Ngamreichan Tuithung runs a Christian boarding school that sits right at the border of India’s Manipur state and Myanmar. Amazing Grace Mission School is based in Wanglee Market, a small Indian town, and serves around 150 students from Myanmar and 6 from India.

Since Myanmar’s 2021 coup, the school has become a safe haven for parents wanting to send their children away from the violence of the war raging on in Myanmar. To Tuithung, it’s an opportunity to share with students and parents “about God’s love and how God is taking care of us.”

For decades, some parents in Myanmar (also known as Burma) have been able to easily send their kids to school in India, thanks to a government policy that allows citizens of either country living within 10 miles of the border to freely enter the other country without a visa. Many tribal communities share ethnic ties, familial bonds, and a way of life transcending territorial boundaries. Tuithung, who is from the Naga ethnic group, grew up in India but has many relatives in Myanmar. Because of their close ties, he can speak Burmese and visits them often.

However, all this will change as the Indian government proceeds with its decision to close the international border between India and Myanmar, which shares boundaries with four Indian states: Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram. India’s home minister Amit Shah says the action is needed to “ensure the internal security” and “to maintain the demographic structure” of northeastern India as the war in Myanmar continues. Plans include constructing a fence and implementing a surveillance system.

Tuithung believes that even with tightened borders, the government will provide a way for his students from Myanmar to continue attending his school, but he fears it would become more difficult for him to meet with his relatives or to buy goods from Myanmar.

“Religiously, linguistically, and ethnically, India and Burma share a good relationship,” Tuithung said. “The same ethnic groups, like the Naga, stay in both Myanmar and India. … If this border fencing is coming, both of us will suffer, as [we are] the same family.”

The move has sparked widespread outrage and exposed fissures within India's northeastern region, pitting the border states against each other and drawing intense opposition from tribal groups, political leaders, and civil society organizations who fear the consequences of severing their connections with kindred communities across the border.

Article continues below

While two state governments—Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh—welcome the decision that cites concerns of cross-border insurgency and illegal immigration, the Christian-majority states of Mizoram and Nagaland vehemently oppose the move.

Members of the tribal communities worry that the closure would separate families, hurt the local economy, and cut off a lifeline for people from Myanmar escaping war and violence. Christian workers along India’s border also believe it will impact their ministry, as many believers in Myanmar come to India for theological education and Indian missionaries enter Myanmar to teach. Of the 10 Christian leaders CT spoke with from the Mizo, Chin, Naga, and Kuki ethnic groups, nine opposed the border closure while one remained neutral.

“The border closure is like a Berlin wall erected between us,” said Chinkhengoupau Buansing, a pastor of the Evangelical Baptist Convention in Teikhang, a village in Mizoram near the border.

Concerns over the border closure

The controversy began in February when the Indian government announced its decision to scrap the decades-old Free Movement Regime (FMR), which allowed easy access for people living on either side of the India-Myanmar border. The FMR, introduced in the 1970s and last revised in 2016, facilitated social, economic, and cultural exchange between the communities, enabling them to maintain their deep-rooted ties despite the international boundary.

The Chin people in Myanmar, the Mizo of Mizoram, and the Kuki in Manipur share the same ancestors and inhabited the hill country in the borderland of India and Myanmar before the British divided the area into different countries in the 1890s.

“We come from the same tribe, we have the same surname, we are cousins from the same family line, we speak the same dialect, look the same, have the same food habits, practice the same culture, and worship the same God,” Buansing said.

Concerns of the border closures were raised this week after a gate guarded by Indian security forces at the Mizoram-Myanmar border stayed closed even after voting ended on April 21 for the Mizoram parliamentary seat.. Typically border gates are closed during elections to prevent any interference and then reopened afterwards. But this time, Indian border guards have kept it shut, citing an order from higher authorities. Residents in Mizoram fear that the government has already begun to revoke the FMR.

Article continues below

Border guards told locals that the gate would remain open until the end of the month only for medical emergencies, essential food, and medicine. Starting May 1, they intend to seal the border to prevent unauthorized cross-border activity.

Hemlaljudson Sonboy Lhungdim, a Christian leader from the town of Moreh in Manipur, said he did not support the closure because “people have relatives on both the sides, and many have mixed marriages where one of the spouses is from Myanmar,” he noted. “They would not be able to go back even during Christmas to celebrate with their families and then come back.”

Myanmar’s war spilling into India

India’s government officials say they are concerned that war in Myanmar could incite ethnic unrest in neighboring states. As Myanmar’s junta is busy fighting ethnic armed groups and civilian militias, the illegal drug trade and other criminal activities have skyrocketed in the country.

Home minister Shah noted at a recent election rally in Manipur that FMR has been misused to bring drugs into the country. He also claimed that “intruders are coming in and conspiring to change the demography of the State,” expressing fears that the porous border is contributing to the violence in Manipur that started last year between the predominantly Hindu Meiteis and the Christian Kuki.

Since last September, Manipur chief minister Nongthombam Biren Singh has demanded barbed wire fencing along the border with Myanmar to stop Myanmar nationals from entering his state illegally. He had appealed to the central government to scrap the FMR agreement, claiming that extremists had been exploiting it to stoke ethnic violence in Manipur.

“Many of the illegal arms used in the Manipur violence were smuggled from Myanmar and caused much harm to the people of Manipur,” according to a source in Manipur who asked not to be named for security reasons.

Yet critics argue that this position is aimed to draw attention away from the government's internal security failures. The state government has been accused of fanning tensions to consolidate its Meitei support base—a charge that it has denied.

However, the move to close the border has faced fierce opposition in Nagaland and Mizoram. In Nagaland, tribal organizations, Naga political factions, and civil society groups oppose the border closing. For chief angh Tonyei Konyak of Longwa Village, which lies directly on the border, it would divide not only his village, but even his own house into two separate countries. The Naga Students’ Federation, a majority Christian students’ group, has asked the UN secretary general to urge the Indian government to stop the program.

Article continues below

K. Vanlalvena, Mizoram’s sole representative in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament, wrote a letter to Shah opposing the proposed removal of the FMR and called it a “shocking” and “unfair” development for the people living along the border in his state.

Cutting off a lifeline

The border closure’s impact would be felt most heavily by the Chin people in Myanmar, many of whom see India, especially the border towns, as a lifeline. While Chin people have long fought Myanmar’s military junta for greater autonomy, fighting has intensified in the past three years as the Chin were one of the first to resist the military after the coup. The military has bombed villages, destroyed churches, displaced nearly 50,000 people in Chin State, and placed seven of the nine townships under martial law..

Although India’s central government initially called for Mizoram to stop refugees from coming into the country, the Mizoram government and its people pushed back, providing shelter and aid to those crossing the border.

“We call [the Chin] our brothers and sisters,” said Mizo activist and theologian Lalrinawmi Ralte, who aids Chin refugees through the Zo Reunification Organization. “Once they cross over the international boundary, they are safe here. They don’t die of starvation.”

Today about 32,000 Chin refugees live in Mizoram, along with 1,100 Kuki-Chin fleeing ethnic persecution in Bangladesh and 9,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Manipur, according to the Mizoram’s Home Department. Ralte noted that the government of Mizoram, local nonprofits, and residents have provided food, medicine, and other necessities to the refugees. Yet as the war in Myanmar dragged on—now in its third year—the Mizo, many of whom are struggling financially themselves, have little left to give. Jobs for refugees are also few and far between, as many live in small villages.

With no help from the central government and political policies making it difficult for foreign groups to provide aid, Ralte said the work sometimes felt helpless. Now it will become even more difficult to help Chin across the border. Despite letters to the prime minister and protests in the streets against the border closing, nothing has changed.

Article continues below

“Our people are not a wanted people,” she said. “[The government] only wants our land. It’s very pathetic at this junction to be a minority in India; minorities are not safe.”

Vanlalchhana, the head of Myanmar Refugees Relief Committee Mizoram and a Chin refugee who has lived in Mizoram for the past 25 years, is concerned that India will no longer be a safe haven for people fleeing the violence, as crossing the border would be illegal.

The closure would also block off communication between Chin refugees and their family members back in Chin State, he says. Because some regions of Chin State are completely controlled by Chin resistance fighters, refugees could sometimes go back to Myanmar to visit family. Refugees told Vanlalchhana (who goes by only one name) that they are worried that once the border is sealed, they will no longer be able to do that.

“I think everything will be affected if they totally seal the border, because every day, morning and evening, people go back and forth across the border,” he said. “It’ll be very difficult.”

The India-Myanmar border
Image: Christianity Today

The India-Myanmar border

Peter Ngaidam, a Chin church leader now living in Norway and an activist in the Global Chin Christian Federation, noted that the border closure would severely impact Chin refugees in Mizoram’s ability to send aid, like rice and medicine, to IDPs who remain in Chin State. Many of 50,000 people living in IDP camps rely on supplies from churches across the border.

“We are very sad about India’s central government approving to close the border; personally I do not agree with them,” Ngaidam said. “We have concerns for IDPs and families and churches in Chin State because we have only that way to support our families and coworkers who are suffering.”

Still, leaders of the church told Ngaidam that even with the new policy, they will continue to provide for their families in Chin State even if it means crossing the border illegally.

Economic concerns

Many residents in the border states are concerned about the economic implications of the closure. India is Myanmar's fifth-largest trade partner, with bilateral trade reaching $1.03 billion in 2021. The border closure could disrupt this economic relationship, as communities rely on the cross-border trade of products ranging from chemical compounds, machinery, and textiles from India to vegetables, wood products, and metals from Myanmar.

Article continues below

Lhungdim noted that in Moreh, the vegetables and rice on his dinner table are grown in Myanmar. “In Moreh, we have no cultivation,” he noted. “All our groceries come from Myanmar. If the same came from [Manipur’s cities of] Imphal or Churachandpur, the prices of the same commodities will be tremendously high—because of the road tax and all the transportation cost and other taxes that would be included.”

Because Myanmar’s currency is valued lower than India’s, those on the Indian side can get a good deal, and the sellers in Myanmar also get a fair price. Amid the war, many women, children, or older people from Myanmar rely on selling goods in India to support their families, said Onkho Haokip of Kuki Baptist Convention, who lives in Churachandpur, Manipur’s second largest city.

“If they are prohibited from crossing the border, where will they sell their stuff and sustain themselves? They will perish in poverty,” Haokip said. “My heart goes out for the community in Myanmar, for they are the major sufferers.”

Effects on missions

Khinlakbou Ringkangmai, the founder of Doulos Institute of Theology and Missions, feels conflicted about the recent border announcement. A resident of Imphal, the capital of Manipur state, he says he can understand the government’s reasoning that closing the border would provide greater security. “Not all the people coming from Myanmar are good,” Ringkanmai said. “Some people are coming to India with bad intention; they came to Manipur and they join in insurgency and try to create problems.”

Yet from a missions perspective, he added, the border’s closure “badly affects the spreading of Christianity in Manipur and Myanmar, as many Burmese students have gone to India … to get theological training.” Once the borders close, they’ll lose out on that opportunity. Many of the students don’t have the money to get passports or visas and have been able to enter India through the FMR.

Currently Doulos has only 12 students, a drop from 30 last year, due to the violence in Manipur. Some of his students transferred to schools outside the state or returned to Myanmar.

“Once the border is closed, I won’t have any Burmese students for theological training,” he said. “Many Bible schools will have a decreasing number of students.”

Mission groups operating along the border are also bracing for potential disruptions to their activities. Kuki Baptist Convention’s Haokip stressed the importance of Indian missionaries going into Myanmar to meet with believers and “help them in different capacities,” which will not be possible once the borders are sealed.

Article continues below

“The border is the gateway for our mission strategy,” Haokip said. If the border is closed, “our mission work is crippled. We were free to cross the border without visa, [to] go and share the gospel … stay there, and come back.”