Tamils at Moreh
Traders of all hues in general and Tamils in particular at Moreh where there is the legalised border trade since 1995 are among those who rejoiced the landslide victory of the NLD in the recent elections in Myanmar. They are now very hopeful that the trade between India and Myanmar will be reverted back to pre-1995 system under which they will retrieve the lost ground. Many traders who had migrated elsewhere to open new business have started returning to Moreh to stake small business centres.
The infamous "8.8.88" upheaval in Myanmar was the turning point in the bilateral relations. Hundreds of student activists and pro-democracy campaigners were allowed inside Moreh while Thailand sealed its border. One refugee camp was constructed at Moreh. However Myanmarese army came there mingled with traders and shouted at the inmates to return home failing which their family members shall face the music.
Fearing a commando rescue they were shifted inside the 8 Manipur Rifles camp deep inside the district. The Indian government also persistently refused to hand over these "criminals". As a protest Myanmar pulled out of the joint counter insurgency operations which had a crippling impact.
Despite the sour relations the border trade which had been there since time immemorial was legalised in 1995 and it sounded the death knell for the trade dominance by the Tamils. V. Sekhar, president of the Moreh chamber of commerce and Tamil Sangam Moreh says that about 200 Tamils came to Moreh in 1960-61. Eventually it was increased to 13,000. Now there are 4500 and 3600 of them are included in the voters' list. However most of them had left Moreh to open business elsewhere since these Tamil traders who were earning five figure profit daily were marginalised at the point of starvation.
Several displaced Tamils said that they were doing thriving business in some cities in Myanmar. But in 1960 crippling restrictions were imposed on these Indian origin traders. If a trader wanted to visit another town he had to furnish minute details covering several pages.
The same official rigmarole is there on arrival in the other town. Besides the slothful officials took their own time to process the documents. An elderly Tamil with a high sense of humour said that nobody could reach the other town in time for funeral and could arrive only at the child birth in case of weddings. That is why most of the traders of south Indian extraction decided to return to the land of their forefathers despite the fact that they had to leave everything behind.
Their business acumen prompted them to rush to Moreh, a nondescript, backward and neglected tribal hill station. Their calculation was not wrong since this little heard place was transmogrified to an El Dorado within months. Some urchins who had to drudge as dish washers in the local hotels or daily wage earning porters could become millionaires within a short time.
The modus operandi was that hundreds of Myanmarese traders came to Moreh every morning trudging with headloads in the mountain bridle paths. The Tamil traders bought the goods in bulk to sell to the Indian traders at a premium in the Evening market. But ahead of the legalisation of the trade the Myanmarese government had constructed the shopping complex at Namphalong adjacent to international gate. It meant that the role of the middlemen Tamils had become redundant since Indian traders and tourists just crossed the gate for the shopping binge. Besides there is the thrill of visiting the foreign market. One could travel to Tamu town, about 30 km away where many other items including contraband goods are available. One has to pay Rs 10 as Immigration fee at the international gate and the taxi fare is just Rs 10 or 100 Kyats. For those who are adventurous there are bicycles for hiring for a pittance. But all Indians should return by evening failing which they are arrested.
The half constructed marketing complex at Namphalong was torched two times. Highway leading to Moreh was blocked and memos submitted to the union government to rescind the trade legalisation. There was no official response. The last ditch battle was a short attempt to wean the Indian traders and tourists off Namphalong by selling all foreign goods at cheaper prices at Moreh. This failed to evoke any response since there was no sheen or thrill.
Because of the extortion of illegal taxes and grease money at various places the Indian goods are very costly when these reach Moreh. The Myanmarese could get same or better quality items manufactured in other countries at reasonable prices.
Virendra said that Myanmarese customers opt for those items manufactured in China and other SE Asian countries since they are comparatively cheap. Traders like him have to hang around at Namphalong and whenever a customer is interested in the Indian goods which is a very rare phenomenon they rush to Moreh to fetch the same.
Almost all the wooden shops at Moreh are closed down. Moreh becomes a ghost town at night with no power where there is uninterrupted power supply and bars with dancing girls at Namphalong. An Indian could visit these places till mid night.
Despite the disappointing scenario some diehards continue to stay put at Moreh and keep their salt box shops open. Mani is the owner of a shop that sells hair growing tonic. It is another story if he has thinning hairline. He explained that there is a possibility that democracy will be restored and Suu Kyi will become the president. In such an eventuality trade will be reverted and we will once againbecome prosperous. He and many others now realise that their 20 years wait was not in vain.
Modest estimate for the daily business transaction without illegal firearms, explosives and narcotic drugs is around Rs 1.5 crore. Though most of the items imported and exported do not appear in the approved list of trade. India should be getting a hefy revenue since trade at Moreh is the biggest in the NE region. Nirmala Sitharaman was not happy during her recent visit that the account books appeared to be cooked.
She tongue lashed the officials who could not give any coherent explanation. She asked them to spruce up before her next visit. For ages Moreh has been a hen that lays golden eggs at the cost of the state exchequer. It is alleged that most of the government employees bribe the higher ups to get posted in Chandel district where Moreh is located. At the stretch of hardly 70 km from Pallel to Moreh there are more than 14 "check posts" where officials exact their pound of flesh. This is in addition to insurgents and highway robbers. Since all these expenses are added the prices of the imported items are very costly in India.
Dr Win Oo is a medical graduate from Yangon. But soon after graduation he fled his country in 1988 as he had some communist connections. He has been running a four bedded private clinic at Moreh basically to treat villagers from across the border. Being poor villagers they can give him some chickens, vegetables and handloom clothes to him. Aung Mynt is a student activist and he fled to Moreh along with others. He has been running an office in exile to quarterback the pro-democracy movement in his country. People like them are hopeful that shortly they will be able to return home and meet family members and other near and dear ones.
Some sombre Tamil elders said that if they cannot retrieve the lost grounds all of them will be going elsewhere since it is a question of their survival. But they are glad that they are leaving behind a Hindu temple, the second biggest in the NE region, at Prem Nagar a little distance away from Moreh. Posterity will realise that once there were Tamils at Moreh. They seem to have scripted their own obituary in this hilly town.
(Some names have been changed to protect privacy).
( The writer is a senior journalist based in Imphal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)