‘Death sentence awaits us’: Coup-hit Myanmar officers in India

Dozens of Myanmar police officers and citizens who fled February 1 coup to India now face an uncertain future and fear for their families back home.

Kunga (name changed) at an undisclosed location in Mizoram where Myanmar citizens are taking shelter [Sadiq Naqvi/Al Jazeera]

Mizoram, India – Weeks after the February 1 military coup in Myanmar, Kunga, a 24-year-old low-ranking member of the Myanmar army, was ordered a new set of duties: to spy on the civil disobedience movement (CDM) protesters in Tonzang town of Chin state.

Soon after, he deserted the military, joined the CDM and escaped to neighbouring India.

Kunga is among dozens of Myanmar security officials and citizens who have escaped to the northeastern parts of India amid a military crackdown on anti-coup protesters. Reports say at least 180 people have died in the violence in Myanmar.

A group of Myanmar citizens at an undisclosed location in Mizoram [Sadiq Naqvi/Al Jazeera]

There is no clarity on the number of Myanmar officials and citizens who fled the country to Mizoram and Manipur, the northeastern Indian states along the border.

Sources in Assam Rifles, India’s paramilitary force guarding the 510km (316-mile) India-Myanmar border, said an estimated 264 people have crossed over, with three-quarters of them being police personnel.

Sangchin Chinzah, a senior official in Mizoram’s home department, said the state government has no clear estimates. “I have no idea. It’s impossible to do a headcount as many are living with relatives,” she told Al Jazeera.

K Vanlalvena, a Member of Parliament representing Mizoram, said the number is increasing hourly.

“I have some reports that more than 400 have already entered Mizoram,” Vanlalvena said on Wednesday, a day after he appealed to the Indian government to allow them into the country as refugees.

The appeal from Vanlalvena, who represents Mizo National Front – the political party currently in power in Mizoram – came after New Delhi made it clear the Myanmar refugees were not welcome.

A group of Myanmar citizens who claim to be police at an undisclosed location in Mizoram [Sadiq Naqvi/Al Jazeera]

At least eight Myanmar nationals have either been returned to Myanmar by Assam Rifles after directions from New Delhi to not allow anyone to cross over.

A community leader in Farkawn village on the India-Myanmar border said 14 people from Myanmar who had arrived on Monday were sent back by the Assam Rifles.

‘They are my people’

Kunga, however, managed to cross the border on March 7 after a four-day journey.

He said he left on a motorbike, hiding from the military and abandoning the vehicle in a village. He walked for two days to the Indian border and waited near the Tiau river before crossing over.

“I was ordered to detect the location of the CDM members and their other details. They are my people,” Kunga told Al Jazeera, sitting in a large hall in Mizoram, where at least 25 people, most claiming to be policemen, have taken shelter.

Even though Kunga showed a green identity card, Al Jazeera was not able to independently verify his claims of being a police officer.

“I did not want to follow orders,” Kunga said as he showed a photo of himself on his mobile phone, wearing military fatigues.

“I feel sorry about how the troops are shooting protesters. Those [doing the] shooting have families. How can they shoot other families?” he asked.

Kunga is a Chin, one of the many ethnic groups of Myanmar concentrated in Chin state neighbouring Mizoram, a small, tribal-dominated hill state in India.

Most people currently seeking shelter in Mizoram are Chin. The Chins and Mizos have shared ethnicity and many have family ties on both sides of the border.

Marli and Vankung (names changed), a couple who claim to be Myanmar police, at an undisclosed location in Mizoram [Sadiq Naqvi/Al Jazeera]

“We did not want to arrest the protesters,” said Marli, a 30-year-old woman who claims to be a police officer from Tedim in Chin state, clutching the hand of her 29-year-old husband, Vankung, who is also a policeman.

They married two months ago, days before the military coup which removed the civilian government in Myanmar.

“When the people would come out to protest, the officer would ask us to arrest them,” said Vankung.

The couple also carried their identity card but Al Jazeera was not able to independently verify their claims.

The couple, which arrived on Sunday morning, has taken shelter in a large hall of a building under construction overlooking a lush valley, where they are living with at least 25 others.

In the hall, everyone sleeps on the floor, on mattresses and bedsheets provided by the residents, using their backpacks as pillows.

There is palpable anger against the Myanmar military among this group of dissenters.

“We love people. The military government was forcing us to hurt the people. This is why I left the job,” said Suan, who said he worked as a police constable in Tedim.

A group of Myanmar citizens at an undisclosed location in Mizoram [Sadiq Naqvi/Al Jazeera]

Suan escaped Myanmar with several other people on the night of March 9, his belongings stuffed in a small, purple backpack. Like many others, he left his family behind.

Families not safe back home

Bad news awaited Kunga after he crossed over to India.

“A relative told me my father was arrested back home soon after I left,” he said. “I don’t know his condition,” he said. His father is a 63-year-old carpenter.

Kunga said he is now scared to even call his family. “They will arrest the person I contact on the phone,” he said.

Others seeking shelter have similar fears. Suan said he is worried about his wife and a two-year-old child he left behind. Out of fear, he has only spoken to his family once.

“I told my wife that if Myanmar stays like this and the democratic government does not return, I don’t know for how long I will have to stay in Mizoram,” Suan told Al Jazeera.

“In this situation, how can one be sure of what would happen to us in future?” he asked.

Many fear they will be repatriated to Myanmar. India is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention.

In a directive issued on March 10 to the states bordering Myanmar, India’s federal home ministry instructed the authorities to take “prompt steps in identifying the illegal migrants and initiate the deportation processes expeditiously and without delay”.

“That [repatriation] might happen,” said Marli. “We will try to hide if they start sending us back.”

Suan said he has joined the CDM. “It is very dangerous for us in Myanmar,” he said.

But Kunga is hopeful India will eventually provide them with refugee status.

While India has no policy framework for refugees, many Chin people who crossed over to India during earlier episodes of unrest in Myanmar have been given refugee cards by the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. Many of them live in capital New Delhi.

“If that happens, I will call my family here. Else, I will do manual labour here,” he said, gazing at the Lushai hills from the window of the hall, his temporary home in Mizoram.

“If the Indian government catches me and sends me back, a death sentence awaits me in Myanmar.”

Names of Myanmar citizens have been changed to protect their identities.

Source: Al Jazeera