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As Chin families flow into Mizoram, a tale of hope & fear in refugee camps near Myanmar border

With heavy influx of refugees, there has been a disruption of trade flow between India & Myanmar as well as rise in cross-border smuggling of weapons, narcotics & contraband.

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Zokhawthar, Mizoram: Leaving behind her burning home in Thantlang town of Myanmar’s Chin State, Tial Tin Sung and her family fled across the border into Mizoram eighteen months ago.

The few belongings the family of six could save were slung over two hired motorcycles, and hauled across the jungle paths to safety. “We had no food, clothes or beddings,” Tin Sung recalls.

Even the church she served at as a pastor was set on fire.

Local residents in the Mizoram village of Vaphai, in Champhai district, some 260 km from Aizawl, have been helping the growing tide of refugees arriving in India  — moved by ethnic and kin ties across the border, as well as human compassion.

“The villagers support us wholeheartedly,” Tin Sung says, “sending us rice, tea and even sanitary pads.” The mother-of-three along with her husband have opened a small store, where they sell dry fish, coffee and instant noodles. A relative living overseas helps with the rent for their small home at Vaphai village.

Every month, Tin Sung heads back across the border, to hold Bible study sessions at a Chin National Front-run insurgent camp in Camp Victoria. The camp was bombed by the Myanmar Air Force last month, but that hasn’t scared the pastor. She is also planning to teach crafts to the refugee women at Zawlsei village in Champhai district, where family members of Chin National Front (CNF) have taken refuge.

Tial Tin Sung, a pastor from Thantlang township of Myanmar’s Chin state at her rented space in Vaphai village, Mizoram. | Karishma Hasnat | ThePrint

“All the men are fighting for the country. I cannot support them financially, but we will do whatever is required,” she says.

The Indian government is concerned that the growing tide of ethnic-Chin refugees may bring the war in Myanmar with them— but Mizos feel obliged to provide refuge. “In Mizo culture or tradition, either we grow hungry or eat together,” says Champhai district commissioner James Lalrinchhana.

Ever since last month’s air strikes on insurgents along the Tiau river — the boundary between India and Myanmar in this region — refugees have been streaming into Champhai. The numbers add to the 30,400 refugees the government says have come in. A large number of refugees, district authorities say, are living with their kin in Champhai, and many others have rented homes, or are living in temporary accommodation.

Life, livelihood & uncertainty

The countryside trail in Champhai leads to the last Indian border town of Zokhawthar, 3 km from Rih Dil lake in Chin state. While the rest of Champhai district appears calm, this Indo-Myanmar trading hub is colourful and noisy.

Map not to scale. | Soham Sen | ThePrint

People on either side of the border drive Kenbo KB125 motorcycles on the dusty mountain roads. Manufactured by China’s Yinxiang Motorcycle Manufacturing Company in Yunnan Province, the 125cc model is preferred by commuters to carry heavy loads up the hilly tracts in border villages. 

While they are in high demand in Myanmar, the motorcycles are illegally sold in the Indian black market for “around Rs 30,000-40,000”.

On the Myanmar side, a few shops remained half-closed when this correspondent visited on 17 January. The owner of a liquor shop was hurriedly dealing with customers after reports of firing between Myanmar Army and cadres of Chinland Defense Force (CDF) and its allied group near Khawmawi village in Myanmar.

Zokhawthar has witnessed several such scenes since the coup in the neighbouring country two years ago.

The shops on the Indian side, selling garments, foreign liquor, footwear and groceries, stayed open. At a safe distance from the commotion was the main refugee camp of Zokhawthar — children played in the sandy field and some were learning how to ride a motorcycle.

Data collected by the district administration till 21 January shows there are 2,955 Myanmar refugees at Zokhawthar — 701 living in 11 relief camps spread across Zokhawthar, while 2,254 are living outside the camps. Among the displaced people are 922 females and 1119 children below 18 years.

The Young Mizo Association (YMA) volunteers and the Village Level Committee on Myanmar Refugees (VLCMR) have been providing food and other assistance to the refugees lodged at the temporary field camp in Zokhawthar.

About 110 families comprising more than 500 people live in makeshift huts at the Zokhawthar field refugee camp. There are 64 children in this camp alone.

About six months ago, a refugee couple living at Zokhawthar camp were blessed with a baby girl, born at the Champhai civil hospital. Her parents hail from a Zo village near the border and had entered India in April 2021.

About 5-10 babies have been born at the Zokhawthar field camp in past few months.

Regarding the method of determination for a newborn’s nationality, the Champhai district administration said that children born to shelter inmates would not be registered under the Indian government, but their birth certificates would record their names and family addresses in Myanmar.

Among the 10 pregnant women in the camp, five will soon be first-time mothers. Laldinmawi, 20, says they want an awareness camp for pregnant women and lactating mothers, proper diet, clean toilets, baby products and a childcare facility.

Zaneimen, 39, has conceived for the seventh time. She crossed the border along with her husband two months ago from Minhla village in Sagaing Division. The day ThePrint visited, her haemoglobin was low, and she was administered a dose of glucose for recovery.

“I have been eating only rice, dal and vegetables, and some vitamins provided by the doctor. I want to eat healthy food and some fruits, but don’t have money,” she says, and adds that the Chin Health Organisation sometimes organises free medical camps where they are given necessary medicine.

“We are satisfied and happy because local villagers are kind to us. But we need water supply, food and healthcare. There is not sufficient water during summer,” says camp caretaker Chanpeng, 59, who was a shopkeeper at Tahan in Myanmar’s Sagaing Region, hoping to return home one day.

Champhai district commissioner James Lalrinchhana says the Tiau river turns muddy in the monsoon. “Last year, we had to find ways to bring fresh water from the mountain and filter it for use. There can’t be sufficiency as the host population is also suffering from scarcity of drinking water.”

The men in the refugee camps have started working as daily labourers. Some are engaged as carpenters and masons, others do farming in fields owned by locals, and a few others ply motorbike carriers for transportation.

The children from Myanmar have been attending school in Mizoram. Those who get admitted in government schools are only required to pay for their uniform. Some who can afford to pay fees go to private schools.

In May last year, a few young professionals from Chin State set up the Lailun Medical Centre at Zokhawthar that opens five days a week. The group is working in collaboration with the Chin Baptist Association, North America, and the Mizo Students’ Union (MSU). The clinic is run by Chin volunteers, including a doctor, nurse and a midwife.

A patient waiting outside the Lailun Medical Centre set up by Chin volunteers in Mizoram’s Zokhawthar (a Kenbo motorcycle is parked nearby). | Karishma Hasnat | ThePrint

“On a daily basis, about 12-15 patients visit the clinic everyday from Zokhawthar and Champhai town in India, and Tiao, Myanmar,” volunteer Joyce Sui, 31, says.

Lucy Mawi, Director of Institute of Chin Affairs’ health and education department,  asserts the refugees want medicine, healthcare, food and education.

“Last year in April, I saw a pregnant lady, already 9 months old, not being able to see a doctor because she didn’t have money. I found many children at the camp having fever, but they could not afford to see a paediatrician. It is then when we decided to start this clinic,” she says.

The Champhai administration plans to set up a medical clinic at Zokhawthar with the intervention of NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders. “We have liased with the district hospital and Zoram Medical College to cater to the needs of pregnant women. We cannot deny medical assistance to anyone,” Lalrinchhana explains.

Also Read: Panic in Mizoram villages as Myanmar junta bombs insurgents — ‘need show of strength from Delhi’

The rising drug problem

The flow of goods, money, people and information into each other’s territories has always existed in mountainous borderlands. With the heavy influx of refugees from Myanmar, there has been a disruption of trade flow between the two countries, and rise in cross-border smuggling of weapons, narcotics and contraband.

“Our main concern is the movement of drugs. There has been an increase in smuggling activities recently,” the Champhai district commissioner says.

Between 2021 and 2023, anti-smuggling operations by state police, the Assam Rifles and the Department of Excise & Narcotics resulted in record drug hauls in Mizoram.

In data provided by security forces, narcotics worth ₹463.35 crore were seized from different parts of the state in past three years. Last year, narcotics worth ₹353 crore were confiscated, while consignments worth ₹19.35 crore were seized till 19 January this year.

Around 274 Indians and 59 Myanmarese were apprehended on charges of smuggling since 2021, according to defence sources. While 42 individuals from Myanmar were held last year, 9 arrests were made till January this year.

India and Myanmar have a Free Movement Regime (FMR) that allows people living along the border to travel 16 km into each other’s territory without a visa. Both sides of the border have been connected for centuries by well-maintained trade routes. India shares a 510km-long-border with Myanmar in Mizoram, which remains a viable option for smugglers and traffickers at many parts. The unhindered movement in these portions has escalated cross-border smuggling.

The Indo-Myanmar Friendship Bridge at Zokhawthar. Under Free Movement Regime (FMR), people living along the border can travel 16 km into each other’s territory. | Karishma Hasnat | ThePrint

There are more than 50 crossing points throughout the border manned by the paramilitary force of Assam Rifles, and maximum seizures have been made in Champhai district.

On 26 January, a ‘Barbedwiresreport highlighted how the Myanmar Opium Survey 2022 by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has found that poppy cultivation in Myanmar increased by an estimated 33 per cent compared to the previous season.

The survey was carried out in four states of Shan, Kachin, Kayah and Chin, of which Shan showed the highest jump in total poppy cultivation from 2021 to 2022 (39 per cent) and Chin registered a spike of 14 per cent. The report suggests there was no wide-scale opium cultivation in Chin State before the 2021 coup.

“We care for our Chin brothers, but any movement of arms or other substances that can hamper the peaceful coexistence between people is not welcomed. We stand for the protection and preservation of the peace in Mizoram,” MSU general secretary Samuel Zoramthanpuia says, dispelling the fear of anything untoward in this part of the border.

(Edited by Tony Rai)

Also Read: As Myanmar junta bomb border insurgent camp, Mizoram plans medical aid mission to help ‘kin’


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