Swamped by smuggled goods, Mizoram traders seek access to Myanmar

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India and Myanmar’s official trade through Mizoram and Manipur has been closed for many years although various drugs, arms and ammunition, endangered animals and other items valued at hundreds of crores of rupees are being traded illegally across the border.

Traders on both sides of the border are keen to resume the India-Myanmar trade through the Moreh and Zokhawthar trading points to curb the rampant illegal trade in various items, especially highly addictive drugs.

Moreh in Manipur and and Zokhawthar in Mizoram are the two important international trading points along the 1,643-km long India-Myanmar unfenced border.

The official trade through the Moreh Integrated Check Post (ICP) has been closed since March 2020 after the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak while trade through Zokhawthar has remained closed for many years due to various reasons.

Moreh, 110 kms from the state capital Imphal, is one of the oldest trade points in India along the border with Myanmar, with the city of Tamu on the other side of the border. The India-Myanmar Friendship Bridge in Moreh connects India to Kalewa in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division.

A senior ICP official said that given its strategic location, ICP Moreh has the advantage of acting as India’s gateway to the East through the Moreh-Tamu border point, which is presently the only feasible land route for trade between India and Myanmar and other South East Asian countries.

Moreh ICP is situated along the proposed 1360 km-long India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway.

The Mizoram based International Trade Initiative Forum (ITIF) recently urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mizoram Governor Hari Babu Kambhampati to resume the trade with Myanmar through the Zokhawthar border point.

An ITIF delegation led by its President P.C. Lawmkunga apprised the Mizoram governor that the non-functioning of the formal India-Myanmar border trade could be one reason for the smuggling activities in this area.

Lawmkunga, a retired IAS officer who was the Chief Secretary of Manipur, said that Indo-Myanmar border trade at Zokhawthar in Champhai district of eastern Mizoram was first started as traditional trade in 1995 until the Government of India formalised it on December 2015. It has become almost nonexistent today due to various reasons.

The Governor assured the ITIF delegation that the Central government is very much committed to the promotion of trade with neighbouring countries and to facilitating the ease of doing business for its citizens.

He suggested that ITIF Mizoram try to identify all the potential traders who might have been discouraged by the present situation and bring them to the table for discussion.

“In the absence of the formal and regular official border trade between India and Myanmar, not only is smuggling and illegal trade going on unchecked but the government is losing crores of rupees in revenue,” Lawmkunga told IANS.

He said that smuggling of areca nuts (also known as betel nut) in large quantities from Myanmar into Mizoram and Manipur has been going on without any major restrictions.

“The Assam Rifles and the other security forces often intercepted truck loads of areca nuts. Smuggling of areca nuts in large quantities also affected the Indian farmers and traders,” the retired IAS officer said.

He said that the Indian government as part of its “Act East Policy”, has been keen to promote trade and the economy with the neighbouring and the South East Asian countries, but without the regular formal trade how can this policy be successful.

Contraband including gold and highly stimulating drugs, especially heroin, highly-addictive methamphetamine tablets, also commonly known as ‘Yaba’ or ‘party tablets’, poppy seeds, opium, ganja (marijuana), morphine, bottles of cough syrup and various other items as well as arms and ammunition valued at hundreds of crores of rupees are smuggled from Myanmar.

A defence spokesman said that Assam Rifles has been at the forefront in combating cross-border narco-terrorism and insurgency emanating from Myanmar.

“Narco-terrorism is a major source of finance for the terrorist groups based in Myanmar. It has linkages with the other players in the ‘Golden Triangle’.

“This scourge is the main reason for the rise in drug addiction among the youth of India, especially in the northeast region. It is also a source for fuelling terrorism in the region,” the spokesman said.

Besides the large-scale smuggling from Myanmar, the northeastern states of India, especially Mizoram, bear the brunt of other problems after a military coup in the neighbouring country on February 1 last year.

Around 24,000 Myanmar refugees, including women and children, have taken shelter in Mizoram.

Of Mizoram’s 11 districts, Siaha district, located along the India-Myanmar border, is currently sheltering around 9,500 refugees, followed by Champhai that accommodates 7,900 refugees.

(Sujit Chakraborty can be contacted at sujit.c@ians.in)

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