Moreh, Manipur: It is hard to conceive that the five university students and a high schooler—dressed in brightly coloured pajamas with cartoon prints—had arrest warrants pending against them not 10 km away in another country.
As they met Article 14 at an undisclosed location near this border town, they described how they mounted motorcycles and cut through dense forests, as they fled their homes in Myanmar and drove across the international border, where they have found shelter, against Indian government policy and orders issued to locals by the state government, led by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The six Myanmarese students were part of that country’s Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), some of thousands protesting a February military coup, which has since dissolved into raging violence and army brutality against protestors.
From their seized laptops, the military junta identified the six protestors, issuing warrants to arrest them for organising peaceful rallies in Tamu, a town in Myanmar’s Sagaing region, which has been engulfed in protests and deadly clashes.
Since March, Moreh and nearby villages, located on the edge of Manipur’s Tengnoupal district, have witnessed an influx of refugees from Tamu, where military reinforcements poured in that month. By late March, hundreds of families and dissidents crossed the border seeking safety and shelter.
At the official border, there is silence, a fallout not just of the ongoing pandemic but India’s policy to reject refugees, now thrown into question by a 20 April Manipur High Court ruling that even though India was not a signatory to international refugee conventions, the practice or providing refuge to persecuted people was enshrined in the Constitution.
The gates of the Indo-Myanmar checkpoint and “friendship bridge” connecting the two countries in Moreh, Manipur, have been shut for over a year now, tightly fastened with an iron chain and a lock. International trade ceased on 10 March 2020 due to Covid-19. Most shops in Moreh are shuttered, and the usually bustling streets emptied of vendors and their customers.
‘Our Parents Feel Safer Knowing We Are In India’
“From 6 February, we had been protesting on the streets of Tamu,” said *Pupu, a 21-year-old student of Nepali ethnicity from Sagaing University. “Initially, 35 of us came out but slowly more people joined us.”
Once the protests began, students from various ethnic backgrounds began staying together in a camp, where they planned the next course of action, made posters and posted updates on social media. Like the 8.8.88 generation of young men and women on the frontlines during the last military coup in 1988, ‘GenZ’ youth are leading this fight for democracy.
“We do not want military rule,” said Pupu. “We want our rights.”
Another protestor, Crystal*, 21, who was finishing her final year at Yangon university before Covid-19 struck, said that they had been in touch with their parents. They hadn’t been home for more than a month, staying at the CDM camp, nor did they get a chance to say goodbye before fleeing to India.
“Our parents are supportive of our cause,” she said. In the current crisis, in fact, they felt safer knowing they were in India.
The students told Article 14 that the camp brought protestors of different ethnicities and faiths closer as they stayed together to fight for a common cause. “Even gay people had joined us out on the streets and in the camp,” said Crystal.
The students shared space with civilian protestors undergoing arms training who have organized a defense front called the Tamu Security Group. With the increasing use of deadly force by the military, the Tamu Security Group took up arms, such as Tumi guns (a single shot traditional hunting rifle loaded with gunpowder) to shield civilian protestors.
However, since April, the group has ambushed convoys and attacked the Tamu police post, killing at least five police personnel. A Burmese police defector who led the attack against the military died along with a civilian belonging to the ethnic Kuki community, who inhabit large parts of Moreh and parts of Tengnoupal district.
Like other refugees, the students have found shelter at a local family’s home, where they spend their days and nights updating news and information about the protests on their social media pages.
“We don’t have any group as such and receive information from Facebook messenger,” said Crystal. “Now and then we get blocked if we say anything abusive against the Junta or China.”
The Third Wave
This is not the first time that villages in Manipur have experienced such an influx from across the border. The aftermath of the 8.8.88 Uprising, which we referred to earlier, and the 2007 Saffron Revolution brought a large number of Myanmar citizens—mostly youth and political leaders—who took shelter in Moreh and other northeastern states.
Each time, villages in the hill districts of Manipur, which shares a 398 km border with Myanmar, extended help to the refugees. Many of them share close ethnic ties, including Chin Mizo/Kuki, Nepali/Gorkhali, Tamil, Pangal (Muslim) and Naga communities that have been living alongside for decades, separated by the international border.
In 1988, a refugee camp, popularly known as Leikun, was set up at a Manipur Rifles camp in Chandel district. But this time, on orders from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled government at the Centre and the state, M Gyan Prakash, Manipur’s special secretary (home), asked officials to “politely turn them away” and not open camps. The order was retracted a few days later but it continues to be followed in spirit.
Nevertheless, communities in Moreh and other border villages are discreetly helping refugees—politicians, media persons, families and young dissenters of the Military coup—welcoming them into their homes. Many of the residents in Moreh from the Indian trading community are themselves descendants of refugees who fled Myanmar during the 1962 coup.
“This time, hardly a handful of Tamil families have taken refuge in Moreh,” said a local businessman, whose father had migrated from Yangon to Tamil Nadu in 1962, but later set up their base in Moreh. He asked not to be identified.
“There’s a tacit understanding among the communities to take in refugees with whom they share closer ethnic ties,” he said.
Although Covid-19 had severely hit traders and daily wage labourers, he said that locals were contributing personal resources to provide humanitarian aid to the refugees.
A leader of a tribal civil society body organizing relief work, who spoke to Article 14 on the condition of anonymity, said that they did not invite the refugees. “But they came and if somebody comes to us and seeks help, how can we turn them away?”
Unlike Mizoram, which has openly been receiving refugees through its 510 km porous border with Myanmar, CSOs in Manipur have kept their relief operations discrete, with authorities keeping a close watch.
Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga refused to obey New Delhi, calling the home ministry’s order “unacceptable”. Unlike Manipur, where the Hindu nationalist BJP leads the coalition government, a Christian regionalist party, the Mizo National Front, rules Mizoram.
Many community leaders attributed the Manipur government’s “insensitivity” to the BJP-run state government, while others said that chief minister N Biren Singh was from the majority Meitei community, which is not represented in the refugee influx.
The Manipur assembly, for which elections are scheduled in 2022, has 40 out of 60 seats representing the Meitei-dominated valley. The rest of the seats are made up by a myriad of tribal communities living in the hills. The government has not responded to the call by the United Committee Manipur, a batch of civil society bodies claiming to represent Meitei interests and welfare, urged the government to open relief camps and register refugees.
“With elections around the corner, Biren wants to hold on to his seat,” said a community leader, requesting not to be named.
An official, who is not authorised to speak to the media, playfully remarked that while Zoramthanga is only thinking from his heart on this issue, Biren is also using his head.
Donations have trickled in from individuals and philanthropic organizations for essential items. As in Mizoram, a charity concert in Moreh on 12 April raised money for refugees: Rs 140,000.
For Lalkholun Haokip, the chief of Haolenphai village that is located on the edge of the border and has seen infiltration by the Junta in the past, providing shelter to the Kuki-Chin refugees was an obvious choice.
“Yes, I am aware of the government’s instruction,” he said. “But these are our own brothers and sisters living across the border,” he said. “It is not only about relationships or kinship, but basic humanity. How can you deny food to someone who is hungry?”
Besides kinship, empathy comes from a long-standing relationship as neighbours.
Once the Junta started raiding homes in Tamu, *Muan Lian, 40, fled with his wife and two kids to a friend’s home in Haolenphai. He had been crossing the border for years, trading between Tamu and Moreh for years and knew most people in the village.
“We’ve all known each other on a daily basis, so I don’t feel like a stranger here,” he said. Although neither Lian nor his family was part of any protest groups, the increasing frequency of firing in his neighbourhood made him fear for their lives. On April 13, a Gorkhali couple was shot dead, reportedly by the Myanmarese military ,while on their way to fetch milk on a motorbike.
Anxiety Over Survival
Despite personnel of India’s premium paramilitary force, the Assam Rifles, manning the 50-odd km border stretching across Tengnoupal district, many refugees that Article 14 met had managed to slip through. The ethnic differences of the racially similar communities on either side of the border are lost on the personnel on duty, many of whom come from other Indian states.
There are no official estimates as yet released of illegal migrants, largely due to the absence of an official policy in India on providing asylum to refugees. Officials estimated there may be between 500 to 1,000. On 20 April, as we said, the Manipur High Court granted safe passage to seven Myanmarese citizens, who had been in hiding in Moreh for more than a month. Among them are Pau Khan Thawn, Cing San Lun and Si Thu Aung - journalists who work with a website called the Mizzima News Service.
On 3 May, the court granted them passage to go to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in New Delhi on the grounds that Article 21 of the Indian Constitution (right to life and personal liberty) could be extended to non citizens, even though India is not a signatory to the Geneva Convention of 1951 or the New York Protocol of 1967.
Aung, a video journalist, escaped an arrest warrant under 505A of the Myanmar Penal Code, which deals with penalising publishing and circulating of a rumour or report that amounts to an offence against the State.
Noting that the seven Myanmar nationals had fled the country of their origin under imminent threat to their lives and liberty, the court noted that ‘they aspire for relief under International Conventions that were put in place to offer protection and rehabilitation to refugees/asylum seekers’. Further, the bench said that insisting that the seven ‘first answer for admitted violations of our domestic laws, as a condition precedent for seeking ‘refugee’ status, would be palpably inhuman’.
Moreover, the court took cognizance of India’s endorsement of ‘Global Impact on Refugees’ among 193 countries of the United Nations on December 17, 2018, which formulated an equitable responsible sharing framework for governments and international organisations. The order read this framework under, ‘Article 51 of our Constitution casts a non-enforceable duty upon the ‘State’ to promote international peace and security, apart from fostering respect for international law and treaty-obligations in the dealings of organized peoples with one another’.
While they have managed to turn away refugees along with the Manipur police personnel, officials told Article-14 that the same people infiltrate through several other unmanned entry points. The most that Assam Rifles personnel patrolling border villages can do to filter locals from illegal migrants is by asking for Aadhaar cards.
The young CDM supporters have not dared to venture out of the house in which they are sheltered, fearing they would get identified by language, even though some of them speak a little Hindi (thanks to Bollywood films) and English.
“Before the coup, we used to come to Moreh on the weekend to have pani puri and idli-dosa,” said Suman*, a 29 year old protestor of Nepali descent. Though the town has been a safe haven for almost a month, she is acutely aware of the Indian government’s hostility to refugees like them.
More than anything, she said, they wanted to return and rejoin protests in Tamu. Some young protestors said they were ready to take up arms and ally with rebel groups in the region.
Though his friend had warmly welcomed him and his family into their home, Lian expressed apprehensions of soon becoming a burden to his host. “I will have to start looking for some work here, anything that is available for me to feed my family,” he said.
Like the authorities and other community leaders, Haokip did not have a head count of the refugees who had taken shelter in his village nor did he feel the need for one.
“But we urgently need higher authorities to help with humanitarian aid,” he said.
Because of the home ministry’s directive, international aid organisations have not been able to offer any help.
Sonboi Lhungdim, a community health worker for an international aid organisation in Moreh with requested anonymity, told Article-14, “Normally in such situations we would have sprung into action. But we can’t do much on this side of the border”.
The three Myanmar nationals, who crossed the border with bullet wounds on the evening of March 26, had received medical attention in Imphal. However, their status hangs in a limbo even though they continue to be in Manipur although their specific whereabouts remain undisclosed.
Meanwhile, the UNHCR office is yet to release a statement on the influx of Myanmar refugees in India. The court order noted that the Delhi office in an email correspondence to the petitioner said that the new arrivals from Myanmar may approach it for registration ‘once they are in Delhi’.
Manipur-based lawyer and founder of Human Rights Alert, Babloo Loitongbam told Article-14 that while on the one hand, the government's attitude was hostile towards the refugees; on the other, the UNHCR's response was woefully inadequate to the refugee crisis this time.
“For an organisation whose entire mandate is to help refugees in crisis, they should be allowed to set up offices in Manipur or Mizoram like they did in Tamil Nadu during the Sri Lanka crisis,” he said.
Instead, Babloo added, the refugees have to go all the way to New Delhi at a time when the city is reeling under the worst COVID wave seen so far.
“They’re escaping the frying pan only to fall into the fire"
*Names changed on request
(Ninglun Hanghal is an Imphal-based freelance journalist covering Manipur for more than a decade. Makepeace Sitlhou is a Guwahati-based journalist covering the Northeast region.)