The world is recognizing the benefits of linking India’s North East to ASEAN. The governments of India and Myanmar as also international organisations and academic institutions have recently stepped up the pace of chalking out plans for greater connectivity and increased cross-border trade between India’s North East and Southeast Asia. While it will be a boon for the region, there is this to consider: that the consequences of increased trade will differ in the different states of the North East, depending on the local political and economic situation and inter-ethnic relations.
A case in point is the recent interaction between Mizoram in India and the Chin state in Myanmar – contiguous territories that reveal the complexity of interactions between communities and nation-states.
The people of Myanmar’s Chin Hills are often referred to as ‘Chins’ and people of Mizoram’s Lushai Hills are referred to as ‘Mizos.’ Many in Mizoram believe that Chins and Mizos belong to same ethnic group, and that the Chin-Mizo distinction is essentially a colonial construct that was used for administrative purposes. According to them, then, the present international border between India and Myanmar is also a recent construct, which has divided members of same ethnic community. Based on the ethnic similarity, there have been demands for the unification of territories populated by the Mizos and Chins in India and Myanmar respectively.
Given the geographic contiguity and shared ethnic identities, there have been multiple migrations across the India-Myanmar border along the states of Mizoram and Chin. During the 1950s and the 1960s, people moved from Mizoram to Chin state. For the Mizos, at the time Myanmar was a land of opportunity that was more easily accessed than the rest of India. The migration patterns altered in the 1990s as the political crisis in Myanmar deepened and the economic situation in Mizoram improved due to massive financial assistance from the Indian government. According to some estimates, approximately 10% of Mizoram’s population today comprises of Chin people. The presence of cross-border ethnic kin and lax procedures make it easy to acquire residence and identity papers, thus making it difficult to differentiate the recent migrants from the locals.
This has naturally created local conflict. Migrants from Chin are there because of severe economic stress and many find low-end jobs at low wages, causing discontent among the locals. For example, many workers in the handloom industry in Mizoram are from Chin. The economic contribution of the migrants cannot be underestimated, as many fill the gap in the labour market. But local Mizo also feel the migrants have disrupted peace, increased the crime rate and the illicit drug trade, and are demanding that the migrants from the Chin Hills be sent back to Myanmar. There have even been violent demonstrations against migration.
There is an interesting dichotomy at play: on the one hand, an international boundary is considered to be a recent and arbitrary division of the same ethnic group spawning demands for unification of Chin-Mizo areas. On the other hand, the same international boundary has created new ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ identities. The Chin-Mizo experience shows that increased cross-border interaction has influenced the economic situation on both sides of the border, and also points to the challenges and opportunities that may come with increased trade between our North East and Myanmar.
Sanjay Pulipaka works as a Fellow at the ICRIER-Wadhwani Programme of Research Studies on India-US Relations and Policy Issues, ICRIER, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.
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 Lal Pudaite, “Mizoram,” in Mayumi Murayama, Kyoko Inoue, Sanjoy Hazarika (edt.) “Sub-Regional Relations in the Eastern South Asia: With Special Focus on India’s North