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Mizoram's predicament over Myanmar refugees

Mizoram’s strong ties with communities in Myanmar mean it has absorbed refugees from that country. But the strain is beginning to tell

Champhai refugee camp in Mizoram. (Sadiq Naqvi)

By Ninglun Hanghal And Makepeace Sitlhou

LAST PUBLISHED 02.10.2022  |  07:00 AM IST

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On the narrow streets of Aizawl, one can barely recognise celebrity singer Benjamin Sum, known to his fans just as Sum. Dressed in black, a cap, and a mask covering his face, the 21-year-old runner-up of the 2019 reality music show Myanmar Idol blends in perfectly. As soon as he enters West Cafe in Dawrpui Vengthar, though, it becomes apparent that he’s a celebrity—the staff greet him with giddy smiles, patrons sneak a peek. He’s grateful for the warmth; it has been a difficult week, for his mother had to undergo surgery.

“By the grace of God, it went well," he tells us, reluctant to share details. Before they fled their hometown in Falam (Chin state) last year, following the military coup in Myanmar, visits to Mizoram used to be mostly for her medical checks. “My memories of Mizoram are mostly of the cancer hospital and Bethlehem Veng, where we live with our relatives," he says.

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In March 2021, after Sum joined demonstrations against the Tatmadaw, or military coup, his life took a dramatic turn. “There is a 505(b) case (intent to cause harm to or incite the public, under the Penal Code of 1861, with imprisonment up to three years) against me, which is why we had to flee." He, his mother and their corgi traversed thick jungle to reach the border at Champhai district in Mizoram that month. “I am a refugee now," he says.

Sum and his family are among the thousands taking refuge in the border state of Mizoram, where the government has welcomed those fleeing the military’s offensive against the resistance, both peaceful and armed, in Myanmar’s Chin state. Around 100,000 people have been displaced from their homes in Chin state—which shares a 510km border with Mizoram.

Many of them have sought shelter in Mizoram, according to a regional report in June by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They are surviving on donations raised by the local community and the church as well as aid from Chin refugees abroad, and, more recently, the Union government and international agencies. In the absence of clear directions from New Delhi, however, it may be tough to sustain this aid in the long term.

The first arrivals began in March 2021, a month after the military seized control in Myanmar. Since then, a few hundred to a few thousand refugees have been arriving in Mizoram every month. Chief minister Pu Zoramthanga, who has been appealing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for asylum for the refugees since last year, said the displaced have survived only because of the generosity of relatives in India—Chin refugees share ethnicity, religion and dialect with Mizos. “Many of them are guests of their relatives, while others are in camps. My government helped them because the Government of India helped me," he had told Lounge in an interview in May. The church, student organisations, non-profits and political parties had all contributed tremendously, he had added.

Benjamin Sum, who crossed over into Mizoram in March 2021. (Courtesy Facebook)

In a significant shift from his position last year, when Zoramthanga asked Modi for aid for refugees, his tone now is conciliatory. “The Government of India is very understanding at this time and we praise them even though we know they have a lot of limitations," he said. “They have helped us in every possible way."

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A response to a request filed by these correspondents under the Right to Information Act, 2005 with the government of Mizoram revealed that the Union ministry of finance allocated 37.6 crore to the Mizoram state disaster relief fund in 2021-22, up significantly from 18 crore in 2019-20 (under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, 10% of the funds allocated to a state can be used by it for events it considers “disasters" within its local context). A source in the Champhai district administration, where most of the refugees are staying, said about the same time that they had received 30 lakh in Union government funds from the state disaster relief department in 2021-22.

It wasn’t enough. Although he did not confirm the budgetary head or the amount disbursed, Zoramthanga said then that funding was a concern because the Union government was not a signatory to international refugee conventions like the Geneva Convention of 1951 or the New York Protocol of 1967. In the absence of a national policy, refugees are dependent on the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as “mandated refugees", while they await asylum in another country. Or, in the case of the Chin refugees in Mizoram, the goodwill of civil society groups and government funds that aren’t allocated specifically for them.

“To feed 30,000 people for months… it’s quite a problem for the government of Mizoram and the people at large," Zoramthanga had noted.

MIZORAM’S TRINITY

Tucked in the southern-most corner of the North-East, Mizoram lives in relative isolation from other states. Formerly the Lushai Hills of undivided Assam, it got statehood in 1987 after the Mizo Peace Accord, following years of conflict that saw air raids on the capital, Aizawl. The years since have been largely peaceful, though Mizos have never fully embraced vai-te (Indian) nationalism the way tribes in Arunachal Pradesh did post-statehood. Here, it is the Presbyterian Synod and civil society bodies like the Young Mizo Association (YMA) and Mizo Zirlai Pawl (student union) that rule the roost.

Wedged between Bangladesh and Myanmar, the hill state is no stranger to refugee incursions. In 1963-64, Chakma and Hajong refugees were resettled in camps in the Lushai Hills after the two communities were driven out of Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts. Tensions soared after the Chakmas established an autonomous district council, leading to riots and the displacement of thousands of indigenous Brus to neighbouring Tripura.

In contrast, the Chin refugees have not only been welcomed since 1988, during the first student uprising against the Tatmadaw, but have been allowed to resettle in the state. As of 1 June, the UNHCR in India estimated a total of 39,790 Myanmar nationals in Manipur, where they have not been registered officially, and Mizoram. Of these, 30,342 were in Mizoram, as of 25 June. More than 13,000 people have been living in 160 refugee camps in Mizoram, according to state government estimates.

“We don’t look at Myanmarese as refugees but (as) displaced people," says Mizoram University’s Prof. Lalnuntluanga, general secretary of the Central YMA in Aizawl. While district deputy commissioners have been tasked with looking after the refugees, he says the church and locals are involved too. “In Aizawl alone, we have three camps and the commissioner alone cannot manage it all," he says. “They need the local people, too, to provide for their requirements."

While several refugees have taken up jobs as daily labourers and domestic helpers or are running small businesses, most families are dependent on relatives in the state and overseas. Many from the 1988 generation, who found asylum in the West, are major donors. Student unions, the church and Mizo society have been organising charity concerts to raise funds.

The Farkawn quarantine camp, in September 2021. (AFP)

Sum has been at the forefront of attempts to raise money through concerts, held across the state and streamed online. He says he has lost count of the number of concerts he has performed in, along with local gospel singers. “I personally have gone and distributed donations at refugee camps all over Mizoram," he says.

Yet, civil society members say the model isn’t economically viable. Daniel, a Chin refugee in Champhai who goes by one name, says the concerts he helped organise in Aizawl and Champhai didn’t draw donations that were worth the time, energy and resources that went into them. “We raised 1-2 lakh at the most. Our expenditure was half the amount we collected," he says. Daniel refutes any suggestion that the charity concerts raised money for the resistance.

EARNING A LIVING

When Pu Chanpeng fled Tahan in Kalaymyo (Chin state) with his wife and three children in September last year and reached the border town of Zokhawthar in Champhai district, the 58-year-old small business owner didn’t imagine he would be running a refugee camp and a shop selling betelnut and Burmese snacks.

By November, with the help of local residents, a refugee camp had been built on a secondary school playground overlooking Khawmawi village. “The camp was constructed with donations from the village council. People contributed everything from 100-1,000," he says. “Even the MLA helped in raising 3 lakh." Every household in the village volunteered one member to help erect the bamboo walls, tin roofs and tarpaulin sheets that 470 refugees from Myanmar’s Sagaing division and Falam now call home.

As of 25 June, Mizoram had issued 30,089 identity cards, covering 99.2% of the refugees, H. Lalengmawia, the state home department secretary, told Lounge in July. The ID, or “Temporary certificate of identity of Myanmar nationals in Mizoram", attested by the district administration, enables mobility and allows them to seek a livelihood within the state.

But even those who have found work don’t earn enough to move out of the camps. Room rents in Champhai district start from 1,000 a month for one room and the most one can earn as a seasonal labourer is 350 a day. In the camp, one can count on a steady supply of basic food rations, including rice, dal, sugar, tea, oil and soya chunk nuggets. There’s an acute water shortage, though, with families forced to buy drinking water at 50 for a 20-litre bottle. And, while camp housing is reinforced with wood and aluminium roofs, it doesn’t have the concrete walls that would protect the occupants from extreme weather.

Last year, after the brouhaha between the Union and state governments on allowing refugee to settle, international groups like the Médecins Sans Frontières, Action Aid and World Health Organisation offered help. As the Centre does not formally recognise the refugees, many of the groups work discreetly.

This year, the non-profit Impulse has employed about 500 refugee families each in Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur to grow indigenous seasonal crops on community land. “We are providing food relief to people who are living in the community-based camps," says Impulse founder Hasina Kharbhih, who has been recognised globally for her work on controlling human trafficking in South and South-East Asia. Kharbhih, who has been working with partners in Myanmar since 2012, designed the project with long-term food security in mind. “The host community are supporting the refugees for multiple crop plantation in 300 acres of community land lying barren in each state," she says. “The food grown will be shared by the displaced and the hosts."

The trauma and financial hardship are not the only issues for refugees. It’s not easy to assimilate culturally into Mizo society, where the Lushei dialect reigns supreme. The UNHCR estimates 580 children among the new arrivals who have enrolled in government schools in Mizoram. The children are familiar with Lushei (written in Roman) but are used to studying in the Burmese script.

Sum is apprehensive of their future in a foreign land. “Food we can manage, but without education the next generation will be lost," he says.

ANXIETY LOOMS

Despite the bonhomie, several Mizos are anxious about the pressures on their state and are beginning to wonder how long it will be before locals start feeling the guests have outstayed their welcome. “So far, we haven’t received any complaints from the locals," says Prof. Lalnuntluanga. “Whatever resources we have, have been shared with the displaced people, but I don’t know what the perception will be a year from now, since we cannot support them forever."

The apprehensions are not unfounded, given that Mizoram is largely an agriculture-based economy with limited resources, especially when it comes to cultivable land—26.76% of the state is under reserve forest. The state is among the poorest in the country, whether it’s per capita income ( 2,10,629) or gross state domestic product ( 1,87,327), and is heavily dependent on Central assistance ( 4,083.24 crore in the 2022-23 budget).

An official from the Mizoram home department says, on condition of anonymity, that there is an urgent need to find a model for the “prolonged stay". “The assumption has been that they will leave in a year but what we need is a mid-term and long-term framework to accommodate them," he says.

Seeing the accommodation of Myanmar refugees as “a humanitarian duty", Zoramthanga had told us a long-term plan wouldn’t be needed if they could “shorten their stay.... There’s a possibility for making peace in Myanmar now very soon. All they need is someone to bring them together and this is where the Indian government can play a crucial role."

Prof. Lalnuntluanga, however, believes the state government needs to push the Centre to recognise the Myanmar nationals as “refugees". “That would ease the burden on the people of Mizoram to support them. The situation was particularly grim last year, when the second wave of covid-19 struck. “Fortunately, people still live by an old saying, sem sem dam dam eibil thi thi (share everything and avoid misfortune)," says Prof. Lalnuntluanga.

While making a fervent appeal for aid in his meeting with Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah last year, Zoramthanga said he had to recount his family history to get them to soften their stance. “I told them that two sisters of my mother lived and died here in India and their two brothers, my only two uncles, in Myanmar. If their children came to me, should I turn them back?" he recalls.

On 24 August, the Chin Human Rights Organisation reported that the influx of Myanmar refugees in India had crossed 50,000; state officials estimate over 29,000 of them are in Mizoram. The absence of an official Indian policy on refugees keeps coming up. Zoramthanga perhaps understands the predicament more than anyone else. “Given that the country is surrounded on every side," he said in May, “the government of India would be wise to make a policy which suits its functioning."

Reporting for this article was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G Buffet Fund for Women Journalists.

Ninglun Hanghal is a journalist based in Imphal. Makepeace Sitlhou is a Guwahati-based journalist currently at the Arizona State University as a Humphrey fellow.

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