Moreh, 100 km from Imphal, is the gateway to the Southeast Asian countries. Through this town, 17th century Manipuri ruler Pamheiba entered the Kabaw Valley. Along the same route came the Burmese and occupied and devastated Manipur and Assam till they were pushed back by a combined force of Manipuris led by Maharaja Gumbheer Singh and the British, ending in the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826. Following this, the Burmese forces recognised the sovereignty of Manipur in Ava and the transfer of Assam to British India. It was also through this route that the British advanced into Manipur in 1891 and, following the Anglo-Manipur War, occupied Manipur.
In the early 1990s the Centre announced its Look East Policy, for trade and commerce with the Southeast Asian countries. Trade with Myanmar through Moreh was legalised in April 1995. The now-infamous National Highway 39 — Dimapur-ImphalMoreh — has become Asian Highway No 1.
Through this highway, Moreh provided not only food but also fuel when the Manipuris in the Imphal Valley were caught in between the numerous bandhs and blockades imposed by the Nagas and the Kukis. While the former demand the integration of Nagainhabited areas of Manipur, the Kukis want the creation of Kukiland carved out of Naga-dominated Senapati district.
Today, travelling along the Imphal-Moreh road, particularly from Tengnoupal to Khudentabi, has become a nightmare, thanks to overjealous 24 Assam Rifles personnel assigned to check every vehicle that passes. The journey by bus usually takes three hours but what with checks and searches it invariably stretches to more than five hours. The Assam Rifles personnel suspect all passengers to be either drug smugglers, arms couriers or insurgents on the run.
This highway was very much in the news recently when women of Tengnoupal blocked it, protesting against the harassment of travellers by 24 Assam Rifles personnel. This came after the AR men stopped a pregnant woman and a stroke victim from proceeding to Imphal for treatment and made them walk more than a kilometre. Union home minister Rajnath Singh reportedly apologised on behalf of the Assam Rifles through the press at Moreh.
Today, Moreh is a bustling town with a flurry of renewed activity. There are hotels with rates ranging from Rs 300-600 a day. Now every Union minister who comes calling makes flying visits to Moreh before returning to New Delhi.
The Manipur Development Society has tastefully constructed the India-Myanmar Friendship Gate. Before entering Myanmar, intending visitors have to display identity cards. Once inside the Myanmarese territory, one suddenly has the feeling of being in a friendly country. Those willing to go beyond the border have to deposit their identity cards and, after paying Rs 10, an immigration card is issued that is valid up to 5 pm. In this case, visitors have to leave their identity cards with the Myanmarese authorities and collect the same on their return.
After a few minutes’ autorickshaw ride (Rs 20) one finds oneself at Tamu, Myanmar&’s last border outpost. Today, it is a fast growing town with clean and wide streets and smiling faces. There are restaurants and beer parlours. One can buy anything from ruby-studded jewellery costing over a lakh of rupees to Chinese-made generators and water pumps. Then after a quick lunch of Burmese delicacies washed down by the beverage of one&’s choice, the return journey begins. At the border again we were searched by Assam Rifles men.
Despite informing the Assam Rifles PRO about our visit and showing our press credentials, we were again searched at Khudentabi. The only solace being that we did not have to queue. There were several goods-laden vehicles from Myanmar waiting. The drivers and helpers had to unload and reload their goods, taking as many as two to three hours.
As of now, it is no longer the NSCN(I-M) or the Kuki National Army disturbing free movement between India and Myanmar, but the Assam Rifles — the 24th battalion to be precise.
The writer is the statesman&’s Imphal-based special correspondent