groups of North East India and Myanmar have found shelter in the ungoverned spaces along the Indo-Myanmar frontier. As Archana Upadhyay has stated “ultras on both sides of the border, control the entire illicit traffic on the Ledo road, between Assam and the Yunan province of China”.[v]

Processes of peace-building and trust-formation amongst communities are relevant for both North East India and Myanmar. This can only come when a conducive environment is created for participatory dialogue and discussion. A democracy deficit needs to be replaced with inclusive institutional structures. Negotiations (both political and economic) should focus on interests rather than positions, with the aim of resolving  rather than managing conflict. The stress should be on what has been called ‘integrative bargaining’, where the emphasis is on sharing rather than dividing the pay-off, in the case of resource-utilization.[vi] Both governmental organizations and non-governmental institutions in North East India and Myanmar need to explore more areas of cooperation and create a narrative of commonality rather than conflict. Although history has witnessed the Chins being served with quit notices in the state of Mizoram in North East India and Myanmar has seen the Indian community being marginalized during the years of the Second World War and after, there is a need for populations in this region to rise above these feelings of mistrust and discrimination. Borders were a political construct in this region but the artificial frontiers in our minds should not become a hindrance to exploring each other’s strengths and learning together.

Photo Credit: Author, River Brahmaputra, Tezpur, Assam, January 2018. 

[i]Pathak, Moushumi Dutta (2017), You Do Not Belong Here – Partition Diaspora in the Brahmaputra Valley, Chennai, Notion Press, p.62.
[ii]Rajkumar, Falguni (2011), RainbowPeople – Reinventing Northeast India, New Delhi, Manas Publications, p.41.
[iii]Introduction (2008) in Ray, Jayanta Kumar and Bhattacharya, Rakhee (eds), Development Dynamics in North East India,Delhi, Anshah Publishing House, p.2.
[iv]Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, Meenaxi (2017), Dancing to the State – Ethnic Compulsions of the Tangsa in Assam, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, p.42.
[v]Upadhyay, Archana (2009), India’s Fragile Borderlands- The Dynamics of Terrorism in North East India, London, I.B.Tauris & Co.Ltd, p. 53.
[vi]Das, Tania and Bhasin, Madhavi (2008), “Structuring Negotiations for Durable Peace” in Hazarika, Sujata Dutta (ed), Peace in Dialogue – Universals and Specifics (Reflections on Northeast India), New Delhi, Akansha Publishing House, pp. 144-146.

Author: Dr. Reshmi Banerjee

Dr. Reshmi Banerjee is a political scientist based in London with specialization in food security, agricultural policies and cross-border studies on North East India/Myanmar. She is currently a Research Fellow in the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. She was previously an academic visitor in the Asian Studies Centre (Programme on Modern Burmese Studies) in St Antony’s College, University of Oxford and a research associate in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She has been a post doctoral fellow in the department of international relations, University of Indonesia and a researcher in the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Jakarta. Reshmi has worked as a fellow in the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, has been a Visiting Professor in the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, and has taught in Delhi University and in the University of Indonesia. She has an M.Phil and Ph.D from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi and has co-edited two books: Climate Change in the Eastern Himalaya: Impact on Livelihoods, Growth and Poverty (Academic Publishers, 2015) and Gender, Poverty and Livelihood in the Eastern Himalayas (Routledge, 2017).