With weapons and narcotics all across—it’s easy to be spoilt in Moreh
Strips of pseudoephedrine dumped in a graveyard in Moreh. Photo: Sudeep Chakravarti/Mint
It’s easy to be spoilt in Moreh. “Beretta? Glock? Llama? Smith and Wesson?” offers one arms procurer. He leans back on a worn sofa in his modest house jammed in a typically crowded ward of this border town in Manipur.
Moreh is marked as India’s key transit point to Myanmar on the ribbon of a planned Asian Highway route—Route 1—linking Southeast Asia with West Asia through India. A Land Customs Station is in the process of being upgraded; it is to be integrated with immigration facilities. A truck park is planned. Perhaps a “mineral park” for Myanmar limestone, copper ore and such.
A regular bus service is to link Manipur’s capital Imphal to fabled Mandalay via Moreh. Products and people from both countries and points beyond will move seamlessly, officially. That’s the hazy future. For now, the underbelly is the belly. Weapons that come in to India. Narcotics of various shades and grades that travel both ways. Imported timber. Red sandalwood from Karnataka priced at Rs.2,500-3,000 a kilo, prized in Myanmar, Thailand, even China.
There are more innocent products: Indian-made pharmaceuticals, fabric for the ubiquitous Myanmarese longyi, juice, chocolate, infant food, tyres for Bajaj autorickshaws—one takes me on a 15-minute ride to Tamu, the nearest town in Myanmar that falls within the radius that Indians are permitted to travel without a visa, from morning till 5pm. In reverse flow arrive LED lamps, blankets, toys, consumer goods, Godzilla brand mosquito repellant, even yongchak beans practically worshipped in Manipur. Official trade data for Moreh with the ministry of development of north eastern region places two-way trade at a little over Rs.4 crore for 2010-11.
Mostly betel nut was imported, cumin seed exported. Mostly agricultural products and medicine are permitted to be traded without application of duty. Unofficial trade figures? Officially incalculable. The duty paid is to government officials, security overseers, and rebel groups. To weapons. The handguns carried by my arms procurer host fire 9mm shells. Llama and Smith and Wesson retail at his arms deli for Rs.1.5 lakh and Rs.1.8 lakh apiece, Beretta and Glock at Rs.2 lakh per piece. Cash only. (Rupees work across the border in northwestern Myanmar.)
The man is one of several weapons procurers in town who feed some Kuki rebels groups, occasionally Naga rebel factions, and an assortment of other Northeastern rebels. (Some rebel groups bypass those like him to directly deal with the source.) He lets me record our conversation and take notes, but requests anonymity. In a place with a population of about 40,000 and tight communities of Kuki tribals, the non-tribal Meitei, the Islamic Meitei Pangal, and Tamil, Sikh and Nepali folk displaced by Myanmar’s decades-old ethnic cleansing, the smallest clue can be a giveaway.
The man claims he would then be open to harassment by—read: additional payoffs to—Manipur’s police, central paramilitaries, and various factions of rebels in Manipur who are at once purchaser and protector. Worse, he might end up dead. I ask him: what about assault rifles? He offers several Kalashnikov copies and variants. AK 47s brought in courtesy of Thai suppliers and from Myanmar’s autonomous Shan state; AK 56 and Type 81s “from China”.
There are ageing American M-15s and M-16s sourced from Thailand. Weapons come used or in “packing”—a term for brand new weapons. Accessories are naturally available: ammunition, sniper scopes, laser guidance, silencers. What else? “Landmines, grenades, RPGs (rocket-propelled grenade launchers)…” Earlier, I visited a nearby village to see dumps containing thousands—even tens of thousands—of emptied pseudoephedrine strips. The medicine is extracted and then transported to Myanmar for use in manufacturing methamphetamines: “speed”.
Then I visited a woman who sells a grade of heroin called No. 4. A “shot” costs Rs.100. Among an estimated 150 such sellers in Moreh, she claims to sell 15 grams of heroin in a couple of days to residents and visitors. Her sponsor pockets Rs.18,000 a day. She profits by Rs.2,000 daily. But like her sponsor, she also needs to pay the local police, bureaucracy and rebels. As I talked to her, in an adjacent room, users injected heroin.
It is now evening. Locals promise smoked fish, Myanmar brand beer or the smoother Dali from China—available openly in Moreh, part of a state where prohibition is law. There’s even Blenders Pride whisky the vendor says is sourced from the “army”, to pass on at Rs.750 a bottle. Free trade? You bet.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s forthcoming book is Clear-Hold-Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His previous books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land.