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Why Mizoram sees Myanmar refugees as ‘family’ — close ethnic ties that have survived a border

The handling of Myanmarese refugees has become a sensitive issue in Mizoram as tribes on either side of the border share strong familial and ethnic ties.

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New Delhi: India has sealed all entry points along its unfenced border with Myanmar to check the influx of refugees in the wake of the 1 February coup in the country. 

Civilians as well as several Myanmarese police personnel have been fleeing the country amid reports of human rights excesses unleashed by the military leadership of the neighbouring country. 

Four northeastern states share a border with Myanmar — Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. According to the Mizoram government, 383 Myanmar refugees fleeing the coup had come into the state until last week, although sources told ThePrint that the figure could be “much higher”. Official figures from the other three states are not yet known.

On 10 March, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) directed the four states and the Assam Rifles, the border guarding force, to check the influx of people from across the border. It cited earlier guidelines and called for illegal migrants to be identified and deported.

The MHA noted that India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, and said state governments don’t have the power to grant “refugee” status to any foreigner — a stand it reiterated in Parliament last week.

However, the order has not been received well in Mizoram, where people share deep ethnic and familial ties with residents of Myanmar’s Chin state, ties that predate Indian Independence. 

The handling of the Myanmarese refugees has become an emotive and sensitive issue in the state, which has told the central government that it can’t be indifferent to their sufferings. 

Last Wednesday, Rajya Sabha MP K. Vanlalvena, a member of the state’s ruling Mizo National Front (MNF), said the state cannot turn away refugees from Myanmar. The refugees, he added, are like “family”.

Also Read: Mizoram & Myanmar have helped each other through flood, violence, famine. A coup won’t change it

Who are the tribes? 

India and Myanmar share an unfenced border of 1,643 km, passing through Arunachal Pradesh (520 km), Nagaland (215 km), Manipur (398 km), and Mizoram (510 km). The corresponding states in Myanmar include Kachin, Sagaing and Chin.

It is mostly tribes living along the Mizoram-Myanmar and Manipur-Myanmar borders that are involved in the refugee crisis, Professor Amar Yumnam of Manipur University told ThePrint. “They speak the same language, share the same cuisines and follow similar rituals, though there are a few nuances,” he said. 

Indian tribes such as the Mizos, Kukis, Nagas and Zomis, which span several smaller groups, share close ties across the border. 

Most refugees coming in from Chin are from Lai, Tedim-Zomi, Luse, Hualngo and Natu tribes, which share close links with the Mizos of Mizoram, as well as the Kuki-Zomis of Manipur. 

The Chin state shares a border with six districts of Mizoram — Champhai, Lawngtlai, Siaha, Saitual, Hnahthial and Serchhip. In Manipur, the districts of Churachandpur, Tengnoupal and Chandel share a border with Myanmar’s Kachin and Sagaing states. 

Not one-way migration

Over the decades, many residents of the Chin state have migrated to Mizoram. The numbers were especially significant after the crackdown on pro-democracy protests by the Tatmadaw — as the Myanmar military is known — in 1988.

One such person is Nouka Thanga, who now works as a school teacher in Mizoram. He migrated to the state in 1988 with his family. “I came here during the previous crackdown. People in Myanmar and Mizoram have familial ties across borders. This is my home now,” Thanga told ThePrint. 

However, Myanmar-Mizoram migration isn’t one way. During the insurgency years of 1966-1986 — a period of turmoil known as ‘Rambuai’ — many Mizo families sought refuge in Myanmar. 

The Mizoram Peace Accord of 1986 — signed between the Government of India and the MNF — set the stage for the end of violence and insurgency in the region, and led to its recognition as a separate state the next year.  

Why is the India-Myanmar border unfenced?

It is in recognition of the deep ties between people on both sides that the India-Myanmar border has been kept unfenced.

“The border with Myanmar along Manipur and Mizoram is largely unfenced in order to preserve environmental and cultural linkages between tribes on either side. Putting up a fence would completely rupture these linkages,” said Prabir De, a professor at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), a Delhi-based research institute. This is unlike the India-Bangladesh border, over 60 per cent of which is fenced.

India and Myanmar also share a unique arrangement called the Free Movement Regime (FMR), which allows residents on both sides to go up to 16km into the other side and stay there up to 14 days without visas. The 16km stretch on either side comprises harsh terrain, hilly areas, plain land and water bodies. 

In March 2020, the FMR was suspended on account of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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

What kind of trade & movement occur across the border? 

Several Myanmarese visit India regularly for work, to sell vegetables and other wares, and also for medical care. There are marriages between families on the two sides too.

Children also cross the border on a daily, unrestricted, basis along the Nagaland-Myanmar and the Manipur-Myanmar borders, to attend school. A research paper by Munmun Majumdar, a professor at Meghalaya’s North-Eastern Hill University, published last March in India Quarterly: A Journal of International Affairs, goes so far as to describe the region as “an integrated borderland and transition zone”.

There are border villages, like Longwa along the Nagaland-Myanmar border, which are situated in both Indian and Myanmar territory.

An Al Jazeera report from April last year noted how the king of the Konyak tribe, Tonyei Phawng, “sleeps in Myanmar, but eats in India” as his house, village and people are divided by a mountain border. 

The goods flowing from India to Myanmar along the Mizoram-Myanmar border, De said, include pharmaceuticals, grains, foodstuffs, and gas cylinders. Meanwhile, from Manipur, Indians go to Myanmar for shopping, buying vegetables and for access to different goods brought from China and other Southeast Asian countries.

“Since the border is open, there’s lots of contraband and informal trade that includes arms, human trafficking, drugs, narcotics. Even areca nut, which is used in gutka, is smuggled across the Manipur-Myanmar side,” said De. The Kachin state in Myanmar, he added, is a “golden hub” for Naga insurgents from India.

Edited by Sunanda Ranjan

Also Read: Assam Rifles puts 24×7 patrol on all entry points to keep Myanmar refugees out of Mizoram


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