The Indian government has been in a stand-off with the Mizoram state government for the past few weeks. The reason: their differing stance on how to deal with the ongoing refugee crisis from Myanmar.
The Union government doesn’t want to let in refugees. In March, the home ministry had asked the four north-eastern states sharing border with Myanmar to stem an “illegal influx” from Myanmar. With one eye on China, India also doesn’t want to strain the diplomatic relations with its neighbour. On 27 March, as the Myanmar security forces killed 114 protestors across the country, the Indian military delegation was spotted among the eight-nation military parade in Naypyidaw, Myanmar.
In sharp contrast, Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga has described the situation in Myanmar was a “human catastrophe of gigantic proportions”. In a letter to PM Modi last week, he wrote that India couldn’t turn a “blind eye to this humanitarian crisis” in its backyard.
On 17 March, a delegation from Mizoram, comprising Lok Sabha member C Lalrosanga, Rajya Sabha member K Vanlalvena, and two other members of its Mizo National Front (MNF), urged home ministry officials not to deport Myanmarese refugees on humanitarian grounds. Such deportation would not go down well with the people of Mizoram, they said, as the refugees who have sought shelter belong to the same tribe as the locals. For now, Mizoram might just have had its way.
In a phone interview with Mint on Tuesday, Rajya Sabha member K Vanlalvena, a member of the ruling MNF party in Mizoram, claimed that the border patrol at the Mizoram-Myanmar borders have started being more “lenient” towards the incoming refugees. The forces, he claimed, look the other way as long as the refugees don’t use the Zokhawthar bridge, a 50-foot bridge on the Tiau river that connects Mizoram’s Champhai district to Myanmar.
The two countries share a 500km border. Most parts of it are unfenced and porous, and allow for multiple points of entry. His support to the refugees, Vanlalvena added, is only a humanitarian gesture, and doesn’t extend to resettling them or granting them Indian citizenship. Edited excerpts:
You’ve been advocating the cause of Myanmar’s refugees in Mizoram for several weeks. Can you give an idea of the scale of the ongoing crisis?
There are an estimated 1,000 refugees in Mizoram today. There are no designated camps for them, so they’re scattered across 10-12 villages. Many of them have relatives across the state. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is taking down some of them to New Delhi. (Clarification: A UNHCR spokesperson denied this to Mint, adding that refugees are reaching out to them independently) The government of Mizoram is also preparing to distribute food among them. Yesterday, the chief minister gave some aid from chief minister’s relief fund. I don’t know the exact amount.
Initially, news reports said that the refugees from Myanmar belonged to the police, army and employees of the state. Are the people coming in still public servants or are there civilians as well?
Most of them are the Chin people. They belong to the same tribe as the Mizo people. Around 160 of them are from police and army. They aren’t Chin, they are real Burmese. They don’t speak the Mizo language but we have to take care of them on humanitarian grounds.
Have you interacted with the refugees?
I talked to them via a school teacher at Champhai town [near the Myanmar border]. I spoke to them 2-3 times. I asked them if they had any problems. They said they have none.
Where are they living? In what conditions?
At the beginning, they were in an indoor badminton stadium. Then Assam Rifles came to deport them. So the village council authority distributed them in private houses. There are no refugees in the auditorium now. All of them are living at their relatives’ houses.
You were part of the delegation that met the home ministry officials. What do you think of their response so far?
In the beginning, the [home ministry] had issued the order not to entertain [refugees]. They also gave instructions to Assam Rifles to make blockades at the borders. Now, it’s changed slightly. This order may not be withdrawn but I think they contacted the Assam Rifle brigadier – I don’t know for sure – but [the situation] is now lenient in the border area. Yesterday, many refugees have entered [Mizoram]. The Assam Rifles told them not to pass through the Zokhawthar bridge [connecting India and Myanmar]. They asked them to enter some other way, under the bridge or left or right side of the bridge... There’s no fencing [along the border]. It’s very easy to enter Mizoram. There are over 100 points to enter here and there.
This change in policy is more of an informal change, then?
That may be the result of meeting the home ministry and foreign ministry. Whenever we meet them, we ask the Union government to take care of the refugees. We don’t ask for citizenship. We ask them only to allow to stay there. After normalcy, you can send them back.
This is the second time in the recent years that India has seen refugees coming in from Myanmar. What do you think of the previous instance – the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis?
Any refugee from any community or religion, if they are seeking their life, we have to help them. Be it Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist or Christian... If they enter in Mizoram, we have to give separate status of refugees. When they live there, they have to work for their food, always. Sometimes we may help them but they have to work for their earnings, in a company or farms.
What do you think of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC)?
If refugees need shelter, we have to give shelter. Giving citizenship is a different matter. We have so many people coming from Myanmar now. They are our own people. We should give food and shelter in times of trouble in their own country. On humanitarian grounds, we have to help them.