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Christians flee Myanmar to take refuge in India

Christian-majority Mizoram state is sheltering nearly 16,000 refugees from its conflict-torn neighbor

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Published: May 26, 2021 07:48 AM GMT
Christians flee Myanmar to take refuge in India

Mourners pray during the burial on May 20 of Lian Muan Sang, an 11-year-old boy who was killed after handling an explosive device in western Myanmar's Chin state. Many Christian refugees from Chin are crossing the border to seek refuge in India's Mizoram state. (Photo: Tedim Post/AFP)

Thousands of people from Myanmar, most of them Christians, are fleeing to bordering Mizoram state in India as the military continues its crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in the Buddhist-majority nation.

Mizoram state has officially informed the federal government in New Delhi that nearly 16,000 Myanmar refugees are now residing in the state, which neighbors Myanmar’s Chin state.

Most who fled to India share an ethnic affinity with Mizo people in Mizoram and have family relations with people in the Christian-dominated state.

In a letter to India's Ministry of External Affairs, senior Mizoram government official H. Rammawi said 15,438 people from Myanmar have taken shelter in Mizoram.

“The number of Myanmar refugees in Mizoram is increasing day by day,” he said.

State capital Aizwal alone has more than 6,000 people who fled Myanmar, according to the letter. With some 300,000 people in Aizwal, the influx would mean a 2 percent increase in the city’s population.

The refugees are residing in camps and individual houses with support from NGOs and social workers

“The official figures might be still on the conservative side as many Myanmar nationals were staying in the homes of their relatives in Mizoram without disclosing their Myanmar background,” said Mozez Sailo, a social worker in Aizawl.

The refugees are residing in camps and individual houses with support from NGOs and social workers, Sailo said.

Christians, mostly Baptists and Presbyterians, make up about 87 percent of Mizoram's 1.15 million people. Catholics number only some 40,000.

Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga’s Mizo National Front (MNF) is an ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

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Zoramthanga reportedly said that the state would welcome any ethnic Mizo or other Myanmar citizens facing persecution for participating in pro-democracy protests in Myanmar.

The exodus of Myanmar refugees, mainly belonging to the Mizo ethnic group in Chin state, began following a brutal military crackdown on protesters in February.

The military, which took power by disposing of the elected government in a Feb. 1 coup, is continuing its armed action to crush a civil disobedience movement.

Sources said those who fled Myanmar include government employees, policemen and fire service personnel after the junta ordered them to take action against anti-coup protesters.

A Mizoram state official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said those who fled to Mizoram include at least 20 lawmakers elected in Myanmar’s November 2020 general election.

India shares an unfenced border stretching 1,643 kilometers with Myanmar, covering the four Indian states of Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. Mizoram alone shares a 404-kilometer porous border with Myanmar.

Due to diplomatic and strategic issues, the Indian government has not recognized the incoming people from Myanmar as refugees.

Close to 5,000 people have been arrested, including politicians, journalists, lawyers and community workers

The federal Home Ministry headed by Modi's trusted lieutenant Amit Shah recently directed the chief secretaries of four northeastern states “not to entertain” Myanmar refugees.

The federal government has also instructed para commandos of an anti-insurgency crackdown force to seal the border and prevent entry from Myanmar.

India does not have a national refugee protection framework. A Home Ministry letter to state governments said they have no power to grant refugee status to any foreigner and India is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol.

Myanmar’s General Min Aung Hlaing has declared a state of emergency for one year. Close to 5,000 people have been arrested, including politicians, journalists, lawyers and community workers.

Thousands have gone into hiding or have fled across the borders into exile. Nearly 800 have been killed by the police and military since Min Aung Hlaing seized power.

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