Memories of Myanmar
Manipuris hope the bus road to Myanmar reopens
Just across the international gate at Moreh in Manipur, Namphalong figuratively woke up every day only at sunset. The centre of activity were three bars. The beer would flow as thirsty travellers -- mostly tourists and businessmen from India who had crossed over from Moreh into Myanmar -- had a relaxed time. Loners would even ask the girls working in the bars for a dance as western hits blared out of music systems. Around midnight, the town would be quiet again as the Indians trudged back to Moreh because of regulations. Namphalong was paradise compared to Moreh which resembled a ghost town with no electricity and hardly any water to drink.
The bars are now closed down because the tourist buses have stopped plying to Namphalong and other cities and towns of Mynamar. The Myanmar Government has stopped Indian tourists from crossing over in buses and it blames the Indian Government for it. While their gate was open to Indian tourists, the goodwill was not reciprocated by the Indian side, it says. A series of arrests of Myanmarese nationals who entered India without documents and the Manipur Government proudly proclaiming it to mollify the anti-migrant campaigners at home was seen as provocative by the Myanmar Government. New Delhi, which has been diplomatically engaging Myanma,r too conveyed its displeasure at the action against the Myanmarese.
K. Sundergopal Sharma, a Manipuri origin Myanmarese national and a community leader, says, "Several of our people claim they have been denied permission to visit India. The official reason given to them is that road conditions are bad and the wildcat strikes will inconvenience them." The Myanmarese are disappointed. There are thousands of Manipuri-origin people in Myanmar and many of them want to travel to the land of their forefathers besides wanting to travel to Buddhist pilgrimage places like Bodh Gaya.
Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi denies any discrimination. "Visa on arrival facilities will be provided in Manipur,” he says. The Manipur Government insists there is no question of being anti-Myanmar. State Chief secretary Oinam Nabakishore says during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Myanmar, the issue of bad roads and unsafe bridges were pointed out. An agreement was even signed where India would spend Rs 371. 58 crore for the construction of 71 bridges inside Myanmar.
On the Manipur side, the longing to visit Myanmar is very much there. Kulachandra Potsangbam, a food technologist, who has travelled to some cities of Myanmar gushes about that country. "The travel agencies charge about Rs 30,000 per person for a ten-day conducted tour of the cities. The amount is chicken feed considering the sights you get to see."
The Indo Myanmar Friendship Association and some others have been organising tours from Manipur to various parts in Myanmar. But here lies the problem. Though the Tulihal airport in Imphal has been upgraded to an international airport, there is no flight to Myanmar except during the odd tourism festival. This means that a tourist from Manipur has to fly to Kolkata and then take another flight to Yangon. The irony is that the distance from Imphal to Namphalong is just 110 kms!
And, the tourist misses out on the scenic road trip through mountains and forests besides the boat rides on big rivers. They miss out on the Manipuri temples, villages and the hugely welcoming Manipuri origin people living in Myanmar along the way. Tourists who used to go by bus would halt for a few hours at the picturesque fishing village on the Inle lake which is deceptively similar to Manipur's Loktak lake, the largest fresh water lake in India. They were struck by the differences in the lifestyles and economic activities of fishermen in Manipur and Myanmar. While Manipur was spending Rs 500 crore to clear floating biomass concretions in the Loktak Lake to check pollution, the Myanmarese were protecting concretions and, clearly, benefitting from it.
Kulachandra tells NEzine the difference between Inle and Loktak. “At Inle lake, vegetables of the finest quality are grown on commercial scales. Millions of fish are thriving in the lake." Rajkumar Shivachandra, a member of the BJP, has also been there and was stunned by the development. "It will sound incredulous to the people in Manipur but there is uninterrupted power and potable water supply to the fisher folk of Inle lake. They watch cable television after a day’s hard work. They are healthy, immune to water borne diseases.”
There is a lot of nostalgia about Myanmar in Manipur. At one time there were some 500,000 people of Manipur origin living in Myanmar. Many Manipuris embraced Buddhism after settling down in Myanmar. Thousands of Manipuri girls married Burmese boys. Says S Sundergopal Sharma, “The Manipuris migrated to erstwhile Burma for various reasons. Initially, it was for economic reasons. But many of them were also taken as prisoners of war by the invaders. Many also fled to Burma to escape the invaders from Assam and China. From lakhs, their population has now dwindled to less than 10,000.”
People in Manipur are keeping their fingers crossed that the Myanmar Government opens up the bus route again. If that happens, hopefully, the bars in Namphalong would once again open its swinging doors to Indians out for a night of fun, food and mirth.
( The writer is a senior journalist based in Imphal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)