Refugee reception all over the world is often determined by national and/or international law and policy. However, laws are enacted in societies and can be reinforced or undermined by local realities. But one cannot ever undermine the fact that ‘refugees’ are quintessential outsiders in a society whose non-belonging is inherent in their refugee status and lack of citizenship.
Belonging is a negotiated condition forged between refugees and their host communities. The significance of ‘boundaries and belonging’ for Chin refugees in the northeastern state of Mizoram cannot be discounted. Especially now, as the fight between the Myanmar military and the pro-democratic forces intensifies near the India-Myanmar borderland villages, the state of Mizoram is once again witnessing a fresh influx of refugees.
The Role of Local Groups
According to the State government’s official record, since the clash began, more than 20,000 refugees have crossed the border and taken refuge in different districts across the State. The latest incident involves the bombing of Lunglerh village by the Myanmar armies in retaliation against the capture of Myanmar Army Camp by the Chinland Defence Force, resulting in civilians fleeing the villages.
"The Myanmar armies had no mercy on the civilians, we were scared for our lives, we had to flee our home and take refuge in the jungle, hoping we could return back to the village. However, the situation only got worse, so we decided to cross the border and take refuge on the other side of the border." - Zengsui, a 40-year-old villager from Bungkhua
Ngunhlei Cuai, a 24-year-old pregnant resident of Fungkah village recollects with horror, “I saw my friend’s father, a pastor. being shot dead by the army. It was heartbreaking and terrifying and fearing that we could be next, we had no choice but to flee.”
For Myanmar civilians, it was either die at the hands of the Myanmar Army or take a difficult journey to cross the international border. On the other side of the border, local NGOs and villagers were alert about the potential refugee influx through the smoke of the burnt villages and the military aeroplanes dropping bombs on towns and villages on the other side of the border. This led to the formation of the Relief and Management Committee (RMC), comprising representatives from Village Council, NGOs such as the Young Mizoram Association (YMA), the Mizo Student Union (MSU), women’s group Mizo Hmeichhe Insuihkhawm Pawl (MHIP), among others.
At this juncture, it is important to note that in 2019, the UNHCR announced that the number of people displaced in the world had reached its highest number ever — 70.8 million.
Belonging & a Shared History
As with many borderlands, Mizoram is simultaneously a space of international connection as well as of highly localised differentiation of identities. Mizoram and the Chin State are small and ethnically distinct sub-states that have considerably more in common with each other than with their respective ‘parent’ nations of India and Myanmar. Strong historical, cultural and ethnic connections between the Chin and the Mizo might suggest that those arriving would easily integrate into Mizoram. This has been true to some extent, but the reception of Chin in Mizoram has also been shaped by their perceived otherness. They have been resented, rejected and blamed for a host of social problems, including the production and sale of alcohol and drugs. On several occasions, low-level resentment has escalated to mass pushbacks across the border to Myanmar.
But alongside these processes of ‘othering’, there also exists a parallel discourse that recognises the Chin as co-ethnics and kin, a discourse that in Mizoram is often framed around pan-ethnic identity, typically Zo.
The import of this discourse is very reflective in the statements made by Lalroluahpuia, Thingsai Village Council Secretary, who has on record said that they cannot abandon their fellow human beings. “The first influx into our village happened in March this year and we were able to provide accommodation in all the empty houses across the village, however, the recent influx was much more in numbers so we built three camps so far. Each camp has about 10 makeshift houses with the capacity of about 10-15 people” says Lalroluahpuia.
But Mizoram Needs Centre's Help
For a deeper understanding, one has to understand the nuances of this narrative. India has to date not ratified the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and has no domestic refugee law. In the absence of a formal legal framework, India’s responses to refugees are ad-hoc and often nationality-specific. For Myanmar refugees, status determination is conducted by the UNHCR in New Delhi and the Indian government has repeatedly refused status determination in Mizoram. The formal status of the Chin in Mizoram is, therefore, not as refugees but undocumented migrants. Rammawi, State Planning Vice Chairman, also in-charge of the refugees, said, “the Ministry of Home Affairs prohibited the entry of infiltrators and initially recognised the Myanmar nationals as infiltrators, but we appealed to the central government to review and accept them as refugees and also seek humanitarian aid.”
So, it is no surprise that the camp that Lalroluahpuia talks of is running with limited financial assistance from the state government and donations from various citizens across the state, which may not last beyond a couple of weeks. Speaking to The Quint, Mizoram Home Minister, Lalchamliana, says “CM Zoramthanga had earlier allocated 30 lakhs to various VC across the state for providing assistance to the refugees. Due to the Covid situation, the Cabinet meeting could not convene and assess the situation. We are assisting the local NGOs in the relief effort”.
A Hasty Colonial Decision
Rammawi further adds that more funds cannot be allocated for the refugees’ rehabilitation as the state is also dealing with the COVID-19 crisis and has a financial crunch. He emphasised the necessity of the Central government’s intervention, “The state government has multiple times sought humanitarian aid from the central government, but we have not received any positive response,” said Rammawi.
The British Colonial masters left years ago, but before they did, they very hastily drew borders with their Imperial pens, which drew Mizoram into the Indian territory and the Chin Hills in Burma (Myanmar). Yet, both groups continue to recognise a common heritage. The Mizo history describes migration from the Chin Hills, and many Mizo and Chin communities share an origin myth of emerging from a cave in Sinlung or Chhinlung. In recent political history, Mizoram and the Chin State have also shared experiences of colonisation, missionisation, conflict and insurgency. This has been a porous border for trade and people.
From 1966 to 1986, Mizoram was steeped in a bitter insurgency and many sought safety across the border in Myanmar. After the Mizo Peace Accord was brokered, the movement of people was overwhelmingly in the other direction.
By the early 2000s, an estimated 100,000 Chin were living in Mizoram – 10 per cent or more of the State’s population.
The Government of India, so far, has not accepted the terms of the Mizoram government to unilaterally allow refugees to stay on Indian soil. Lalchamliana says, “we have no intention to push back because they are not just refugees but our brothers and sisters. On Indian soil, we may be Mizos, and in Myanmar, Chins, but we are all family”.
At this point, we must keep in mind that as per the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) advisory, State Governments and Union Territory administrations have no power to grant “refugee” status to any foreigner. The Mizoram CM had earlier written to PM Modi to provide humanitarian assistance to the Myanmar refugees, but he is yet to respond.
Empathy for Chin refugees has been influenced by deliberate efforts from Mizo and Chin alike to reshape the boundaries of identity and establish a more inclusive approach to ethnicity. This is a reminder that cartographic lines do not dictate mental maps of belonging, hospitality and acceptance.
Similarly, analyses of integration and immigration typically place national laws and policies at the centre, but these are not the most important influences in every refugee situation – and certainly not in Mizoram, where reception of the Chin and others has been dictated by local community organisations rather than state policies. This is clear when Maruata, Additional SP Lawngtlai, says, “There are at least 1,500-2,000 Myanmar nationals taking refuge in Lawngtlai district alone. These refugees were spread across various towns and villages where the local VC and NGOs provided assistance. At the moment, there are no directives from the state government to push back.”
But without the Centre's assistance, the status of the refugees remains unclear. The living conditions will only deteriorate with more refugees coming in. The Covid-19 crisis is another concern as a majority of the refugees are unvaccinated.
Cuai, a 24-year-old Physics major from Yangon University, says very simply, “I had big dreams but now I am a refugee ... My husband is fighting for the cause and I don’t know when I will meet him again but it's worth fighting for. I only hope the Indian Government will understand our problem and provide us with assistance. We do not ask for much, just basic necessities”.
It is clear that the number of refugees will not diminish significantly in the near future. We must work towards providing solutions that will ensure protection and security for the displaced.
(Embassy Lawbei teaches at the Department of Media Studies at Christ University, Bangalore. Prerana Srimal teaches history at the same university. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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