Thursday, 19 May, 2022
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Mizoram & Myanmar have helped each other through flood, violence, famine. A coup won’t change it

Modi govt has called for the influx of Myanmar refugees to be checked. But Mizoram has repeatedly approached the Centre to reiterate that it can't be indifferent to their sufferings.

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Aizawl: In their 1895 book The Chin Hills, British Raj officials Bertram S. Carey (Political Officer, Chin Hills) and H.N. Tuck (Assistant Political Officer, Chin Hills) write in the opening paragraphs of the first chapter: “From the southern borders of Assam and Manipur, latitude 24 approximately, these hills are now known to us as the Chin-Lushai tract and the inhabitants by the generic names of Chins and Lushais. This Chin-Lushai tract is bounded on the north by Assam and Manipur, on the south by Arakan, on the east by Burma, and on the west by Tipperah and the Chittagong hill tracts.”

A few paragraphs later, they write, “Without pretending to speak with authority on the subject, we think we may reasonably accept the theory that the Kukis of Manipur, the Lushais of Bengal and Assam, and the Chins originally lived in what we now know as Thibet and are of one and the same stock; their form of government, method of cultivation, manners and customs, beliefs and traditions all point to one origin.”

Lushais, or Luseis, make up a large portion of the community now known as Mizo, after which Mizoram — carved out as the ‘Mizo District’ from Assam, before becoming a Union Territory, and finally a state in 1987 — is named. 

Fast forward to 2020. On 24 March, a day before the first known Covid-19 case was announced in Mizoram, Aizawl-based news channel Zonet uploaded a breaking news alert on its website. 

“Covid-19 case detected in Myanmar, two families from Champhai asked to not return to Mizoram for the time being,” the headline said.  

The story explained that the confirmed Covid-19 patient was a man who had recently returned home from abroad to a Myanmar village called Kaptel, no more than 10 km as the crow flies from the Tiau river, which marks the border between India and Myanmar in north-eastern Mizoram. 

It then went on to explain the second part of the headline: The man had returned home to get married, and members of at least two families in as many neighbourhoods of Champhai, the largest town in eastern Mizoram, had gone to the other side of the border to attend ceremonies related to the wedding. As news of the confirmed Covid-19 test spread, local authorities in the Champhai neighbourhoods contacted the two families and asked them not to return home for the time being.

The Mizo press would continue to report about the Covid-19 situation in Myanmar, especially provinces bordering the state, for months afterwards, since the situation there could have a direct bearing on the situation in Mizoram. 

These two sets of writings, 125 years apart, point to not just the close geographic and ethnic ties between the two areas, but also familial and blood relations. They also go a long way in explaining the Mizoram government’s continued appeal to the central government to not push back those fleeing Myanmar in the wake of the 1 February coup, and seeking refuge in Mizoram. 

Also Read: ‘If we don’t obey, they shoot us’ — why many Myanmar policemen are escaping to India

Relationships across the border

Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga, among others, has referred to the refugees as “brothers and sisters” on more than one occasion. The term can be considered a reference to a shared ethnicity, but can also be construed as literal.   

Talk to anyone living in Mizoram’s eastern borders and chances are they would be able to rattle off the names of relations — if not their own, then certainly those of their neighbours or someone they know well — on the other side of either the Tiau or the Kaladan rivers. Both the rivers act as the international border — Tiau on the northern part, Kaladan on the southern section.   

Even prominent figures of the deposed elected government in Myanmar are considered by residents of Mizoram as close ethnic kin. 

Consider Henry Van Thio, vice-president of Myanmar from 2016 till he was deposed in the 1 February military takeover. His photograph was on the cover of a popular Aizawl-based monthly magazine, Lengzem, in the early days of Aung San Suu Kyi’s first government. The reason? Henry Van Thio is a Chin, and he is referred to in Mizoram as Henry Vanthiau, the surname spelt in the local way.   

Then there is Dr Sasa, the international envoy for the deposed civilian government. Dr Sasa, who has been charged with treason by the military junta, is from the Mara tribe, which is spread across parts of Chin State in Myanmar as well as in south-eastern Mizoram, where they have their own local government, the Mara Autonomous District Council. 

Some Maras say they simply refer to the other side of the Kaladan river — inhabited by the Mara community — as ‘Eastern Maraland’, not as Myanmar, and not even Chin State.

But it is not just familial or ethnic ties that bind Mizoram and Chin State. There are many historical reasons as well.

Helping out in times of distress

It is often said in Mizoram that the state’s largest lake is in Myanmar. Rih-Dil, just a few kilometres on a hill from the border village of Zokhawthar in Mizoram’s Champhai district, is the mythical gateway to the afterlife in the old Mizo belief system and was until around two years ago, when vehicles were banned from crossing the international border, a favoured local tourist spot. 

Apart from myths, there is also small-scale trade that continues across the unfenced border and where the Free Movement Regime (FMR) — which allows free movement up to 16 km on both sides of the border — is in place. 

Champhai is a hub for cross-border trade and traders, and Burmese goods are aplenty in the town’s marketplaces, eventually even making their way to state capital Aizawl, which has a ‘Burma lane’ in its main bazaar, and beyond.

The two places also share a long history of mutual aid and harbouring refugees. 

During the Mizo insurgency (1966-86), many Mizos fled to the Chin Hills and beyond for safety and lived there. Many moved back once peace was restored, but some still remain.

There was also a major movement for ethnic unification soon after the insurgency ended, as noted Myanmar expert Bertil Lintner writes in his book Great Game East. There, he writes of how the Indian Tricolour was hoisted in parts of the Chin Hills. He also talks about the Chin National Front (CNF), a Myanmar-based political group, writing to the Prime Minister of India in 1988 to state their desire for a “political reunification of the Chins with their ethnic brethren living in India”. 

There was a wave of refugees from Myanmar as the 1988 popular uprising engulfed the country, and the military cracked down on protests, and some among them continue to live in Mizoram today. 

The third wave, again from Myanmar to Mizoram, took place around 2007-08, when the cyclical flowering of bamboo — which triggered a rodent infestation — led to a famine, called ‘mautam’ in Mizoram as well as the Chin hills. A Human Rights Watch report from the time pegged the number of Chins migrating to Mizoram at an astonishing 1 lakh people, roughly a tenth of the population of Mizoram.

And when inhabitants of Mizoram and Chin State do not cross the international border for refuge, they help out in times of distress. 

Most recent, perhaps, was in 2015, when floods ravaged towns in Chin State and Sagaing Division. Groups in Mizoram had then sent aid to residents there as images of the flooding gripped local social media and well as traditional news outlets. 

Given these long-standing ethnic and geographical ties, it is little wonder that vigils were held in Aizawl and other places just a few days after the events of 1 February, that local celebrities have spoken out in word and song, that leaders from across the political spectrum have voiced support, and that charity street concerts have been organised as recently as the past weekend, all for the people in the other side of the river.

Also Read: Refugee crisis ‘open-ended question’ as Mizoram CM speaks to Myanmar foreign minister in exile


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