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The Myanmar policemen who didn't want to shoot their own people

Many of the refugees coming to Mizoram are those who chose to flee than be part of the ongoing crackdown against civilians in Myanmar

Myanmar refugees at an undisclosed location in Mizoram flash the three-finger salute, a symbol of resistance popular in Myanmar inspired by the Hunger Games trilogy. Over 3000 people, including police and firemen, have crossed over to Mizoram after Myanmar's military staged a coup against the government in February. (Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters)

KR, 26, was a constable in the Myanmarese police. His work was arduous and paid little. After seven years in service, he earned the Indian equivalent of 17,000. “The senior officers also didn’t treat us well,” he says.

On 1 February, the Myanmar army staged a coup against the country’s democratically elected government. It arrested the ruling party leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and imposed curfew in most parts of the country. At first, life in KR’s village in Myanmar’s Chin state, only a few kilometres from the Mizoram border, remained unaffected. But just a week later, his colleagues and he were ordered to report to the police headquarters in the neighbouring city of Kalaymyo. A civil disobedience movement was sweeping the country and all policemen were going to be roped in to contain it.

The idea made KR squirm. It wasn’t that he had never used force against civilians or police detainees. “But if protesters went out of hand now, the army would have asked us to shoot them,” he says. His fears were not unfounded. As of the second week of April, the military forces in Myanmar had reportedly killed over 600 people and detained over 2,750.

Of its 1,468km border with India, Myanmar shares a 510km border with Mizoram. Most residents in the Chin state are from the Mizo tribe—also known as Chin people in Myanmar—and have close ties with those on this side of the border. Traditionally, India and Myanmar have had a “free movement regime (FMR)”, allowing locals to travel up to 16km and stay up to 14 days without visa in the neighbouring country. The FMR had been suspended since March 2020 due to covid-19 concerns but it didn’t completely stop the movement of people, for the border is largely unfenced. As KR discovered when he decided to flee, he only had to wade across the shallow Tiau river to enter India.

Also read: Why Mizoram is giving shelter to refugees fleeing Myanmar

KR shared his story via video call on WhatsApp. For nearly two months now, he has been living in a building under construction in Champhai, Mizoram. His wife and one-year-old son have joined him, and they live in one corner of a large hall, partitioned by bedsheets. Around 27 others from Myanmar live in the same hall. They have joined benches to form beds and use firewood for cooking, using ingredients supplied by the locals in Champhai. Most of the refugees are young men—a mix of police, army, fire brigade personnel and civilians—all democracy supporters trying to escape the Myanmar military regime and the harsh crackdown.

Robert Z is the general secretary of the Champhai chapter of the Young Mizo Association (YMA). Soon after the coup in February, he held a meeting with YMA’s members. In case the coup fallout led to a refugee crisis, they decided, they would organise relief and shelter.

The YMA-Champhai circulated a message about their resolution on social media. Volunteers started going door-to-door, requesting funds, food, clothing and other relief materials.

Three refugees arrived just a day after the announcement. Robert and other members initially hosted them in their own homes. A week later, they relocated them to a church building under construction.

This is where KR and his family now live. It’s also the first landing point for most Myanmarese refugees coming to Champhai -- around 200 of them until the first week of April. “Most of them have relatives in Mizoram,” says Robert. “We test them for covid-19 and if found clear, help them get to their relatives.”

A view of a border village in Champhai district of India's northeastern state of Mizoram, near the India-Myanmar border,
A view of a border village in Champhai district of India's northeastern state of Mizoram, near the India-Myanmar border, (REUTERS)

Robert’s initiative—adopted by dozens of YMA’s chapters across the state—is in sync with the Mizoram government’s policy. “From the humanitarian point of view, we have to give them food, we have to give them shelter,” Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga said in an interview in March. Over the past two months, an estimated 3,000 refugees have entered Mizoram, The Times Of India reported on 5 April. Estimates of refugees in other states aren’t in the public domain.

Mizoram’s policy is at odds with that of the Union government, which had asked the four North-East states—Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh—sharing a border with Myanmar to stem any “illegal influx”. the other 3 now share Mizoram’s view, no?

Robert Z is already on the radar of security officials. “The Assam Rifles called us many times to ask about the refugees. We say we don’t know,” he says. In March, two personnel from the local police visited the residence of a YMA member to inquire about refugees. “Then they asked if I had received any refugees so far,” the member said. “I said, none. If they had checked my place then, they would have found them. I had three of them living with me. Thankfully, they didn’t.”

“I think India is in a sensitive position,” says C. Lalrosanga, Lok Sabha MP from Mizoram. “I feel we shouldn’t have taken part (in the military rally) but there’s not much we can do.... India thinks of Myanmar as a friend and wants to ward off the threat from China. But we would like the government to come forward with stronger, more effective statements on Myanmar, and see refugees are allowed in Indian territories for the time being.”

Also read: How the government tries to muzzle criticism from the international community

Lalronsanga, along with Rajya Sabha member K. Vanlalvena, was among the four-member delegation which met the Union home ministry officials on 17 March and urged them not to deport Myanmarese refugees on humanitarian grounds. It seems to have had an effect. In an interview on 30 March, Vanlalvena told Mint the home ministry had asked border guards to use a “lenient” approach to Myanmarese refugees.

Nautisan, a policeman from Myanmar’s Tahan district who is now in Champhai, fled Myanmar on 22 February. After crossing the border, Indian soldiers stopped him and asked for his ID. “I didn’t have one. They didn’t arrest me, just asked me to go back.”

At this point, a local taxi driver told him to walk back and wait at a point. “It was a short-cut, without the army guards there,” says Nautisan. “The driver returned to pick me up and took me to Champhai.” No money exchanged hands, not even for the taxi fare. “He was also a Mizo, so I think that’s why he supported me,” says Nautisan.

The close ties between the communities go beyond a shared history and ethnicity. In 1966, several residents of Mizoram had fled to Myanmar to escape the crackdown against the pro-independence movement in the state. Many stayed for years, until the peace accord of 1988. “Now that they are in trouble, it’s our time to help them,” says Robert.

An Indian paramilitary soldier stands guard near the bridge on Tiau river along the India-Myanmar border in Mizoram, India, on March 20.
An Indian paramilitary soldier stands guard near the bridge on Tiau river along the India-Myanmar border in Mizoram, India, on March 20. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

“The Myanmar military is worse than Hitler,” says Kyaik Kyauk Thar, a second lieutenant with the Myanmar police force, who has been in Champhai for two weeks. “(During protests) it shot dead street vendors, including the elderly. They raided homes and arrested people at night.... I could have lived in peace if I had obeyed the orders of the military, but I stood by the innocent people.”

Thar lived in Yangon, more than 1,000km from Mizoram. On 7 March, he decided to flee to neighbouring Thailand but gave up the plan after hearing reports about the Thai government helping the Myanmar army with food supplies. Then, says Thar, he hired a “skilled driver” to take him to Mizoram. At the border, he crossed over with the help of locals who had been to India before.

Thar is aware that the official Indian policy doesn’t favour refugees like him. “But I am very grateful to India for letting us in,” he says. And what of the “security concerns”, often cited as a reason for not letting in “outsiders”? “We are not violators of the law, we are committed to peace, democracy and justice.”

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