About 700 households of Zokhawthar in the Champhai district of Mizoram continue to provide refuge to 800 families from Myanmar for the past year. And this is not all.
Mizoram had seen an influx of over 26,600 Myanmarese refugees till March this year since the military coup of February 2021, a majority from the adjacent Chin state.
Strange though it may sound, for the Mizos it is more about helping their brothers during these distressed times, who might not get to return home in another decade.
Prioritizing humanity and ethnicity over the economic crisis that may soon strike if the influx continues at such an exponential rate, the state’s determination to support the Myanmarese could not be broken even by the Union government’s refusal to acknowledge the issue.
Sem sem dam dam (One who share lives)
“In Mizo, we have the saying ‘Sem sem dam dam, ei bil thi’ meaning ‘One who share lives (survives), one who hoards dies’. And the refugee camps are all Mizos, so the locals cannot just ignore them,” said a senior journalist from Mizoram.
Zokhawthar is just an example. An approximate 3,500 population of Zokhawthar in the Champhai district is providing for 2,941 refugees who have fled from their native home in neighbouring Myanmar escaping the junta, informed Lalmuanpuia, the village council president to TNM.
“Most of the villagers are not economically sound… they are mostly dependent on agriculture. We might not have enough but these people are of our own tribe, our own people. Presently, funds are being provided by several NGOs and the Mizoram government,” said Lalmuanpuia.
Four Northeast states – Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh – share a 1,640-km unfenced border with Myanmar. Mizoram alone shares a 510 km-long border. Last year, the Union home ministry had sent out an advisory stating that the states and Union territories do not have the power to grant “refugee” status to any foreigner, and India is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 protocol. This has not dispirited the Mizos who are determined to provide refuge.
According to government records, as many as 26,663 Myanmar nationals have taken shelter in different parts of all the 11 districts of Mizoram, reported PTI at the end of March, 2022.
Of the 22,098 displaced Myanmar nationals who have taken refuge in the six districts following the military coup in the trouble-torn country, Champhai has the highest number of 7,810 followed by Siaha district at 6,614, the records said.
Influx seen as a ‘homecoming’ in disguise
For a large section of the Mizos, the influx of refugees is actually a ‘homecoming’ of the several thousands of people who were separated during India’s independence, or fled the state during the Mizo National Front Uprising of 1966.
Samuel Zoramthanpuia, general secretary of the Mizo Students’ Union (MSU) told The News Mill: “There is strong bondage between the Chin and the Mizo communities. Historically, we were Kuki-Chin-Mizo, attached by our lineage. We should have been one, had not Mizoram been brought under India after the British left. Till today most of our ancestors are from Myanmar.”
“Thousands of families also fled to the neighbouring country during the 1966 Uprising or the Operation Jericho. Many who fled settled there. Even today many Mizos have their families in the Chin state (of Myanmar). Now that they have escaped due to the military coup, it is actually like returning to their true homeland; at least that is the case for most,” he added.
Similar thoughts were expressed by villagers of Tuipuiral in Champhai district which houses the majority of the refugee camps.
Crores spent to support the exponential influx
Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga informed the state legislative assembly in March that his government has provided over Rs 380 lakh as humanitarian aid to assist the refugees.
“Some of them are residing in rented houses but most are taking shelter in camps set up by the village councils and the Young Mizo Association. Apart from funds provided by the state government, there have been substantial public donations, both from individuals and NGOs. Every call for public donation has been well reverted,” informed a local.
MC Lalramenga, president of the Young Mizo Association of Tuipuiral said: “The NGOs and the associations are collecting cloths, blankets, firewood, food and other essentials to provide to the refugees. But they have also come forward to earn their living here and doing any possible work.”
Speaking about the possible impact of the refugees on the state, Zoramthanpuia of MSU added that being from the same tribe, the refugees have easily adapted with the native community. “The coup was very sudden and they just ran out empty handed. But now that we are embracing them, the Myanmarese are cooperating and mingling well. Mizoram is rich in agriculture. The NGOs are helping them with work and they are involved in the shifting and jhum cultivation apart from other laborious activities.”
Additional financial support has also been received from international agencies.
However, Lalramenga opined that since many are living in rented places, if they are not provided with proper work or means of livelihood the refugees might face an acute financial crisis. “They have to pay for the rent, electricity bills, water bills and others. They came with some savings or are receiving support from their families. But if their stay is extended, without a steady income, they will soon face a crisis situation.”
It needs mention that the Mizoram government has facilitated education to the Myanmarese children and even extra classes to help them cope with the language barrier. Additionally, the Mizoram government planned to provide them with identity cards as most were compelled to flee the country in a hurry without any significant documentation.
When questioned about their identification, local leaders opined: “Assam has an immigrant problem and despite opposition, they have made their documents. In our case, the Mizo people have welcomed and supported the refugees as our own. Definitely, some means will be facilitated by the government for processing their documents and for their benefits.”