Aizawl (Mizoram): On September 19, military helicopters attacked a school and village in Myanmar, killing at least 13 people, including seven children.
Six days earlier, India’s National Investigation Agency announced it had seized explosives and cash in Mizoram that were meant for the Chin National Front (CNF), a constituent group of the democratic resistance to Myanmar’s military coup in February 2021.
Just before the 18-month anniversary of the coup, I went to Mizoram – where around 20,000 from the neighbouring Chin province of Myanmar have sought asylum. Those who fled Myanmar after the coup by the Tatmataw, as the Myanmar military is called, are supporters of the National League of Democracy (NLD); some were Civil Disobedient Movement (CDM) campaigners.
Zawlsei is a refugee camp of around 70 women – who are in their 20s and 30s – and their toddlers, with only two men to guard them. Hastily built on a patch of muddy land, the camp is surrounded by forest and the accommodation consists of huts made of bamboo. Wires have been stretched from the neighbouring town to provide for single bulbs and water is stored in enormous 500-litre tanks.
Each hut has two rooms, a room and a kitchen. Bathrooms are in a separate row on the terrace above.
Pu A. T. is one of the two men guarding the Zawlsei camp. The camp houses mainly women and children because their husbands and fathers, who are in the resistance People’s Defence Force (PDF), sent them to safety across the border.
A former member of the Chinland Defence Force (CDF) which embarked on armed resistance in late April 2021, seven weeks after the coup, Pu A.T. is a supporter of the National Unity Government (NUG) which was established by the NLD after the Tatmataw declared that the results of the general elections of November 2020 were invalid and overthrew the civilian government.
The NUG is Myanmar’s government-in-exile comprising the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a group of elected lawmakers and members of parliament ousted in the 2021 Myanmar coup. It also has representatives of Suu Kyi’s NLD. The military junta, naturally, considers NUG illegal and has labelled it a terrorist organisation.
“70% of the population supports the NUG and seven districts are under their control with the help of the PDF to oppose the Junta’s regime… Democracy will only return when the Myanmar military is defeated. Only then will there be democracy,” he says.
Pu A.T. feels it is necessary to guard this camp because the Tatmataw are “taking people hostage to fund their war”. He says he gave Kyat 15 lakhs to free his grandniece from state abductors. “But I don’t know where they are now,” he adds.
Pu B., the other man guarding the camp, strongly believes that the PDF needs support from neighbouring countries. The struggle has seen horrific atrocities. He shows me the photograph of a child who lives in a camp nearby, who he says has lost his limbs in the Tatmataw’s shelling.
“People are being shelled by Russian jets given to the Junta. Russia and China should stop giving the Myanmar Army weapons,” Pu B. says.
The Tatmataw has to be defeated, and “for that to happen, the neighbouring countries should give arms to the PDF.” Countries such as Thailand and Bangladesh have been making it difficult for the PDF to acquire arms, says Pu B. “I heard that India’s CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) is also stopping arms,” he adds.
Pu B. is more than aware of geopolitical constraints and its effect on their situation. He says that Russia and China are also using their veto power in the United Nations Security Council against the NUG.
“We wanted the UNSC to pass a resolution stating that no country should give arms to the Myanmar Army, but because of Russia and China’s veto, nothing happened,” he says.
Children worst affected
Lian and Nora, an uncle and niece who fled to Mizoram 12 days after the coup, live in a dorm in Aizawl. Lian worked in the education department and joined the civil disobedience movement against the Tatmadaw coup.
Nora is a ninth grade student.
Both Lian and Nora feel that the NLD has changed its focus from a unitary state, to recognising that Myanmar’s different ethnic groups require a federal constitution.
Lian feels that the problem has its roots in 2008.
“The problem goes back to the Myanmar Constitution of 2008 that reserved 25% seats in Myanmar’s parliament for serving military officers. The element in the constitution that gives the military power-sharing authority should be removed. Different provinces have to be given autonomous rule,” he says.
Lian quotes the federal democracy charter that the NUG and ethic groups drafted in 2021 after the military coup. Its goals are to eradicate dictatorship, abolish the 2008 constitution, build a federal union and establish a public government “based on the civil servants who are part of the CDM and stand together with the people during the movement against the military dictatorship,” Lian says.
Nora is sad that even school children in Myanmar have become polarised. “The junta has a separate school system. While those who attend the junta system are looked down upon, others who attend NUG schools are labelled as CDMers,” Nora says.
The Tatmadaw does not allow the NUG schools to run.
“In some small towns, the Junta has also shut down the wi-fi…Even when teachers teach online, they do not show their faces, or tell their students their names due to the fear of getting arrested,” says Lian.
Nora sent a photo to me which showed children crowded in a trench in Saglaing district, attending school.
Khawbung is a small town in Mizoram where Chin refugees live with Mizo families. The refugees here have created an organisation – the Myanmar Refugee Community – to represent themselves. I met the community’s office bearers at the Khawbung Higher Secondary School in the principal’s office.
The community’s representatives are disappointed that Myanmar’s neighbours have not done what was required to exert pressure on the Tatmataw. One month after the coup, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) negotiated a five-point consensus, in April 2021, which called for an immediate end to violence in Myanmar; dialogue among all parties concerned; the appointment of a special envoy from ASEAN to Myanmar; provision of humanitarian assistance by ASEAN; and a visit by the bloc’s special envoy to Myanmar to meet with all parties.
“The elections will have no meaning if Aung San Suu Kyi is not released,” says Myanmar refugee community president Pu Zacung. “We hope other countries are aware of the NUG and recognise it as the legitimate government of Myanmar, and the PDF as the legitimate army.”
Community representatives recognise that the return of democracy is going to be a long haul. But they are prepared.
“As long as the military is there, we won’t go back. It may take 15 years or 20 years, but we will win,” says Pi Ngun Hoi, the Myanmar refugee community’s assistant treasurer.
Sushila Sahay is a second-year student at Bard College in the United States.
Note: I was fortunate to have the help of The Young Mizo Association (YMA) which is the largest non-profit, non-governmental organisation of the Mizo people. I would particularly like to thank Anthony Lalramchhana of the Young Mizo Association, Joseph Go Suan Pau, H. Lalnunmawia, and Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty for their support in helping the author reach out to and speak to Myanmar refugees in Mizoram.