Naga tribesmen clad in traditional outfits are seen during New Year celebrations in Laha of Khamti Township in northwestern Myanmar near India's Assam state. The Naga are among the most isolated people in the world. Photo: AFP / Khin Maung Win

Along Myanmar’s remote mountainous border with India, ethnic Nagas are being hemmed in by the construction of a new security fence. The barrier is being built by Myanmar authorities in the name of national security but also threatens to divide Naga families and communities who have long treated the bilateral border as an imaginary and easily ignored line.

The border fence, currently under construction in Myanmar’s so-called Naga Self-Administered Zone between northwestern border posts 145 and 146, was first announced by the government in early January. Official statements carried in local media reports said the new barrier is designed to help regional authorities better manage border affairs in one of the country’s most isolated and underdeveloped regions.

The wall will also aim to staunch the operations of Naga insurgents responsible for launching frequent attacks on government forces and installations in northeastern India from Myanmar territory. Myanmar’s border affairs ministry is one of three controlled by the military, as provided for under a constitutional provision that gives the military autonomous control over security affairs.

Cross-border insurgent strikes from Myanmar into India, including in the bordering states of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland, have long been an irritant to bilateral relations. In 2015, India carried out surgical strikes on Naga rebel positions inside Myanmar after insurgents killed 18 Indian soldiers near the border. Indian armed forces have since ramped up border patrols along the Indo-Myanmar boundary in a bid to hobble insurgent movements.

After fighting between Indian forces and Naga rebels erupted last year, Myanmar’s military supported India in a rare case by striking a Naga insurgent camp along the border. Myanmar maintains a limited ceasefire with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Khaplang, the main Naga insurgent group active in the border region. In early January, Myanmar’s military targeted one of the NSCN-K’s camps along the border, which according to reports was burnt down in the confrontation.

The remote region is home to a long armed struggle. In the mid-1950s, a rebellion broke out among ethnic Naga tribesmen in northeastern India bordering Myanmar, leading to rebel calls for independence from Indian rule. In the 1970s, Naga rebels were driven out of Indian territory and took sanctuary in the nearby mountainous regions of Myanmar.

Tied down with insurgent groups along its eastern and northeastern borders, Myanmar did little over the years to prevent Naga insurgents from using its remote northwestern territory as base and sanctuary. In 1988, the NSCN-Khaplang broke away from the main group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, following tensions between eastern and western Nagas. NSCN-K called off its ceasefire with India in 2015, while a regional level ceasefire with Myanmar is shaky but still technically in place.

As Myanmar increasingly aims to counterbalance China’s influence, stronger ties with India are increasingly more important than a precarious status quo with Naga rebels. New Delhi has officially denied it is providing financial support for the security fence. India, however, does grant US$5 million per year to Myanmar in a so-called “Border Areas Development” program for northwestern areas, including in the Naga Self-Administered Zone, as part of its “Look East” policy.

Naga tribeswomen and children gather in the remote Sagaing region, in one of the most remote area’s of Myanmar. Photo: AFP / Phyo Hein Kyaw 

There are an estimated two million Nagas spread across the bordering Indian states of Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar’s Naga Self-Administered Zone. Local sources say the fence will literally tear villages apart – in some cases even individual homes situated directly on the until now vaguely marked boundary – and restrict farmers from accessing fields they maintain on the other side of the border.

The noose has already tightened on trade, an economic lifeline for Nagas on both sides. Official blocks on cross-border trade have recently deprived Naga communities of crucial commodities in what was already one of Myanmar’s most impoverished regions. Reports have emerged of severe shortages at two main border markets, Pangsau and Somra, in recent months. Established in 2013, the border markets had facilitated cross-border trade that allowed Myanmar’s Nagas to legally buy much-needed products from India that were previously smuggled at higher prices.

“Now we can only buy oil and salt once a month and 50 kilograms of rice per month for one person,” laments Keh Ching, a volunteer medic from Pangsau sub-district who previously made frequent cross-border trips. Trade routes near Pangsau and Nanyunt, the main towns in the northern Naga region, have also been cut off by the ongoing conflict in neighboring Kachin State, where government forces and ethnic Kachin rebels are now engaged in intense fighting.

As Myanmar increasingly aims to counterbalance China’s influence, stronger ties with India are increasingly more important than a precarious status quo with Naga rebels.

Naga areas in Myanmar are also now reporting shortages of gasoline and other crucial commodities due to military operations in the area, including the erection of roadblocks on the region’s already cracked and decrepit roadways. Goods previously transported by truck from Kachin State to Naga areas now rarely get past military checkpoints, according to locals affected by the operations.

The security fence will also take a human toll, threatening to separate families and communities that have long lived side-by-side along the border. “We have the same language, the same culture…They are cutting us from our people,” said Shang Yung Wang, leader of the Eastern Naga Development Organization, a community organization. “They just want to split us apart to weaken our will for self-determination. But the Nagas are one, neither Indian nor Myanmar.”