Not far from the Arakan conflict zone in Myanmar, Mizoram has become another hotspot of sorts. Around 1,600 Myanmar nationals, fleeing clashes between the Myanmar army and an underground rebel group called the Arakan Army in the troubled Rakhine State, have poured into the Northeastern state since November 25, 2017, after their villages were affected by heavy fighting between the two sides. The refugees, identified as Zakhai by the locals, are Buddhist and speak the same language as their Lai counterparts in Mizoram, who are mostly Christian.
The offensive by the Myanmar army was triggered after 11 of its personnel were reportedly killed in an ambush by the rebels on the Kaladan river more than two months ago. The army subsequently moved large columns for a counter-attack along the border of the Chin and Rakhine states in the neighbouring country where the rebel outfit has strengthened its position. The Arakan Army is part of an alliance of ethnic armies called the Northern Alliance which has also entangled this group in the conflict against Tatmadaw in Kachin and Shan states in the north of Myanmar. So far it has not signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the Myanmar government.
While some refugees are living in the houses of relatives, the majority have been sheltered in school buildings and community halls in Zochachhuah, Laitlang, Dumzautlang and Hmawngchhuah across Lawngtlai in the southern region of the border state. The district administration, civil society organisations (like the Young Lai Association) and Assam Rifles have been distributing clothes, food, solar panels and conducting medical camps. The refugees are reluctant to return to their homes as they are concerned about the resumption of hostilities between the two sides.
All photos by Rajeev Bhattacharyya.