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The Moreh effect on policy: Recovering from lockdown, Myanmar coup deals a fresh blow to Moreh traders


The extended border closures have resulted in the loss of business for the approximately 200 shops tightly packed around the integrated check post on the Indian side. After the Indian government lifted several public health restrictions last year, business had just started getting back on its feet.

By Sanjoo Thangjam

On February 1, 2021 with the proposed start of cross-border trade Myanmar’s military seized power on that very day, in a coup against the democratically elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. In early morning raids, Suu Kyi was detained along with other leaders of her party. The international border gates at Moreh that were scheduled to open on that day remained closed.

The extended border closures have resulted in the loss of business for the approximately 200 shops tightly packed around the integrated check post on the Indian side. After the Indian government lifted several public health restrictions last year, business had just started getting back on its feet. Then, the coup in Myanmar brought everything to a screeching halt.

The extended border closures at Moreh, near the India-Myanmar border in Manipur have resulted in the loss of business for the approximately 200 shops tightly packed around the integrated check post on the Indian side although official trade routes were closed following the coronavirus outbreak in March last year, unregulated and illegal trade on a smaller scale continued between Moreh and Tamu, the first border town in Myanmar’s territory, till the coup occurred.

In the region, Myanmar is an important trade partner and it is also the only ASEAN country with which India shares both a land and a maritime boundary. Although seasonal agriculture provides income for some residents, it is the international trade, a significant part of which is illegal, that sustains

 “Mostly only illegal trade happens along the India-Myanmar border. The official trade is negligible in comparison,” says a source familiar with the operations, Requesting anonymity.

Moreh is commonly known as “Smugglers’ Village”, a boom town with a parallel township called Prem Nagar that has grown up alongside it over the past four decades. It is the “frontline post” for a massive two-way smuggling process and Intelligence sources believe the main bases for these operations are Imphal, 150 km away on the Indian side, and Tamu, 10 km across the border in Myanmar. The populace of Moreh comprises carriers and small-time promoters who work on small commissions. A town of outsiders, its populace includes 6,000 people are from South India (mainly Kerala), 4,000 are Mizos and other tribals, 3,000 are Manipuris (including a large number of Pangals, or Muslim Manipuris), while the rest are a mixture of Nepalis, Biharis, Sikhs and Marwaris. “And almost 90 per cent of them are smugglers or promoters,” said an Intelligence officer who has been working in this area for the past three years.

The Centre is aware that the North-east can develop, prosper and eventually overcome its troubles by engaging its eastern foreign neighbours. Especially with the recent agreement on the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar economic corridor blueprint, India can access markets in China’s west and southwest through the North-eastern borders.

Yunnan province in China is the network hub for trade and connectivity with the rest of the country. Equally important for North-east India is regional connectivity under the sub regional and regional cooperation such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and the Greater Mekong Sub-region cooperation. That said, a word of caution is appropriate to understand the ugly behemoth of narcotics trafficking intertwined with ethnic insurgency in the neighbouring Golden Triangle.

There is no doubt that India is working on plans of building economic corridors in its North-east neighbourhood to boost foreign trade and give the economy the much-needed leap forward.

The use of Yaba or WY — a tablet containing a mixture of methamphetamine and caffein — is increasing by the day, particularly among Manipuri youth. Precursors like pseudoephedrine and ephedrine are smuggled into the state, as also huge amounts of WY tablets that are brightly coloured in red, orange or lime green and carry logos like “R” or “WY”. These are small, round and roughly six millimetres in diameter.

A user who consumes five to 20 WY  tablets a day is capable of running, jumping and doing any tiresome work without feeling the least tiredness for two-three days, and that too without even a nap. This narcotic increases the strength and confidence of its users and there is no gainsaying its effect on the rate of crime, which would be hard to control. Moreover, these tablets have the wherewithal of creating ecstasy in its users, so a rise in incidents of rape cannot be overlooked.

It is said that the immediate feeling after consuming a tablet is one of light-headedness (and potential dizziness), followed by euphoria, increased physical activity, heightened alertness and increased wakefulness as a result of the central nervous system being affected. After several hours, the user experiences a comedown that results in decreased appetite and increased respiration and hypothermia that lead to irritability, insomnia, confusion, tremors, convulsions, anxiety, paranoia and aggressiveness. Other reported symptoms include lower back pain, possibly from damage to the liver or kidneys. While many countries have banned the sale of this tablet and its kind, Manipur is facing the menace for the first time.

Huge quantities of illicit narcotics can easily ride the new access routes of greater connectivity and blow up already existing issues of secured human health and wellbeing of society. It is believed that Myanmar is the largest producer of methamphetamine in the world, with the majority of Yaba found in Thailand being produced in Myanmar, particularly in the Golden Triangle and northeaster Shan state that borders Thailand, Laos and China.

Yaba is called bhulbhuliya in India and is typically prepared in pill form, which means these can be packed inside a plastic soda straw for easy transportation or in reusable “mint” containers.

WY or Yaba is commonly known among users as “World is yours”. These  tablets contain 25-35 mg of methamphetamine, a very addictive stimulant, along with 45-65 mg of caffeine. At comparable doses, the effects of methamphetamine are fare more potent, longer lasting and more harmful than amphetamine to the cardiovascular and central nervous system. WY can be ingested, snorted, smoked or injected.

Myanmar is the highest illegal production centre of WY and supplies the maximum amount of easily available precursors like ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. Manipur, with access to the international border through Moreh town and thereby to Myanmar, is now becoming the targeted smuggling centre for WY, which should be a major cause for concern.

Bordering Myanmar to the east are Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland. Each state’s data from National Aids Control Organisation reports show high numbers of HIV-related diseases and volumes of drug trafficking. Narcotics and contraband firearms are regularly trafficked across the unmanned border as the routes of western Myanmar are controlled by India’s North-east insurgents. 

In recent years, Manipur has witnessed huge quantities of contraband Pseudoephedrine Hydrochloride-content drugs, manufactured in India, being trafficked into Myanmar for processing narcotics, especially heroin. The thriving ethnic insurgency in Manipur, with its “tax structure” helps to exacerbate the problem. Pseudoephedrine is smuggled from New Delhi to Myanmar and China via Guwahati by conduits based in Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram

Traditionally, the Golden Triangle is a region between the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand; a region famous for its opium production. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and

Crime’s latest Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2013, opium cultivation in the Golden Triangle went up by 22 per cent in 2013 propelled by a 13 per cent growth in Myanmar. This registered a 26 per cent rise from 2012 in opium cultivation and yield.

A decade ago, the Golden Triangle supplied half the world’s heroin, but drug barons backed by ethnic militias in Myanmar have turned to trafficking massive quantities of amphetamines and methamphetamines – which can be produced cheaply in small, hidden laboratories, without the need for acres of exposed land – and these narcotics now dominate the Myanmar part of the Triangle.

Since insurgency based on purely ethnic issues is on the way out, high profits and access to the lucrative Thai and foreign markets now drive narcotics production and trafficking. The Myanmar government can do little to counter drug trafficking in the Golden Triangle as the traffickers are well organised Chinese syndicates operating from outside Myanmar.

Therefore, the first and foremost step that needs to be taken by India is to have an effective drug control mechanism that can guarantee this illicit trade is kept to the minimum so as to control adverse (illicit drugs) consequences. And if this control mechanism isn’t resorted to well in time, one can well imagine the long-term negative effects.

Even as the state police, narcotics, excise and other civil society organisations have been trying their level best to combat the menace of various intoxicants like heroin, cannabis, SpasmoProxyvon capsules, N-10 and other similar psychoactive substances that contain amphetamine, of late the new menace created by the infamous WY tablets has begun to haunt the people of Manipur, not to forget serious implications for the rest of the North-east.

In Moreh, the Indo-Myanmar Friendship Gate provides two points for entry into Myanmar, Gate 1 and Gate 2, where the latter serves as the informal entrance most frequently used by small traders and daily-wage earners crossing the border every day. For 16 kilometres on either side of the border, free movement without passports is permitted by both the Indian and the Myanmar governments.

However, transporting medium to large sized items across the border has never been easy as border guards would stop those citing regulations. Now with Myanmar completely sealing its border, movement has become impossible.

Namphalong market is a cluster of permanent and semi-permanent structures where locals set up shop every day. Each unit is not larger than 3×4 feet in width.  Goods are being sold across the border in India using illegal routes. This “coolie work” is illegal, dangerous and difficult, but Myanmarese nationals living near the border here say they have little choice – Coolie work starts at 11 p.m. and goes on till 4 a.m. – They fear getting caught by border forces but they continue engaging in this kind of work.

Officials’ familiar with smuggling and illegal trade operations at the Indo-Myanmar border, requesting anonymity, told that despite the closure of the gates at Moreh and Tamu, illegal trade has continued along the more porous sections of the borders between the two countries. Security forces cannot be deployed for patrolling at all points along the border, especially at night, and there are always people on both sides of the border who manage to evade checks and border guards.

Significant sections of the Indo-Myanmar border are porous that allow people to pass through to the other side relatively easily, especially in the darkness of the night. Livelihood hasn’t been secured and now the coup has added more uncertainty. The Indian embassy in Myanmar has asked Indian citizens to avoid unnecessary travel and it appears that it will take time for the border to reopen.

Security forces intensified vigil the 398 km-long Indo-Myanmar border in Manipur, following the coup in Myanmar. The impact of the coup is yet to be felt in the border areas in India, but national security is of course a concern. It will be in national interest if trade is completely stopped for a while.

Long-term observers of Myanmar aren’t as certain that it will. But if and when the border gates open, it is not clear whether it will be business as usual for shopkeepers or whether the people of Moreh will see a different Myanmar.

(The writer is a Social Activist for People Who Use Drugs (PUDs)

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