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Thantlang village (Myanmar): “I have left two sons [back in Myanmar], I just hope they are alive. I want them to know that I am very proud of them. Both of them are fighting for democracy against the military,” says Tial Hnin, former associate professor at Hakha University, Chin State, Myanmar.
On September 12, 2021, he left his home in Thantlang village, Myanmar. The military was looking for him him. He had been dismissed from the university as his sons decided to join the People’s Defence Force (PDF), one of the many groups resisting General Min Aung Hlaing’s Tatmadaw, as the Burmese army is known. The day he left, Hnin says, is also the day he saw fighter jets “dropping death” from the sky. He rode a motorcycle for eight hours with his wife. On another motorbike, his younger son sat with his daughter. The four of them crossed the border to seek refuge at a camp in Thingsai village, 200 km south of Mizoram’s capital Aizawl.
There are three refugee camps in Thingsai and at one point in mid-September, according to deputy commissioner of Hnanthial district D. Dolianbuaia, 2,009 Myanmarese refugees took safe shelter in these bamboo houses. About 80-90 of them slept in one room; sometimes that figure crossed 100.
The Myanmar army has set up a camp in Lungler and the Chin Defence Force (CDF), which is a congregation of all pro-democracy forces, is planning an armed attack. The battle between the army and rebels is intensifying as the rebels are getting arms and training. “My son is fighting with local guns. He got trained by Chin National Army (CNA a part of CDF) cadres. He has no history of militancy and went to school as his friends did, but now, it is a call of duty for them,” adds the professor.
Meanwhile, Young Mizo Association (YMA), Mizoram’s largest and most influential civil society organisation with a huge say in Mizo society, supplies ration to these camps. They collect donations from across the city. “They are our brothers, we belong to the same Zo tribe and our ancestors lived together. We shall never close our borders for our brothers,” asserts Thingsai village council president P.C. Lalremkunga. YMA is not the only organisation but many other NGOs are also actively collecting money, donating to what they call “Raltlan Relief”. “Raltlan means brothers and not refugees,” Tetea Ramlawt is quick to correct. He used to work in Dubai but left to join social work. His wife is from Nagaland and teaches at a school in Thingsai.
Two camps are at the heart of the village. The third one, next to the Tiau river, is a two-hour drive through a narrow, muddy road between landslips and slides. “Only pickup trucks and Chinese motorbikes can reach the camp. It needs four-wheel drive to pass through the terrain,” says Tetea Ramlawt. He visits the camp every day to check on the residents. Each resident is tested for COVID-19 once a week. “We organise COVID-19 testing drives and take care of other healthcare needs of the refugees,” says Dolianbuaia.
The local Mizos are dejected as according to them, the government and administration are not doing enough to help the Myanmarese. Reports suggest that the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India has asked the Government of Mizoram to seal the borders. “I have not got any such letter from the authorities,” says Dolianbuaia; however, he concedes that the border has been left open for Myanmarese to enter.
It is a porous border that separates India and Myanmar in Mizoram’s Thingsai. The Tiau river flows between the two countries, separating the two borders. There is a hanging bridge over the river and the Assam Rifles jawans deployed to guard the border often trespass to help the incoming Myanmarese refugees. They come on foot or riding motorbikes bearing the registration number of a different country. The jawans can’t read the registration number, so they note down the names and let them enter India. “We have been instructed by the YMA and village council president to help the incoming refugees on humanitarian grounds. We are told that their houses have been bombed and so they are entering to save their lives. We ourselves have heard the sound of fighter jets and so, we give them a hand to help them carry their belongings,” says Sant Bali Pasi, subedar, Assam Rifles.
However, when the Rohingya try to seek refuge somewhere in India from the same Myanmar, they face strong resistance. They are often arrested on charges of border laws violations and trespassing, and considered a threat to national security. Mizos are equally unwelcoming when it comes to the Rohingya or Bangladeshis on other borders. “We share a strong relationship with the Myanmarese living in the neighbouring villages. Our daughters get married there and our sons bring brides from those villages. Locals also allow them to work here in Mizoram. They understand our language and there is always a subtle reflection of our common past,” explains Lallianzuala Fanai, communication in charge of the Raltlan Relief and Management Committee and a member of the YMA.
Myanmarese have been seeking refuge in Mizoram since the military coup in February. Some of them who arrived earlier this year are already a part of the Thingsai village. Their children go to school and the adults have found work. If they participate in construction work, they get paid Rs 340 a day and when deployed for jhum cultivation, their daily wage is set at Rs 350. Landlords give their houses to Myanmarese refugees without any discrimination. Houses in Thingsai village are available for rent at Rs 2,000 per month. All schools enrol Myanmarese children and provide them with the same education.
The refugees love the attention and care they receive in Mizoram. The food items in the camps are basic, but it’s definitely better than living on bamboo shoot and fish paste, as they did for days before fleeing to India. “The cry of our brothers from our motherland, the jhum cultivation, it is too tough to leave all that behind,” says a 58-year-old Myanmarese refugee.
Since last week, they have started returning to their villages crossing the hanging bridge over Tiau river. From 2,009 refugees mid-September, the number of residents in camps has dropped to 450 this week. Mostly children and elderly people are living in the camps. Some return in the evenings, some travel once a week. Reinforcements have reached the Assam Rifles camp at the border. The YMA is continuing its crowdfunding drive as they believe a storm is awaited.
The CDF has grown in numbers, and so has its violence. They were on the verge of raiding the Thantlang military camp. The church intervened to stop them, as civilians would suffer once the military retaliates. “The battle is between arms and emotions. The military is well equipped but the resilience in our children is enough to match them. I hope someday, we will wake up to democracy and I will go back to my university and teach law,” concludes Hnin.
All photos by Anirban Roy Choudhury.
Anirban Roy Choudhury is an associate editor of afaqs!