India’s border villages and town bear the burden of political crisis in Myanmar
Villagers play the role of good Samaritan
Even as communities in Manipur were told not to welcome people fleeing from the military crackdown in Myanmar, it is impossible to follow that instruction. Simply because for inhabitants in border areas, specifically the town of Moreh in Southeast Manipur, those people from just across the international border are their kin or part of the same clan. They cannot “turn their backs” on relatives, while many are friends and acquaintances.
In the aftermath of unrest and uproar in the neighbouring country over the military coup on 1 February this year, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs wrote to Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh – the States bordering Myanmar–in early March asking the Governments to take appropriate action against the influx of refugees. The MHA reiterated that India is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol. Therefore, they were required to check the “illegal” influx.
According to the Centre’s advisory, the Manipur Government directed Deputy Commissioners of the four border districts–Ukhrul, Churachandpur, Tengnoupal and Chandel– to turn away citizens of Myanmar. Later, as local sentiments turned, the State Government retracted its diktat. But it advised district authorities and civil society groups to not open camps to provide food or shelter for refugees. It also asked them to immediately stop the Aadhaar enrolment exercise in the district.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of External Affairs expressed its deep concern in a statement and said that it was monitoring the situation closely. It went on to add that India has always been steadfast in its support for the process of democratic transition in Myanmar but believed that the rule of law must be upheld.
India shares a 1,643 kilometre-border with Myanmar and the border States on the other side are Sagaing, Chin and Kachin. In both countries, border areas are inhabited by ethnic communities–largely Chin, Kachin, Shan, Kuki, Mizos, Nagas, Gorkhalis and Tamilians. The displaced population from Myanmar seeking shelter in the North East, particularly Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland, are mainly from the Saigang and Chin regions. Therefore the ethnic closeness is conspicuous. And to merely act upon a legal order or advice is just unthinkable for inhabitants of the border villages.
There has been human contact and activity, both social and economic, since time immemorial in those areas and it continued even after Independence in both countries. Thus, cross-border movement becomes an obvious conduit in political crises as well.
This is not the first instance of displaced people from Myanmar entering villages in India’s North East. During events like the 1962 coup, 8888 uprising or the 2007 saffron revolution, hundreds of people from Burma (now Myanmar) took refuge in the four North Eastern States.
After the February coup this year, hundreds of Myanmar’s citizens are fleeing into Manipur’s border villages again, particularly villages in Tengnoupal and Chandel. Most prominently, Myanmarese people have flocked into Moreh and its adjoining villages seeking refuge. While Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga has openly welcomed them, the situation is not so in Manipur. Nevertheless, local philanthropists and tribal organisations in Moreh are extending help and making room for refugees.
By providing a roof over refugees’ heads or sharing whatever they have, people in Moreh and nearby villages are not only answering the call of kinship or clanship. There are historical and commercial ties involved as well.
Even so, residents of Moreh are in a Catch-22 situation –neither can they set up relief camps nor turn away those who are knocking on their doors, almost begging for shelter.
Although Good Samaritans are working discreetly, it is an “open secret” as local people would call it. Donations and aid have been mobilised locally with rations coming from Moreh and essential items being supplied from other areas in Manipur. Music concerts have also been held to raise funds for the displaced.
That said, many local people and philanthropists expect more influx in the coming days. They are apprehensive of a severe humanitarian crisis, especially on the health front, given the lack of infrastructure and facilities in the small town of Moreh.
In the absence of Centralised and systematic relief work, there is no accurate estimate of the number of refugees taking shelter in Moreh and its adjoining villages. Rough estimates put the figure at anything from 500 to 1,500 people till April.
Moreh is an important part of India’s Act East Policy. With the second wave of Covid-19 being so severe, the town is staring at an uncertain future. Economic activity has been suspended for more than a year now.
In addition to the pandemic, the latest political crisis in Myanmar has also exacerbated commercial woes. Most people in the area have transited from their traditional agriculture and taken up livelihoods as traders, labourers or transporters with their lifeline being the Indo-Myanmar border trade, which was booming in the last couple of decades.
Also published in The Statesman Dated May 17, 2021.