‘Brothers and sisters’: Indian village shelters Myanmar nationals

Al Jazeera visits village in northeastern Mizoram state along India-Myanmar border that hosts hundreds who fled the coup.

A police officer who fled from Myanmar following a military coup looks out to the mountains from an undisclosed location bordering Myanmar, in the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram [File: Anupam Nath/AP]

Mizoram, India – Dozens of residents are gathered at the Vanapa Hall in Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, a small tribal-dominated state in northeastern India that borders Myanmar. They light candles and carry placards, denouncing Myanmar’s military coup and the subsequent crackdown on anti-coup protesters.

At the demonstration held last week, the crowd raised the three-finger salute, a symbol of resistance in Myanmar as a young woman sang Kabar Ma Kya Bu, a ballad first sung following a similar coup in 1988 which has now become the anthem for protesters after the latest one.

The protest in Aizawl was organised by Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP), an influential students’ group in Mizoram.

On Saturday, MZP, along with other civil society groups, organised charity concerts, where people donated more than 500,000 Indian rupees ($6,900), according to an MZP office-bearer, to help Myanmar security officials and nationals who fled the coup.

At least 300 people have been killed in Myanmar as the military government continues its crackdown against anti-coup protesters since February 1, when the coup took place.

Since then, according to K Vanlalvena, a legislator from Mizoram, “the number of migrants is more than 1,000 spread across the state”.

‘Brothers and sisters of Mizos’

But there are differences between Mizoram and New Delhi’s handling of this exodus from Myanmar.

While the state government is sympathetic to those fleeing the coup and demands they be granted asylum, the latter is issuing instructions to not allow anyone to cross the border lest it becomes a full-blown refugee crisis.

But the local community in Mizoram has stepped in to support those fleeing the crackdown.

The people in Farkawn, a small village nestled on a hilltop overlooking the Chin Hills along the India-Myanmar border in Champhai district, have opened their houses to more than 300 Myanmarese citizens, some of them claiming to be police and emergency services officers.

“When they arrived, we went house to house and asked people if they can give food, shelter. Many responded to the request,” said K Lalmuankima, president of the local unit of Young Mizo Association (YMA), an influential community organisation.

“All refugees are Chin people. They are brothers and sisters of Mizos,” Lalmuankima said, pointing towards three Myanmarese citizens taking shelter in the house Al Jazeera visited.

Hkaw, 22, clad in a green longyi (traditional garment) and blue jacket, claims to be a constable from Thantlang in Chin State. He said he escaped after the military started cracking down on protesters.

“Every day, 2,000-3,000 people would hold demonstrations. We were ordered to fire rubber bullets and tear gas shells at the protesters,” Hkaw said.

“We cannot follow such orders. They are capturing community leaders and sending them to jail,” he said as two other Myanmar nationals nodded in agreement.

All three of them had joined Myanmar’s anti-coup Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) before escaping to India.

The host family in Farkawn, meanwhile, readied their morning meal – rice, boiled vegetables and meat.

“These people have come leaving their home and families. They want a democratic administration in their country,” said the head of the family hosting them.

“Even if more people come, we will keep them,” he said, requesting anonymity.

The residents in Mizoram are apprehensive about giving out details of the people they are hosting after the federal government’s instructions to state authorities to prevent the influx.

In the districts headquarters of Champhai, the local community groups held a meeting on Sunday where they decided to not allow any journalists to meet the Myanmar migrants.

“We are under pressure. You have to understand,” an office-bearer of a local organisation told Al Jazeera.

Camp Victoria

But the trickle of Myanmar nationals crossing over and seeking shelter continues. Many of them took refuge at Camp Victoria, the headquarters of Chin National Army (CNA), one of many ethnic armed groups in Myanmar with a history of conflict with the Myanmar army.

Camp Victoria is right across Tiau river on the India-Myanmar border, with a small bridge linking the two nations in this remote frontier.

The first sign that people from Myanmar were contemplating fleeing to India came when CNA leaders approached the Farkawn village authorities for permission for their families to cross over in case of hostilities with the Myanmar army.

With reports saying some Myanmar army personnel had moved in close to Camp Victoria, YMA’s Lalmuankima said there is a fear of conflict between them and the CNA.

“The camp is not safe anymore,” said Hkaw, who stayed at the camp before crossing over. Locals say fears of hostilities between CNA and Myanmar army forced them to cross.

Sources on the Indian side dismiss the reports as exaggerations and say the Myanmar army may have moved in to prevent people from entering India.

The CNA signed a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government in 2012. The group was also among signatories to a 2015 National Ceasefire Agreement of Myanmar.

Families on both sides of border

“If the Myanmar citizens who are our blood relatives come here seeking help, we may help them,” said VL Chama Hnamte, a YMA official.

“In many cases, same families are living on both sides of the border.”

Hnamte has two uncles and other relatives living in Myanmar’s Chin State.

In the Christian-majority state of Mizoram, community organisations such as YMA and MZP are often the first responders from the civil society in times of crisis in Myanmar.

The YMA, modelled along the lines of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), has a presence in every corner of Mizoram, boasting at least 400,000 members among the state’s 1.1 million population.

“Zo people were divided by the British between India, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The British came, conquered us and divided us,” said R Sangkawia, president of Zo Reunification Organisation (ZORO), a group which aims to reunite the Zo people spread over the region.

Sangkawia, an octogenarian, was an armed member from 1966-1972 of the Mizo National Front, which led a secessionist movement till 1986 when it signed a peace accord with India.

The group later formed a political party that is currently in power in Mizoram.

“In the Chin hills, we are called Chin; in Mizoram, Lushai; in Assam, Manipur, Tripura and Bangladesh, we are called Kuki,” he told Al Jazeera.

Assam, Manipur and Tripura are three other northeastern Indian states.

“During the insurgency, Chin people gave us shelter,” said Hnamte, who was also part of the MNF during the revolt.

This is not the first time that migrants from Chin have arrived in Mizoram. The state has thousands of such migrants, many of whom came in 1988 after the Myanmar army’s crackdown on Chin fighters.

There have been instances of strife between Chin settlers and Mizo groups such as the YMA, with the latter blaming them for indulging in “crimes and illegalities”.

However, when some Myanmarese citizens arrived in Champhai for refuge, it was the local YMA unit that stepped in and handed them over to other community groups.

Community groups walk a tight rope

In its instructions to four northeastern Indian states and paramilitary forces stationed in the region, New Delhi has made it clear it does not want Myanmar citizens as refugees and ordered them to stop the influx.

India is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention or its protocols.

New Delhi’s order has forced community organisations in Mizoram to become wary of openly sheltering Myanmar nationals while walking a tightrope of avoiding confrontation with the authorities as they try to strike a balance between close ethnic ties and Indian laws.

“We give them shelter only after they cross the border,” said PC Lalrawnliana, the YMA secretary in Champhai, clarifying that the organisation was not helping people cross the border.

In Farkawn, when the Assam Rifles paramilitary force arrested 14 Myanmar nationals seeking shelter earlier this month, Lalmuankima said he requested them to let them stay and did not protest when they were pushed back.

“Assam Rifles told us that they have orders to push them back,” he said. “We have no right to protest,” Lalmuankima emphasised. “They came without permission of the village authorities.”

Others who avoided arrest were accommodated by local families. Al Jazeera met two women who arrived to join their spouses, who had crossed over earlier.

“Earlier, the people who came were CDM supporters. The people who have come now are civilians,” said Lalmuankima.

Demand for sanctions

ZORO, meanwhile, has demanded that the Indian government put sanctions on the Myanmar military and pressure it to release government leaders. It has also demanded that India treat the migrants from Myanmar as refugees.

“Those who come here should be safeguarded as refugees as per international law. They should not be pushed back,” said Sangkawia.

“Blood is thicker than water. We have sympathy for them (Myanmar nationals).”

Amid this local pressure, the state government has also backed the migrants despite New Delhi’s tough stance.

Last week, Mizoram’s Chief Minister Zoramthanga spoke to Zin Mar Aung, who was appointed acting foreign minister by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw comprising members of the deposed National League of Democracy government in Myanmar.

Zoramthanga referred to her as the foreign minister of Myanmar. “Had a fruitful meeting (online) this morning with Zin Mar Aung, Hon’ble (sic) Foreign Minister, Myanmar. Our thoughts and prayers are with #Myanmar in these trying times,” he tweeted.

On March 18, Zoramthanga wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying the Chin and Mizos have had close contact even before India became independent.

“India cannot turn a blind eye to this humanitarian crisis unfolding right in front of us in our own backyard,” he wrote.

Source: Al Jazeera