Aizawl: The year was 2011. Lian Suan Thang had just joined the Myanmar Police. Just one year ago, Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy figure and the leader of the National League for Democracy, had been released. It marked a crucial period in Myanmar’s transition to partial democracy. Thang, the father of four, wanted to send his children to the best colleges and universities in the country and abroad if possible. He wanted to keep alive the hope of seeing “a full-fledged democratic Myanmar” one day.
Then came February 1, 2021.
Thang watched his dreams and hopes dashed to the ground as the democratically-elected government was overthrown by a military coup. Within a few days, Thang went from having a comfortable job to looking for daily wage labour in a ‘foreign’ land. Reason? He defied the ‘order’ to shoot peaceful protesters.
All he can dream of now is getting refugee status and political asylum in India, as it is uncertain when, or if, he will return to his country. Even if he does, the quantum of punishment could be severe – either life imprisonment or “death.”
“We can have no bigger dream than being granted a refugee status here (India). We urge the Indian government to provide us with political asylum and allow us to take refuge on humanitarian grounds. Our future is uncertain even if the civil government is established there (Myanmar),” the 32-year-old police officer, who hails from a township in Myanmar’s Chin state tells EastMojo.
Thang, along with 18 police personnel escaped to Mizoram and arrived in a border district on March 11 after wading across the Tiau River that runs along much of Mizoram’s 510-km border with Myanmar. They began their journey on March 9.
They had to flee their country after defying the order to shoot protesters and joining the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) on March 6.
Recalling their escape to Mizoram, the police officer, whose wife and children are hiding in a remote village in Myanmar for the fear of retribution, says they were intercepted by the military on the way but somehow managed to escape under the pretext of attending a wedding ceremony of a relative near the Mizoram border.
Manual labour on daily wage
Thang, along with other deserted policemen, works at a quarry on the outskirts of Aizawl, while other refugees work at construction sites as daily wage labourers to meet their daily expenses and supplement the donations received from voluntary organisations.
They are housed (accommodated) by a Burmese migrant in Aizawl.
Defied order to shoot protesters
“We received the order to shoot the protesters if they refuse to disperse. As a policeman standing for the protection of civilians, how can I shoot them?” says Songsian, a 24-year-old low-ranking policeman from Tedim in Chin state as he cooks a meal in a small kitchen attached to a packed room. At least 30 people, including 4 females, most claiming to be police personnel, have taken refuge here.
Songsian says the Myanmar military personnel used them by forcing them to stand at the front to face protesters, while the security personnel issued orders from behind.
Songsian had to leave his parents, a one-year-old daughter, and wife behind.
He says that the thought of their safety has not let him sleep at night, especially after he lost contact with them following the internet shutdown in Myanmar a few days ago.
Zamkhanhau, a 26-year-old security officer with a rank similar to corporal, says, “We had no option but run for our safety after joining the CDM and deserting the police department.”
The security officer from Chin state sneaked into Mizoram on March 13 along with 10 policemen. Local voluntary organisations in Myanmar helped them flee to Mizoram.
He says he was ordered to shoot protesters. Instead, he ran from the line of duty and hid in a forest, before finally escaping to India with the help of his family.
The newly-married officer says many of them would refuse to return to Myanmar even if a civil government is established in the neighbouring country for fear of “being given a death penalty” as he is unsure whether they will be pardoned on their return.
“We came here to take refuge not because we are willing, but out of compulsion. We don’t know how long we can live at the mercy and donations of NGOs and kindhearted people. We wish that the Government of India provides us shelter and relief on humanitarian grounds,” Lawh Niang, a 22-year-old woman, who claimed to work for the Tedim police unit, says.
Like others, Niang also belongs to the Chin community, which shares ethnicity with the Mizos of Mizoram.
Resolution not to be part of police
Chin Niang, 24-year-old police personnel who escaped along with her 26-year-old husband who was in the fire department, says she would no longer consider a police job after, and if he returned to her country. People now have a strong abhorrence for the police or military dresses, she adds.
She requested the Indian government to not deport them and instead provide them with asylum.
The six districts of Mizoram—Champhai, Lawngtlai, Siaha, Hnahthial, Serchhip and Saitual—share a 510-km long, unfenced, porous border with Myanmar’s Chin state.
Mizoram and Myanmar’s Chin state share a strong bond of ethnicity, culture and religion.
Both Mizos and Chin people belong to the same ethnic group- Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi. They live across India, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
They are commonly referred to as “Zo hnathlak” (Zo ethnic people or tribes) and claim to have migrated from Central China.
Interestingly, the Zo hnathlak in Mizoram adopted ‘Mizo’ as a nomenclature to refer to all the tribes under the Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi group. In Myanmar, the Zo hnathlak are called ‘Chin or Zomi’, while in Manipur and other parts of the Northeast, they are referred to under different nomenclature known as ‘Kuki or Zomi.’
The Chin communities are made up of different Zo hnathlak tribes like Lai (Lai mi), Mara, Paite (Zomi/Tedim), Hualngo, Lusei, among others, who are also found in Mizoram.
For instance, the Mara and Lai people have separate Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) in Mizoram under the sixth schedule of the Indian constitution in the southern districts of Siaha and Lawngtlai, which share the border with Myanmar.
The Paite (Zomi) tribe also has its development council in Mizoram known as Sialkal Range Development Council (SRDC), which was carved out of an area close to the Myanmar border.
People on either side of the border visit each other due to the existence of the free movement regime (FMR), which allows people living along the border to travel 16 km across on either side for 14 days.
People in Myanmar and Mizoram also have familial and kinship ties across the borders from time immemorial.
For decades, Mizoram and Myanmar’s Chin state witnessed cross-border migration. There was significant migration from the Chin state during the 1988 uprising, also known as the 8888 nationwide popular pro-democracy protests.
Zo-Reunification Organisation (ZORO) general secretary Lalmuanpuia Punte, a well-known figure among Mizos, who works for the integration of the Zo tribes, says about 1 lakh Chin people from Myanmar had fled to Mizoram to take refuge in the state in the wake of a crackdown on pro-democracy protests during the 1988 uprising.
While many have returned to their country, thousands of these Burmese migrants have permanently settled in Mizoram but still maintain close contact with their relatives in Myanmar, he added.
Not only the Chin, but Mizos too migrated to Myanmar during the insurgency period of 1966-1986 when a secessionist movement spearheaded by the Mizo National Front (MNF), which is now the ruling party in the state, dragged Mizoram into a period of unrest and turmoil for about 20 years.
Differences on refugees
The Centre and Mizoram governments are now contradicting each other on the Myanmar refugees.
While the Centre wants to check the influx and deport Myanmar nationals, the Mizoram government argued that it can’t ignore the plights and sufferings of the Chin people because they belong to the same ethnic group with whom the Mizo share the same culture, tradition and religion.
On March 10, the MHA wrote to four chief secretaries of Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh and also the Director-General of Assam Rifles guarding the Indo-Myanmar border, to check the influx of people from Myanmar and also identify illegal migrants and deport them immediately.
The Mizos saw the MHA order as a diktat to send back their brothers and sisters to their country only “to be killed.”
Zoramthanga informed Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 18 that the MHA order was not acceptable to Mizoram.
He had also said that India can’t turn a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.
Also Read | Our duty to shelter Myanmar refugees: Mizoram CM
“It is our responsibility as human beings to provide food and shelter on humanitarian ground to our fellow humans (Myanmar nationals), who have taken refuge in our state in the wake of political turmoil following the military coup in their country,” the chief minister said while speaking to a foreign news outlet and leaders of Chin Churches in the United State via video conference.
The Centre’s reaction has also invoked a strong response from the Zo community.
“Thousands of people from Bangladesh and other countries have illegally migrated to India in the past, and the Central government accepted them as refugees and provided them with asylum instead of deporting them. But now, it has instructed the four border states to identify and deport the Myanmar nationals who have taken refuge in the country. This is clear discrimination on communities line,” R. Sangkawia, President, Zo Re-Unification Organisation (ZORO), a Mizoram-based Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi group representing the Zo ethnic people in India, Myanmar and Bangladesh, said while addressing a demonstration in Aizawl on March 23.
However, some NGO leaders in Mizoram are optimistic that the Centre will eventually have a soft corner for the Myanmar nationals, who have taken refuge in India, as it had done to the refugees from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and other countries.
Four northeastern states — Mizoram (510 km), Arunachal Pradesh (520 km), Manipur (398 km) and Nagaland (215 km) — share 1,643 km unfenced borders with Myanmar.
Note: Names of the police personnel (refugees) have been changed to protect their identities.