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People fleeing Myanmar in lurch in India’s Mizoram state

Indian govt unlikely to grant refugee status to people fleeing troubled Southeast Asian country

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Published: September 17, 2021 10:50 AM GMT

Updated: September 17, 2021 10:51 AM GMT

People fleeing Myanmar in lurch in India’s Mizoram state

People who fled Myanmar and are living in India hold a candle vigil to pay tribute to the people who have died during demonstrations against the military coup in the Southeast Asian country, in New Delhi, India, on March 24, 2021. (Photo: AFP)

One of the worst crises in Southeast Asia in recent times is not even being discussed and debated in mainstream India even as the diplomatic crisis turns into a humanitarian one.

The military coup in Myanmar and the subsequent violent crackdown to crush civilian protests have had a direct impact on neighboring India for months now.

Millions have fled Myanmar and many thousands have landed in the Christian-dominated Mizoram, the northeastern frontier state of India bordering troubled Chin state across the border.

The ‘refugees’ from Myanmar are mostly Christian. They share an ethnic affinity with the native Mizo people and even have family ties in Mizoram.

Christians, mostly Baptists and Presbyterians, make up about 87 percent of Mizoram’s 1.15 million people.  Catholics are a small minority with 35,000 people.

Most entrants from Myanmar are pouring into the northeastern Champhai and southern Hnahthial districts inhabited by local Mizos who aren’t economically well-off.

Mozez Sailo, a social worker in Aizawl, said the official figures detailing Myanmar citizens entering Mizoram were on the conservative side as many of them were staying in the homes of their relatives without disclosing their nationality.

The cash-crunched provincial government of Mizoram, whose resources are already stretched due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, has been desperately seeking financial assistance from the federal government in New Delhi.

Chief Minister Zoramthanga of the Mizo National Front, an ally of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has written to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting his immediate intervention and financial assistance equivalent of some US$13.6 million to meet the additional expenditure incurred for the distressed people from Myanmar.

Lalrosanga, the lone member of parliament (MP) from Mizoram, met senior federal home ministry officials to inform them of the need to provide food and medical supplies along with other basic needs to the Myanmarese.

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The Mizoram state bureaucracy wrote to Smita Pant, joint secretary at the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi, seeking an urgent intervention to avoid their worst fears.

“People from Myanmar are crossing over to Mizoram on a daily basis. We have reports of 150 to 200 entering the state daily and if there is no adequate federal help, the already bad situation will worsen, resulting in a famine-like situation especially along the India-Myanmar border areas,” H Rammawi, a senior state Planning Department official, told UCA News.

Mizoram Home minister Lalchamliana said that around 1,900 people from Myanmar have crossed over to Mizoram in the last one week or so. The state was witnessing a ‘second wave’ inflow of people fleeing Myanmar after supporters of the National Unity Government (NUG), the Myanmar government-in-exile, clashed with the military junta's forces.

The state government has informed the federal government that as of mid-September, over 20,000 people who fled Myanmar are now residing in the state.

It has been eight months since large numbers of Myanmar’s civilians, lawmakers and security personnel started crossing over into the state. But the Government of India has chosen to remain indifferent.

India does not have a national refugee protection framework and state governments have no power to grant "refugee" status to any foreigner.

In the absence of federal government assistance and practical problems faced by the state government, local people have chipped in to help the refugees.

At least 18-20 villages in Mizoram’s three economically poor border districts, Hnahthial, Champhai and Lawngtlai, were sheltering people who reportedly arrive by crossing the Tiau River on small boats mostly.

The Zomi Welfare Committee of Champhai district (ZWCC) has been coordinating help and sheltering the fleeing people in village school buildings and makeshift transit camps. Some are even being housed in 'relatives' homes.'

“In the evenings, we get calls on our mobile phones that people are crossing over the border. About 150 people have been put in a playground of the Holy Cross school in Champhai town," said ZWCC volunteer Pu S Lalrin.

The Young Mizo Association (YMA) and other civil society groups have extended help but everyone has their own limitations. There are issues of food shortages and poor health conditions during the ongoing rainy season. This forested region is malaria prone and the coronavirus situation has further raised the risks.

There has been a gradual increase in Covid-19 infections making things more difficult for state authorities. Mizoram’s recovery rate from the coronavirus, 82.7 percent as against the national average of 97.5 percent, is the lowest among the northeastern states, officials said.

From among the 20,000 or so from Myanmar, around 3,500 local people have reportedly been infected.

Some old buildings in the area serve as quarantine centers, YMA volunteers said

An Aizawl-based social worker who spoke on condition of anonymity told UCA News that though the situation was serious, little help was expected to come Mizoram’s way. “We are sure the Modi government which takes pride in an independent foreign policy will not do anything,” he says.

Efforts were also being made by a section of pro-democracy forces in Myanmar who had crossed over to Mizoram to get India and other countries in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) to recognize the NUG initiated government-in-exile.

“But everyone is wary for strategic reasons and does not want to make things easy for China. No one wants to antagonize the military junta in Myanmar. But in the process, the common people of Myanmar continue to suffer,” he said.

He further said the refugees and protesters on Myanmar streets were well aware that nobody, including the United States, will do anything.

The Biden administration assumed power a few days before the military coup and has so far not paid enough attention to Myanmar.

“Sadly, all we get to hear internationally is sanctions and embargoes which sends shivers down Myanmar people’s spines. They now fear the return of the gory years of military rule in their country from 1963 to 2010,” he said.

Given the situation and its own strategic interests, India is unlikely to give the people fleeing Myanmar refugee status.

In August, an order issued by Mizoram’s Directorate of School Education ordered all district education officers to admit children aged six to 14 years who had arrived from Myanmar in local government schools.

However, the federal government has instructed the Assam Rifles, its anti-insurgency crackdown force in the region, to seal the border and prevent the entry of people from the neighboring country.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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