As the Myanmar security forces intensify their crackdown on peaceful civilian protesters, demonstrations against the coup have been held in many parts of the world – including right next door in Mizoram, which shares a 404-km-long, porous border with Myanmar’s Chin State.
While the rest of India nonchalantly observes the tragic events unfolding in their eastern neighbour, the Mizo Zirlai Pawl – the apex Mizo students body – on February 3 organised a sit-in demonstration in the capital Aizawl in solidarity with the people of Myanmar, specially the Chins who are the ethnic brethren of the Mizos and Kukis of India.
The MZP headquarters in Lunglei organised a similar gathering roughly a week later on February 11 in conjunction with the Chin Welfare Organisation based in that town. Other NGOs such as the Zo-Reunification Organisation and Mizo Students Union added their support.
On March 19, the border town of Champhai on Mizoram’s eastern flank witnessed another demonstration led by the MZP that saw students and others lining the streets carrying banners and placards. The Mara Students Organisation followed suit in Mizoram’s southernmost town of Saiha, the capital of the Mara Autonomous District Council adjoining Myanmar’s Chin State.
In a stark contrast with the cautious diplomatic response by New Delhi to the actions of the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is officially known, the shock and concern about the latest coup is palpable in Mizoram in ways that almost seem personal and emotional.
It isn’t just about the shared border: the people in the region have age-old kinship ties that date back to the pre-colonial period.
Swell of empathy
The overwhelming support and empathy for the besieged people of Myanmar has found a variety of expressions in Mizoram. For instance, legendary Mizo singer Rebecca Saimawii has belted out revolutionary Burmese songs A Yay Kyi Pi and Kabar Ma Kyay Bu on her YouTube channel, flashing the three-finger salute used by protestors in Myanmar.
Other Mizo musical figures, such as four-year-old Esther Hnamte, have also been photographed displaying the same gesture of solidarity.
A painter in Aizawl, Moitea Adhikari, paid tribute to 19-year-old Ma Kyal Sin who was shot dead in Mandalay during a Civil Disobedience protest at the end of February, as she wore a tee shirt that declared, “Everything will be ok.” The unsigned painting by the Mizo artist has been shared numerous times across social media platforms.
Several Mizo village council authorities have issued letters and statements affirming their willingness to accommodate Chin refugees in the wake of the crisis. On February 24, Chief Minister Zoramthanga himself gave an assurance in the assembly that the state government would be ready to provide assistance to civilians fleeing the regime – without mentioning any specific ethnicity.
A brotherhood affair
At the sit-in demonstration held at the front lawn of Vanapa Hall in Aizawl a mere two days after the coup, a large banner was unfurled that read, “We demand restoration of democracy in Myanmar: MZP strongly stands with our Zo-brothers in Myanmar.” The Zo people include all the tribes that come under the Chin-Kuki-Mizo ethnic group spread across Myanmar, India and Bangladesh.
The passion and urgency with which the sit-in was organised is notable in a state where illegal immigration had been a vexed issue and where there have been paradoxes in the positions adopted by the government and civil society– especially relating to the Chin people. Despite sharing common origin and ancestry, the Mizos have not always welcomed Chins into their fold.
Nevertheless, Chins have over the decades migrated to Mizoram, the numbers being especially significant after the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests by the Tatmadaw in 1988. At that time, many Chins who were National League for Democracy activists and loyalists of party leader Aung san Suu Kyi fled to the border town of Champhai.
The Chin immigrants in Mizoram have more or less integrated into Mizo society even as they have formed their own fellowships for the purposes of worship and welfare. Many of them continued to maintain close ties with their relatives back in Myanmar.
But the migration wasn’t only a one-way story. In the early 20th century, Mizos from Champhai and elsewhere also migrated into Myanmar, setting up villages in the Kalay-Kabaw valley. In fact, scores of Mizo/Lushai men enrolled in the Burmese Army, an attractive source of employment for people from the backward Lushai Hills.
Many Mizo families also migrated to Myanmar during the Rambuai – the period of tumult between 1966 and 1986 when the Mizo National Front sought secession from India. The brutal counter-insurgency measures resulted in widespread destruction of livelihoods, human rights violations and immeasurable hardships in the Mizo Hills, prompting many to seek refuge in Myanmar.
Today, the Tahan locality in Kalaymyo in Myanmar’s Sagaing region is inhabited by many Duhlian-speaking people and has become an important cultural site for the Mizos. In fact, the online-based news channels and web pages run by Mizo-language outlets in this part of Myanmar allow people in Mizoram to follow the news from across the border in their own language.
This is also what is different about the resistance efforts against the latest coup d’etat compared to the 1988 pro-democracy uprising: smartphones and social media now allow news updates in real time and even live-streaming of the protests.
Besides, people on both sides of the Mizoram-Chin State border share a Christian faith. Calls for prayers from the Myanmar side have tugged at the hearts and consciences of Mizo church-goers and fellow Christians in North East India.
The Tiau River border near Zokhawthar is frequently traversed by traders, musicians, artists, writers, journalists, students, NGO activists, preachers and delegates of church conferences and most importantly visitors to Rih Dil, the mystical heart-shaped lake situated a few kilometres from the international boundary near the town of Rihkhawdar within Chin State’s Falam District.
Rih Dil is an important cultural and spiritual lake for the Mizos, deeply revered in folklore as the essential passageway en route to the famed mitthi khua (village of the dead) for the ordinary people and pialral (paradise) for the social elites, chiefs and warriors. This pre-Christian era belief had long shaped the traditional Mizo views about life after death.
The disjunct between cultural and geographical borders is succinctly described in a popular saying: “The largest lake of Mizoram is Rih Dil but it is located in Burma.”
Blurring of borders
The border is a complex element in this region. Rampant illegality such as the smuggling of narcotic drugs and other banned trade items across the porous border have often caused residents to view the border with suspicion – as a conduit for unethical practices that bring harmful effects to their lives.
There had been several occasions when village councils and local branches of the powerful Young Mizo Association issued “quit notices” to Chin migrants, at times expelling innocent and guilty alike for a crime committed by one or two people.
This has created chasms between hosts and immigrants.
At the same time, there is a clear understanding of being a common people, of being unau (brothers) who collectively are Chhinlung chhuak (the tribes who emerged from the mythical rock or cave). These tribes are believed to have migrated from somewhere in China across Tibet and Burma to their present abodes in long, successive waves but were segregated into colonial administrative hills and districts and partitioned by a post-colonial international boundary.
They have always emphasised that ram (land) has borders but hnam (ethnicity) does not. In their interpretation, this means that blood relations are thicker and stronger than mere water – or nationality.
This special bond was strengthened as India since the early 1990s decided to “Look and Act East” in its foreign policy approach. As Myanmar began to slowly transition to democracy and hopes for a new progressive social order ran high, “brotherhood” and “unity” have become the overarching themes in the cross-border narratives of Chins and Mizos.
The discourse of brotherhood and the rhetoric of reunification have gained ground among political parties, NGOs and civil society groups and have contributed towards the blurring of borders – political, social and cultural – and the forging of a transborder understanding.
This was the backdrop against which the Mizo Zirlai Pawl sprung into action on February 3 as an organisation that has been championing cultural unity and inclusivity among the Zo people.
The MZP has been periodically organising a transborder ethnic festival called Zofest, to which all the tribes under the Chin-Kuki-Mizo group are invited. The latest edition of Zofest was to be held in Myanmar this year, but the coup has sabotaged the plan.
The last event in 2018 held in Reiek near Aizawl had Chin MPs coming over from Myanmar as special guests. Some of them were among those initially detained by the military junta when the coup was staged.
A shared destiny
As the situation deteriorates in Myanmar, New Delhi must take practical steps to help refugees from across the border keeping in mind the close ethnic, cultural and religious ties and the huge expectations that stem from it.
This is especially true in the Chin-Mizo context where many Chins naturally see Mizoram as their safe zone, their second home.
Already, at least eight Myanmarese policemen have sought shelter in India after refusing orders to shoot at protestors.
India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and does not have a national refugee protection framework. The controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 did not allow the minorities of Myanmar to be eligible for consideration of a simplified Indian citizenship procedure, despite being persecuted by the Tatmadaw for decades.
Nevertheless, there are thousands of refugees including Chins living in Delhi under the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. But as a Chin welfare leader in Lunglei noted, for a refugee from Myanmar to make it all the way to Delhi is an arduous and costly endeavour, one not many are willing or capable to embark upon.
Besides, the long process of third-country resettlement and the lack of basic necessities make them uncertain about the future. Judging from experience, finding sanctuary within Mizoram and other North Eastern states would be their best option. In Mizoram, the public sentiment is strongly in favour of opening the door for them any time.
India’s constructive engagement with Myanmar’s junta since the 1990s has helped forge bilateral trust, resulting in significant connectivity and development projects being undertaken. But it must not come at the cost of turning a blind eye to injustices on the ground that are inimical to India’s long-held democratic principles and practices.
While New Delhi plays safe in geopolitically sensitive Myanmar, sticking with a pragmatic and balanced position, it should y co-ordinate with UNHCR and the state governments as well as NGOs in the North East to provide humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers and provide them with shelter and other basic necessities.
In doing so, policymakers must note that there are significant stakes involved, not only from the Centre’s standpoint of border security, but from from the perspective of these transborder communities that share a deeply intertwined destiny.
CV Lalmalsawmi is a writer from Lunglei and a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.