They face the same dangers as the Rohingya
Expatriate refugees from the
poverty-stricken nation of Myanmar have begun filtering back, partly as their
country of origin has democratized and more ominously because they are feeling
the heat from host countries like Thailand, India, Bangladesh and Malaysia to
But so far, the Chin, an impoverished
Christian minority that has been likened to the persecuted Rohingya, who have
been set upon by majority Buddhists unmercifully, have yet to join the exodus.
About 100,000 thousand of them are just across the border in India’s Mizoram
State, where they fled in the wake of 1998 riots. Chin Province, on the
country’s southwestern flank, is one of Burma’s poorest. Nearly 75 percent of
its 500,000 population live enmired in poverty, deprived of support from the
successive Burmese regimes in Rangoon or the new administrative capital of
Initially the refugees were either
political activists or student leaders who were targeted by the then military
rulers. But even with a quasi-democratic regime in Naypyidaw, the influx to
India continues, with people entering India not to escape dictators or
authority, but for a better life.
In some cases the Burmese Army may
have already confiscated their lands and destroyed their properties. Finding
difficulties in surviving inside India as well, the Burmese refugees are now
seeking resettlement to a third country.
The majority of the Chin complain
about discrimination from the Buddhist-dominated federal government. The 1998
movement against the then military rulers of Burma was crushed, leaving
thousands dead across the country.
“Like other ethnic communities in
Myanmar, the Chin people bore the brunt of severe poverty and military rule,
prompting many to flee across the 1,463 km border into India’s Mizoram State,
according to a 2011 report by physicians for human rights.”
The refugees feel somewhat
comfortable in Mizoram as it is one of the India’s few Christian-dominated
states. The Chin and Mizo people, who share ancestry, share physical
appearance, food habits and language accents. In some occasions, the highly
influential churches also play an important role in propagating the sense of
brotherhood between the two communities.
Nonetheless, asylum seekers often face
the problem of finding livelihoods. Mostly they work as cheap daily wage
earners in construction sites, agriculture fields, market areas and also in
local Mizo households.
“Our people frequently face rights
violations here (Mizoram) even though they are reluctant (read scared) to go
back to their native places in Burma. We are actually afraid the situation in
Chin province is yet to be favorable us,” said Pu Win, a Chin activist based in
the frontier town of Saiha in Mizoram. The activist added that the Chin are
worried about medical care and education for their children. So ignoring the
troubles in Mizoram, most of the Chin refugees prefer to stay in India until
their country develops a little more, he added.
Unlike those in Mizoram, Burmese
asylum seekers in Delhi face more trouble as they are physically different, as
are their culture, religion and language. As they are not comfortable in Hindi,
the primary language, the refugees find it extremely difficult in communicating
their short-time employers and authorities.
India’s national capital gives
shelter to over 8,000 registered Burmese refugees, but New Delhi is also home
to another 10,000 asylum seekers, half of them women and children who have to
travel over 2200 km from Mizoram to Delhi to enroll with the office of United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
India, which supports a few hundred
thousand refugees from Tibet, Burma, Sri Lanka etc., has yet to adopt a
specific refugee protection policy, resulting in persistent confusion about the
refugees and their legitimate rights. Moreover, India is not a signatory to the
1951 UN refugee convention or a 1967 refugee status protocol.
“As there is no procedural mechanism
for protecting the refugees in India, the Burmese refugee women have to
struggle for their basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter in New
Delhi,” said M Kim, a Burmese exile based in New Delhi. “In addition to this,
they battle with the constant fear of sexual assault and physical abuse.”
Quoting a report titled Doke Kha
Bon with the accounts of 20 Chin women refugees in New Delhi, which was
sponsored by the Burma Center Delhi and released recently, Kim asserted that
the capital city remains universally unsafe for asylum seekers.
According to the UNHCR office in New
Delhi, persecution due to minority ethnic race, religion and political opinion
are cited as the main reasons for their seeking asylum in neighboring countries.
“The most frequent complaints reported to UNHCR include difficulty in
communicating with local health & education service providers,” said the
BCD sponsored report.
Prepared by the Pann Nu Foundation,
the report includes case studies relating to Chin refugee women now living in
“Those women, many of them widows and
single mothers, have bared their hearts during the interaction. In fact, every
woman has a pathetic story to tell. Originally hailed from some remote areas of
Chin, the refugee families were once dependent on Jhum (shifting) cultivation.
But due to land confiscation practice adopted by the Burmese Army, the Chin
villagers gradually lost their livelihood and left for India,” said Alana
Golmei, founder president of Pann Nu Foundation.
Often the women and girls were
compelled to serve the Burmese military as porters and laborers, made to serve
food, camp in the jungle with no proper shelter without even knowing when they
could return home.
“Needless to say, they all lack
proper education. The interviewees can only read and write in their local Chin
dialect. All these women, who are Christians, had no respite from the Buddhist
dominated military personnel, who even barge into their houses and demand food
time to time,” Golmei said. “They said the continued sexual assault by the
Burmese soldiers is their worst nightmare there.”
But their lives in New Delhi are
turning into another nightmare.
“They allege that they become victims
of physical abuse, molestation, sexual assault and discrimination everywhere
they go, be it at their rented apartments, workplaces, public spaces or even
the roads for that matter,” Golmei said, adding that they keep mum about sexual
assaults due to the fear of social stigmatization and shame.
Now voices have been raised for
reviewing the existing foreign policy of Indian government taking into the
consideration of the Burmese refugee women and children in the country.
Understanding the refugee women are more vulnerable and are easy targets, the
activists appealed to New Delhi to continue supporting the asylum seekers.
“The new difficulty for the Burmese
refugees has started with the news of democratization of Burma. Now most
conscious people of India argue that the refugees should leave the country, as
India has enough problems to deal with,” said Dr Tint Swe, a physician and an
exile in India for decades.
Swe however admitted that Indian
people in general remain merciful. Of course they are lately starting to
believe that if Burma becomes comfortable and safer, they should leave.
“But the question arises here if the
changes in Burma have prepared the ground for returning the refugees. In
reality it has not. So we have urged the Indian government to review its
existing foreign policy with an aim to continue safeguarding the refugees here
for some more years,” he added.
Following the call from Thein Sein
government to exiles taking shelter in different countries to return, many
refugee families had already responded to that and left India. Others, however,
remain apprehensive about their future. In some cases it is understood that the
Burmese Army might have already confiscated their lands and destroyed their
properties. Finding difficulties in surviving inside India as well, the Burmese
refugees are now seeking the resettlement in a third country for a dignified
life. Nava Thakuria reports regularly for Asia Sentinel from Eastern