The number of Myanmarese nationals entering India through the northeastern borders, to flee the brutal crackdown by a repressive military regime, has put the Modi government at the Centre and respective states in a fix. The number is estimated to be 1300-plus, including some 500 Myanmarese police and fire services personnel, as per official sources.
The police officers claim they are fleeing junta orders to shoot at unarmed demonstrators thronging the streets in the civil disobedience movement against the February 2021 military coup.
Since the initial reports of the influx, Myanmar has asked India for the return of the ‘defecting police personnel’ who displayed resistance to the repressive crackdown orders.
Mizoram CM Zoramthanga takes a humanitarian view of Myanmar refugee crisis
The nearly 1400 km-long Indo-Myanmar land border has always been a crucial factor in India’s Act East policy and foreign policy towards Burma, even under past military regimes. During the current crisis, most of these vulnerable citizens have crossed over to Mizoram which shares a nearly 400 km-long porous boundary with Myanmar, connected through several roads and the shallow Tiau river, with no fencing present.
Many are reportedly accompanied by their families including women and children.
Also Read | Our duty to shelter Myanmar refugees: Mizoram CM
The Centre wants these ‘illegal migrants’ to be identified and deported, but Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga has assured all possible help to those seeking protection in India.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), in a letter dated 10 March — to the four states sharing borders with Myanmar, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Mizoram — and the Assam Rifles, stated: “the state governments have no powers to grant ‘refugee’ status to any foreigner.”
Instead, defying the Centre’s stand, CM Zoramthanga has provided shelter and refuge to these foreigners, thus, taking a humanitarian view of the crisis.
He also held video consultations with Zin Mar Aung, the Myanmarese Foreign Minister, on Sunday, calling it a fruitful meeting in his tweet. “Our thoughts and prayers are with #Myanmar in these trying times,” he wrote.
Earlier, he also wrote a letter to Prime Minister Modi ‘seeking immediate intervention’ over the military coup in Myanmar, and ‘urging food and shelter for Myanmarese’ who are seeking refuge.
Implications Of Myanmar refugee crisis For neighbouring Mizoram
The issue is more complicated for the small state of Mizoram, as the refugees from Myanmar belong to the Chin ethnic group comprising Lai, Tidim-Zomi, Lusei and Hualngo tribes — related to the dominant Mizos. International Director of CHRI (Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative) Sanjoy Hazarika explains:
“The Indian government has to pay heed to voices on the ground. This is a leader of small but significant state with a long border with Myanmar. Mizoram has a long history of strong ethnic cross-border connections. He (Zoramthanga) is pointing to the humanitarian crisis reflected in the internal political crisis in Myanmar.”
The kinship between Chins and Mizos stems from shared language, ethnicity and religion.
Hazarika further told this journalist:
“Zoramthanga was, in an earlier time, also an insurgent leader of the Mizo National Front — which embraced the Indian constitution in 1987 and laid down arms. He’s lived in these areas. Just trying to stop or prevent people from coming in will not help in the short, mid or long-term resolution of the issues in Myanmar.”
Spotlight Back on India’s Handling Of Refugee Crisis
The ongoing Centre versus States spat on the issue has also raised questions once again about India’s refugee policy or the lack of one.
In the recent past, India has earned criticism for its handling of the persecuted Rohingya refugees, including 81 in a boat fleeing from a dire Cox Bazar camp in Bangladesh who were stopped by the Indian Coast Guard on the Andaman Sea, and both Delhi and Dhaka refused to accept them.
Now New Delhi finds itself once again at the centre of criticism for its refusal to protect refugees — this time, non-Rohingya Myanmarese nationals.
Raising the issue in the Rajya Sabha last week, K Vanlalvena of the Mizo National Front cautioned: “Being the largest democracy in the world, it is the responsibility of India to encourage and support any struggle to protect and uphold democratic rights and principles. They are our brothers; sending them back to Myanmar will mean killing them.”
India’s ‘Reluctant Refugee Policy’
India is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol. The fate of victims applying for naturalisation and refugee status are left at the mercy of our central government. Human rights activists argue that the issue of compensation, repatriation, reparation is part of international law.
And though India is yet to ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment — despite signing it in October 1997 — it should still uphold the principle of non-refoulement under the international human rights law.
Sanjoy Hazarika said, “India does not have a refugee policy. But we need to remember that there is a common law which is associated with human rights: that you cannot send people back to a country where they are facing credible threat to life and persecution.”
In the past decades, though even without a refugee policy, driven by domestic political and geo-strategic considerations of the day, India has provided shelter to thousands of foreign migrants in South Asia from Tibet, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, who were fleeing persecution, war or natural disasters.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of January 2020, the Indian Government directly provided protection and assistance to 203,235 refugees from Sri Lanka and Tibet, while 40,859 refugees and asylum seekers of other nationalities are registered under the UNHCR’s mandate.
Fate of refugees remains vulnerable amid BJP’s nationalism & CAA-NRC
A standard operating procedure (SOP) was issued in 2011 by the Central Government and amended in 2019, which has to be followed by law enforcement agencies while dealing with foreign nationals who claim to be refugees.
But the fate of refugee groups — especially from the minority Muslim communities such as the Rohingya — remain vulnerable amid domestic religious nationalism of the BJP and increasing socio-economic constraints unleashed by a pandemic.
It is further complicated by the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and a proposed National Register for Citizens (NRC).
The Rohingya ethnic group from western Rakhine in Myanmar, bordering Bangladesh, have been described by the United Nations as the world’s most persecuted minority.
As of late 2020, reportedly more than 1 million Rohingya refugees are sheltered in inhuman condition in cramped refugee camps in Bangladesh, and hundreds of thousands remain in Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, with an estimated 14,000 in India.
Some human rights groups allege that the UNHCR in Delhi is under pressure to not issue temporary identity cards — particularly to Muslim refugees — today, even as they are detained in centres by security agencies or forcibly deported.
‘Refugees aren’t asking for permanent asylum; all they need is temporary protection’
Gayatri Singh, a senior human rights advocate in the Bombay High Court, who — in the past — has fought several refugee application cases in court, says it is imperative to have domestic laws to protect these stateless people. And that this is mirrored in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
“Everyone knows Myanmar has problems, more so now. All that refugees are saying is just protect us till the situation improves and we are allowed back. They are not asking for permanent asylum,” she says.
Gayatri Singh adds: “They should be protected. India should basically allow them to remain here and get protection in terms of facilities available to citizens like education, food, ration, other facilities of residence, without any harassment from the police, till the situation improves. They are eligible to be issued ID cards till they have a safe passage. When the military is going out to kill, maim and silence dissent after the coup, there is all the more reason to protect them.”
Why Indian govt ‘can’t pursue open door policy’ on refugees ‘without being misunderstood’
Retired diplomat and former Indian envoy to Myanmar, Gautam Mukhopadhyay, strikes a measured tone. Asked about how the world would look at India’s refusal to allow protection to Myanmarese nationals, he reminds that the international community on issues like Rohingya refugees “has been loud on words but has done precious little”.
He tells this journalist:
“The message to the international community is probably less important at this juncture than the messaging to our northeast that has sympathy for the victims of the military crackdown in Myanmar. But yes, if India takes a tough stand on refugees and asylum-seekers, India’s reputation as a humane country — willing to lend a hand to victims of oppression — may suffer.”
Weighing in on the sensitivity of the Centre-State equation as well as Indo-Myanmar ties, he adds: “In the current circumstances, the Centre can hardly pursue an open door policy without being misunderstood. So, it has to convey reserve. In actual fact, it is likely to pursue a more humanitarian policy on the ground that balances bilateral and state sentiments.”
International spotlight on Myanmar
Months after the 8 November 2020 general election results saw a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD) under the leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar military or the Tatmadaw alleged the results to be fraudulent, deposed the elected civilian government and declared a year-long state of emergency on 1 February 2021. Some 2,000 people including President Win Myint, State Counsellor Suu Kyi, political civilian leaders, activists and journalists have been ‘arrested, charged or sentenced’ — and more than 250 are feared dead in shootings since the coup, according to the human rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
A group of noted scholars, writers, jurists and civil society members, in a letter to External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar, on 8 March wrote:
“The political instability created by the coup in Myanmar can have far-reaching implications not just within Myanmar, but also the region. Notably, it could disrupt the peace processes in India’s sensitive northeast, which shares a long land border with Myanmar, by opening the space for renewed insurgent activity.”
Indonesian President Joko Widodo, has called for an urgent meeting of Southeast Asia’s regional grouping, of which Myanmar is a member. Malaysia, Singapore too have condemned the use of lethal violence against civilians. The issue was also discussed at the Quad summit level meeting between India, US, Japan and Australia.
In an address at the Ananta Aspen Centre on 15 March, Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla, expressing deep concern on the Myanmar situation said: “The international community must work together and lend its meaningful support at this critical juncture, so that the people of Myanmar do not suffer. We are working in the UN Security Council in a constructive manner to facilitate balanced outcomes that could assist in resolving the situation.”
When Prime Minister Modi heads to Dhaka this week for the birth centenary of ‘bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 50 years of the 1971 war of liberation, clearly the crisis in Myanmar will be a key subject on the dialogue table with Sheikh Hasina.
(Smita Sharma is an independent journalist and tweets at @Smita_Sharma. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own.)
This story first appeared on The Quint.