Recently, the Young Lai Association, the second-most influential ethnic organisation in Mizoram, issued a statement expressing their feelings of betrayal by people they call “brothers and sisters from Burma,” whom they have sheltered and cared for since the Myanmar coup. The group also announced their intention to further restrict the movement of Burmese refugees in the state. While this announcement may seem surprising and at odds with the image of inclusivity that Mizoram has been projecting, the situation is much more complex and severe.
The YLA’s press statement comes in response to the killing of three Mizoram individuals, one of whom was a YLA member, in the Indo-Myanmar border region of Mizoram by suspected CDF militants. The CDF is an ethnic resistance movement in Chin state that enjoys widespread public support in Mizoram. The press release lays bare the deep frustration in the state over the unwarranted refugee crisis and the Mizo public’s sense of betrayal by the Burmese they have been sheltering. Many of these refugees are their ethnic kin, like the Chins, who are essentially northeast Indians who happen to be on the Burmese side of the border due to sheer bad luck.
Behind the mask of acceptance for refugees that Mizoram projects – and while we call this projection, we must not fail to mention that Mizoram does indeed provide asylum and has been the only state in India to accept refugees from all corners of Bangladesh and Myanmar, both Chins and non-Chins, on humanitarian grounds – the popular narrative in Mizoram is that Burmese refugees and non-refugees are given shelter and free rein in Mizoram, only to betray their hosts by engaging in crimes such as smuggling drugs and illegal items into Mizoram and disrupting the political atmosphere.
Since the Myanmar coup, crimes such as murder and smuggling have risen sharply, with many of the criminals involved being of Myanmar origin. This narrative and feeling of betrayal by the Burmese refugees towards the Mizo people is natural and not a new idea. It has been a decades-old notion that forms an integral part of the complex relationship between the Mizo and Chin people.
While the state continues to support refugees from neighboring countries, many locals are blaming the so-called ‘Burma Ho’ – Burmese people – for the vices and misfortunes that Mizoram is experiencing.
It’s true that some Burmese refugees may be contributing to the problems in Mizoram, but it’s unlikely that a poor registered refugee could single-handedly run an entire cartel or smuggling ring. but it’s important to remember that not all ‘Burma Ho’ are necessarily Burmese refugees.
A popular theory in Mizoram suggests that the ‘Burma Ho’ are buying out and occupying various spaces in Mizoram, from entertainment and property to business. These ‘Burma Ho’, according to the theory, are not necessarily refugees but are integrated into Mizo society, hold dual citizenship, and travel freely between Myanmar and Mizoram.
While their presence is a topic of discussion in Mizoram, it’s important to remember that not all the information being shared about them may be accurate.
One Mizo lady who rents a shop in Mizoram recently shared with me that she was facing challenges with a ‘Burma Ho’ who rents a shop upstairs. The lady claimed that the ‘Burma Ho’ upstairs wanted to occupy her space and had been trying to get her evicted by the landlord.
Whispers abound in Aizawl and Champhai of powerful ‘Burma Ho’ buying out businesses with questionable sources of income. But are these rumours grounded in reality or mere conspiracy theories? The truth remains elusive, as the citizenship of those accused is difficult to confirm.
What is certain, however, is the claim that ‘Burma Ho’ are dominating the entertainment space and even dipping their fingers into the politics of Mizoram. Since the military coup in Myanmar, Mizoram has not only welcomed refugees from Burma but also a flood of Chin personalities who have taken the Mizo music industry by storm. The Mizo public embraces these artists with open arms, but questions linger about their status.
Are they Burmese refugees or Myanmarese travellers visiting Mizoram on a visa? The answer is shrouded in ambiguity. One thing is clear: their Burmese origin is a crucial part of their fame and they belong to the group known as ‘Burma Ho’. These celebrities are showered with accolades traditionally reserved for native Mizo artists and seem to spend most of their time in Mizoram, though they occasionally appear in Myanmar. So are they refugees or do they possess special travel permits allowing them to move freely between Myanmar and Mizoram?
The answer remains frustratingly out of reach. All we know is that they can move between India and Myanmar for reasons unknown and benefit from the ongoing situation.
In an interview with Hornbill Digital Network, a cable TV channel based in Lamka, one of these stars revealed that he was from Tahan, a town in Myanmar, and had always lived there for the most part. When the interviewer asked if he missed home, assuming that he had fled the war in Myanmar and found success in Mizoram, the star’s answer was surprising. Apparently, he was not a refugee but a Myanmarese living and conducting business in Mizoram under a law with which we are unfamiliar.
As the refugee crisis deepens and the narrative of ‘Burma Ho’ bringing gloom and doom to Mizoram gains popularity, Mizos are starting to ask questions. Incidents like the killing of three people from Mizoram by suspected Chin rebels have upset the entire state and raised concerns about the danger of Chin politics being propagated by these so-called ‘Burma Ho’ inside Mizoram.
Recently, Mizoram artists and Chin artists currently living in Mizoram under an unknown status collaborated to create a beautiful music video calling for an end to the war in Myanmar and urging support for refugees.
While most were captivated by the beautiful voices and lyrics of these talented artists, politically-minded individuals were quick to point out the name used by this combo group: ‘Chinlung Chuak’ artists. Some criticized the alleged appropriation of Chhinlung, a mythical place in Mizo creation myth, into Chinlung, which they saw as an attempt to subsume Mizo identity into Chin identity.
While this may sound silly, the critics have a point. Many Chin historians and nationalists in Myanmar have always attempted to subsume Mizo identity into Chin identity and reject the notion of Chin and Mizo being separate nomenclatures.
This is actually factual, as Chin is not a recognized tribe in India. To be termed or called a Chin is to be declared non-native to Mizoram or India. Especially considering the situation in neighboring Manipur where Zo people are being targeted and called Chins despite none of them ever being called Chin or Chin not being a recognized identity – it being solely used to tarnish and remove the indigeneity of Zo people in the state – Mizoram does need to be careful with the Chin narrative that is being peddled around as it could one day become a huge political issue.
Despite this, many Chins from Myanmar and even some natives of Mizoram continue to peddle the Chin narrative online and openly mock Mizo identity. It is crucial to educate the gullible population of Mizoram on ethnic and racial issues, which have now become weapons.
Despite all that has been mentioned and said in this article, I must stress that what Mizoram is doing right now is a great thing for Zo people and humanity as a whole. Mizoram is on the right side of history. In every region of the world with a refugee crisis, certain problems and issues are bound to arise.
The Mizo people are not evil simply because they are questioning things and are angry about certain happenings in their state. They are completely justified in their anger and their will to help their brethren, and it is their right to feel how they feel.
However, one must also not generalize the entire Burmese refugee population or even the ‘Burma Ho’. Sure, they may have had some negative impact on the state, but the state has also benefited from their presence.
The Mizo music industry, which employs thousands, is booming, especially after the arrival of these artists from Myanmar. Mizo artists also collaborate and profit from it. It is not only the ‘Burma Ho’ who profit from the refugee crisis in the state; many Mizos also directly benefit from all the hustle – both legal and illegal – that has happened in the state since the arrival of asylum seekers in Mizoram. What’s even more important is that Mizos are helping fellow Zo people (although many Chins would refuse to be termed Zo).
What I fear most is that incidents like the killing of three innocent people by suspected Chin rebels and the ongoing onslaught of smuggled materials from Burma will crush the already depleted spirits of the Mizos who are alone on this humanitarian journey. We may see a repeat of 2003, which would be most undesirable and would make Mizoram a loser despite everything it has done.
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Let us hope and pray that Mizoram will continue to have the strength and patience to cope with its many crises and remain a beacon of hope. One thing I truly admire about the Mizo community is its ability to soften its heart. The current show of humanitarian assistance by Mizoram towards refugees from all sides, regardless of ethnic group, would have been unimaginable in the 2000s. But here we are, with Mizoram taking in more people than it can handle and sacrificing its limited resources for the greater good. It is crucial that Mizoram never loses its true essence and remains Mizo.
The article was originally published on The Mizos. It has been republished here after due permission. Views are personal.
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