Tengnoupal: In mid-March, three men were near a jewellery store in Myanmar’s border town of Tamu when the country’s military set fire to it. The three, one a goldsmith, the other a car mechanic, and the third a volunteer who was keeping watch over the neighbourhood, say they were caught completely off guard when the army turned on them.
“I heard that there was some commotion at the jewellery store. I lived around the area so I went to the store to see what it was about. But soon after I got there, they opened fire,” said the goldsmith.
The goldsmith sustained a bullet injury to the urinary bladder. The car mechanic, who happened to be near the store at the time, was shot near the spleen, destroying his digestive tract. The volunteer survived four bullet wounds — two in the legs, one on the wrist, and one in the chest — apart from internal bleeding due to the assault. The three watched as another bystander died on the spot after being shot.
Bleeding and fast losing consciousness, the men were taken by local residents to a hospital in Mandalay city but were brought back fearing military presence.
“We were in a serious condition. There was no option but to cross over to India; otherwise, we would have died,” said the volunteer.
All the Myanmarese nationals ThePrint spoke to wished to be unnamed fearing retribution when they return home. ThePrint is also not disclosing their location for their safety.
Though the official passage between Myanmar and India, which opens up into Moreh town in Tengnoupal district, has been closed for the last year, refugees from across the border have found other means to enter the country.
With nothing but the clothes on their backs, the three men have been stranded in Manipur ever since.
Hundreds like them — including members of the fallen government — are taking shelter in the state, which has been hesitant to provide any aid following an order from the central government.
While there is no government support, residents from the districts bordering Myanmar have stepped up, discreetly housing, feeding, and clothing refugees without batting an eyelid.
“We can’t turn them away. They are our brothers and sisters across the border. They want a democracy. What kind of democracy would we be if we also punished them for wanting what we have?” a resident housing refugees told ThePrint, requesting anonymity.
Surviving the coup
Myanmar has been in a state of turmoil ever since the military, officially known as the Tatmadaw, forcefully seized control of the state on 1 February, overthrowing the democratically elected Aung San Suu Kyi.
Thousands of people have since joined the Civil Disobedience Movement, or CDM for short, despite relentless bloodshed and violence, with some factions taking up arms to defend themselves against the military crackdown.
According to the human rights organisation, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), 5,370 people have been arrested, 1,963 charged with a warrant for evading arrest, and 934 killed by the junta as on 26 July.
Several of the refugees stranded in Manipur identify themselves as peaceful CDM participants with targets on their backs.
An administrative staff member of a leading university in Myanmar said he spent 10 days on the run before finally crossing the border, after the Tatmadaw occupied his university, firing bullets, destroying cabinets, and beating teachers.
“They have a list of our names, and mine is on it,” he told ThePrint. As a member of the CDM, the staff member said he not only participated in protests but also raised funds and organised food for other members.
“To survive, I went underground, switched cars multiple times, and stayed in friends’ homes before leaving the country, sometimes not leaving my room or eating for days,” he said. “Every ward has an informer, and I even had a close encounter once.”
A 20-year-old government high school teacher told ThePrint the Tatmadaw seized her voter ID and raided her home, forcing her to flee at the stroke of midnight. She made her way from her home in Homalin to Tamu, where she met her uncle and rode into Manipur on a scooter.
“I’m in touch with my family. They want me to stay here until things get better and it’s safe for me to return,” she said.
Safe from the Tatmadaw, the refugees must live their lives in secret in Manipur.
In March, the state government’s special secretary issued an order saying refugees should be “politely turned away.” Although the order was retracted following public outrage, the central government’s directives still stand and have largely influenced the state’s actions.
In Churachandpur, Myanmar refugees were arrested and imprisoned for infiltrating the border while in Moreh, refugees have actively been pushed back by security forces manning the border.
Life in hiding
India shares a 1,643-km border with Myanmar, divided between Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram.
Parts of Manipur and Mizoram, which are dominated by the ethnic Kuki people, share deep-rooted cultural and ethnic ties with the people of Myanmar, particularly those living in the Sagaing and Chin states.
The two countries have an agreement called a Free Movement Regime, which allows tribes of either country to cross the border by 16 km without any documents. The FMR was suspended last year on account of Covid-19.
Because of this history and kinship, Mizoram has welcomed the refugees with open arms, allocating funds for their welfare in open defiance of the central government’s ban.
Historically, Manipur has also been accommodating towards its neighbours fleeing violent regimes. During the 1988 uprising in Myanmar, refugee camps were opened in Manipur’s Chandel district and guarded by the Assam Rifles.
But that is no longer the case. Today, the refugees mostly depend on the kindness of their hosts and volunteers for food, and avoid leaving their homes for fear of being caught.
“We give them whatever little clothes we have. They are also very resourceful and sometimes organise their own food, so it hasn’t been too much of a problem spending-wise,” said a resident who didn’t wish to be named. “But my house is almost full, and if too many more people come I will have to turn them away.”
The problems arise when run-ins with Manipur officials become inevitable, such as in the case of a medical emergency.
The three men suffering bullet wounds were eventually taken to Imphal for treatment, but only after several deliberations and securing permissions from the state government, said locals.
“Even if a refugee turns Covid positive or needs to be admitted in the hospital, the staff’s first reaction is to turn them away. They have to be convinced by us into admitting them,” said a local leader with a relief group operating in Tengnoupal, requesting anonymity.
Of the 29 refugees arrested in Churachandpur, two later died in custody after catching Covid-19.
Human Rights Alert, an Imphal-based organisation, has alleged the refugees weren’t provided food by the state nor given medical attention on time, exacerbating their condition.
A case has been filed with the Manipur Human Rights Commission, and while the state additional director general of prisons has denied any wrongdoing, an official response to the complaint is awaited.
“The biggest issue is that if they want to register formally as refugees before being arrested, they must make their way to Delhi and be present in the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission office physically. If you have no ID, how is travelling from Manipur to Delhi possible?” Babloo Loitongbam, director of Human Rights Alert, told ThePrint.
“They should open an office here to make the registration process easier. Or facilitate registrations for those who cannot travel,” he added.
In May, the Manipur High Court granted seven refugees passage to Delhi to apply for refugee status, saying the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution extended to non-Indians too.
“It’s a wonderful judgment. But there are hundreds of others in need of the same help,” said Loitongbam.
ThePrint reached the UNHCR’s office via email, but there was no response until the publishing of this report.
“All our security forces are very vigilant at the borders, which have been sealed. We are trying to keep the border secure, but at the same do whatever possible on humanitarian grounds,” said N. Praveen, District Magistrate of Tengnoupal.
Locals claim the influx of refugees has reduced considerably compared to the months of March and April when hundreds were fleeing Myanmar.
For the stranded CDM participants, a safe return home is only possible if democracy is restored.
In an attempt to regain power, the ousted lawmakers formed the National Unity Government (NUG) two months ago, Myanmar’s government-in-exile that is struggling for legitimacy.
Some factions of the CDM have devolved into local armed militias that fight for the NUG’s armed wing, the People’s Defence Force. But there are growing concerns that these groups are operating close to the border.
Some valley-based insurgency groups in Manipur have reportedly joined forces with the Myanmar junta, providing an extra pair of hands against the country’s dissidents, which could further deepen ethnic divides in the state.
“The possibility of resistance fighters training on Indian soil and the potential illegal arms trade thriving in the area, existence of armed insurgent groups opposing the Indian government in the northeastern state and connection of narcotic trade from the east Asia in the context would compromise the security of the displaced people from Myanmar as well as the host community,” South Asians for Human Rights, a pro-democracy advocacy group, wrote in a blog post earlier this month.
A June report by the National University of Singapore and Institute of South Asian Studies said, “It is very likely that Myanmar will be heading towards a full-scale armed revolt in the remaining months of 2021, instead of a restoration of the old government or new elections.”
“New Delhi should be prepared to accommodate refugees as the situation worsens in Myanmar, in particular, refugees/defectors from the borderlands that have close cultural, ethnic and religious ties with their counterparts in India,” it added.
The refugees ThePrint spoke to said they had every intention of returning home when it is safe for them to do so. Even as violence engulfs their country, several are confident the military regime will fall in the months to come.
“I don’t want to apply for asylum just yet. I have a strong feeling we will win. The junta cannot go on like this if civil servants continue to strike,” said the university staffer.
‘Recognise the NUG’
Asked what they wanted the world to know about their plight, the refugees highlighted various aspects of their struggles — from living in India to the Covid-19 crisis sweeping across Myanmar.
On Thursday, Myanmar recorded over 6,000 new cases and 316 deaths, with the military continuing to persecute healthcare workers protesting the coup. Those stranded in India have had to watch helplessly as their loved ones succumb to the illness.
The Covid-19 wave devastating Myanmar has also wiped away anti-coup stalwarts of the 1988 uprising — many of whom inspired the current protest that continues relentlessly.
“Myanmar is choking right now because we don’t have enough oxygen. The junta is using not only bullets to kill people but has stopped people from refilling their own oxygen cylinders. They’ve mismanaged the Covid crisis and people are paying with their lives,” said the car mechanic, whose injuries have resulted in him having to use a colostomy bag.
The university staffer said the CDM and NUG needed more international support.
While several countries have imposed sanctions on Myanmar, Russia and China continue to support the military junta by supplying it with arms. India has condemned the coup, but the researchers from Singapore note that Delhi’s response has been mixed.
Since the 1990s, India has balanced “good diplomatic relations with Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD while cooperating with the military (and its crony allies) for the sake of India’s strategic interests (including securing the Northeast and containing insurgency) and business prerogatives in Myanmar, and Southeast Asia more generally. All this has been a quid-pro-quo relationship,” the researchers say.
“Foreign countries must boycott the military. Our cause needs more international support, particularly from the ASEAN. And the United Nations must recognise the National Unity Government,” the university staffer said.
An activist with the Myanmar-based Kuki Women Human Rights Organisation told ThePrint, “Processing our status as refugees needs to become easier. Our biggest concerns are our safety and insecurity. I’ve written to the UNHCR and called their numbers, but there hasn’t been a reply in over a month.”
For all of them, however, giving up protest, even from afar, is not an option. The three injured men said they hadn’t joined the CDM protests but were willing to as soon as they recovered.
“I believe in a democracy. That belief should not be a crime, and I’m willing to defend it even if it puts my life back in danger,” said the goldsmith, as the others nodded along.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)