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An Invisible Refuge

By Vinod K. Jose

19 February, 2008

Tio, India-Myanmar border: Thonhlei Zing, a 23-year-old agricultural labourer and four of her friends from Hnian Lawn village in Myanmar's Chin state arrived in India this January 1. They walked three days in the jungle barefoot, swam the Tio River to cross the border, exchanged the Burmese kyats for rupees at the black market in the border town of Champhai and boarded a bus to Aizawl city, the capital of India's border state Mizoram — tough, but the most popular itinerary for Myanmarese refugees crossing India's unfenced international border.

In their desperate attempt to escape the country, unaccounted numbers of ethnic Chin people in Myanmar's western provinces like Sagaing Division and Chin state are fleeing to India since the military crackdown on Buddhist monks in September 2007.

Zing and her friends sat with swollen feet in a crammed one-room house in Aizawl. "The military is unbearable like never before," said Zing. She was a bonded labourer in the military operated tea plantations. Zing was hardly given food, let alone payment.

The sanctions imposed by the United States and European countries have hit Myanmar's economy severely. In a desperate move, the junta sold its mineral and oil fields to Chinese and Indian companies and began aggressive cultivation of cash crops by taking over villagers' land. Tea and castor, a poisonous spurge seed used to make vegetable oil, are the most common military plantations in western Myanmar. Zing escaped one such plantation near Hakha Township in Chin state.

Across the border, in India, Zing and her friends fear to come out in the open because they are not recognised as refugees. "The Indian authorities will deport us since we cannot produce any papers," said Zing, hiding with a Chin family in Aizawl who agreed to accommodate her and her friends for two weeks. Until they find jobs or learn the local Mizo language to pass off as Mizos, they cannot go out.

Without any refugee status or identity proof, 60,000 ethnic Chin Myanmarese are estimated to be living in Mizoram. The inflow began 20 years ago but since September last year there has been a sudden increase. In the absence of any international or Indian agencies at the border, there are neither any credible numbers nor any relief for the refugees. Decades-old security regulations by the Indian government into its sensitive north-eastern territory bordering China and Myanmar restricts the operations of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) or international NGOs at the 1,000-mile long border with Myanmar.

Women's League of Chinland, an umbrella organisation of women's groups from Chin state, is one of the few representatives of the Chin people. Their coordinator at the border, Cheery Zahau, is upset by the absence of any international agencies on the ground. She says, "It is sad that nobody is even keeping a register of how many people flee their country as refugees. By ignoring these people, we are ignoring major humanitarian issues from forced labour to religious persecution of Christians."

American Baptist missionaries converted ethnic Chins from their animistic beliefs to Christianity over a century ago. Today over 90 percent of them are Christians and face severe harassment from the junta.

Benedict Rogers, Advocacy Officer for South Asia at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, says, "Religious persecution is a key factor for the fleeing of Chin people to India. The junta has forced Chin Christians to tear down crosses on mountainsides and build Buddhist pagodas in their place. The regime is guided by a very extreme, narrow, distorted and perverted form of Buddhist nationalism, summarised in the phrase "One race, one religion, one language'." Adds Zahau, "If you are C2 — a Chin and a Christian — you can't do anything in Myanmar except bear the cross of atrocities."

RAPE IS very common in the Chin state. Two weeks before Christmas, Scui Cua Mauui, a 42-year-old widow and mother of four children, left Min Hla village near Kalaymyo in Sagaing Division to India after repeated sexual harassments by military forces. Rape was twice attempted on Mauui and she was forced to work at the army-managed castor plantation. "It was not my choice to come to India. I simply could not live there," she says.

Mauui is now in hiding at Phunchawang village in Mizoram. It's now over a month that she has been babysitting in a Mizo family in return for shelter, food and two rupees a day allowance, hoping to save Rs 500 to buy a basket and start selling vegetables.

Meanwhile, the Indian authorities continue to deny a fresh influx of ethnic Chins into India. Administrative head of the border district Champhai, Deputy Commissioner TV Sambawl said, "In my knowledge no refugee cross into India. No one came to me and said 'I'm a refugee from Burma'."

What Sambawl doesn't acknowledge is that no refugee would do that for fear of deportation. But he does admit that the Chin people use the jungle as a route for migration. "Villages inside the forests are connected through narrow footpaths. Since the border is not fenced we cannot ensure that the Myanmarese people are not crossing into India through such jungle routes. But we cannot do anything about it as the area is very large and has no roads."

In the absence of humanitarian agencies and constant denials from Indian authorities, testimonials of Myanmarese refugees pouring into India come from local sources — traders, money exchangers, taxi drivers, health workers and pastors.

Pa Nawl from Chun Cung village near Hakha Township has been "trading" (read smuggling) clothes and shoes from China to India through Myanmar. Since September 2007, he says, the business is "much better". "I buy items from Shwelee in China, bring it to Mandalay in Burma, pass Kalaymyo in Chin state, cross the border at Tio and sell it in Mizoram," he explains his fortnight-long trade route. "People ask me every day if they can come with me. Just today I brought in five people as porters," he says.

Nu Tling, a popular money changer at the border town of Champhai, agrees: "There are more people coming to exchange their kyats for rupees since September. I have been accumulating kyats because people are not going back. That is bad business for me," says Tling, an ethnic Chin Myanmarese herself.

At Zokhawthar village on the Indian side of the border, the only non-governmental agency is a three-bed medical clinic that has a health worker, a laboratory technician and a midwife. Pa Chawa Kunga, the 67-year-old health worker, says, "The number has clearly increased multi-fold. But I cannot say by how much, because those I see today aren't there tomorrow. They leave to other villages after staying for one or two days." He says malaria is on the rise in the villages and he is running out of chloroquine pills.

Peter Thowmas (name changed) is the president of a Christian fellowship of Chin people in Aizawl. He says the number of people coming to his church has increased by over 200 in the last four months. He does not want to be quoted because he was targeted by a Mizo group in 2003 for speaking for the Chin people. His house was attacked and his family stayed underground for six months. An influential Mizo group, Young Mizo Association (YMA), spearheaded the campaign to evict Chins from Mizoram and hand them over to the Myanmar junta. "Our members went around with loudspeakers in a joint campaign with the administration as the Chins were disturbing peace in Mizoram. The Chins stay illegally in Mizoram and take away our jobs. Foreigners cannot live in this country without proper documents," says Lal Ruat Kima, the YMA's general secretary. Kima puts the ethnic Chin population in Mizoram around 1,00,000 and calls it "highly problematic."

The Chins think 2008 is going to be a bad year for them in India. The border state is going for polls later in the year. The church leader is apprehensive about a fresh round of protest from the Mizo groups. "Our status in Mizoram is going to be the main election issue. The party that promises to push us back to Myanmar will win," says a worried Thowmas.

Vinod K. Jose is a Bollinger Presidential Fellow at Columbia Journalism School, New York. This report was first appeared in Tehelka weekly.


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