Some of the Myanmar nationals who fled their country to avoid military persecution to Manipur for safe haven have become victims of refugee including death and arrest. At least two Myanmar nationals died due to COVID-19 in Manipur while at least 68 Myanmar nationals were arrested with fake documents in Manipur and Assam.
Since the February 1 military coup this year in Myanmar thousands of Myanmar nationals fled the country to avoid the persecution and take shelter in the neighbouring countries. Reports say that more than 16,000 Myanmar nationals have crossed into the four bordering states of India namely Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh in a desperate attempt to find a safe shelter.
The majority of the displaced Myanmar nationals who took refuge in the bordering state of Mizoram are reported to be about 10,000 including the Chief Minister of Myanmar’s Chin State and the State Government of Mizoram are taking care of them.
Even though there is no any official documentation or report of Myanmar nationals who have crossed into Manipur, civil society organisations and human rights bodies in Manipur estimated that about 9,000 Myanmar nationals might be taking shelter in the state.
The Human Rights Alert (HRA), a rights group based in Imphal has asked in a letter to the Manipur Human Rights Commission (MHRC) on July 2 to probe the alleged custodial death of two women from Myanmar, who were among 29 refugees kept at a Refugee Centre in Manipur’s Churachandpur district at Saadbhavana Mandop that was later declared as a temporary prison by the Government of Manipur under Prison Act, 1984 vide its order No.: 6/1(1)/2021-H(DC) on April 1, 2021. The two women who died due to COVID-19 without proper medical care are Ma Myint, 46 and Mukhai, 40.
It may be mentioned that the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Government of India has asked the Governments of India’s Northeast States bordering with Myanmar to seal off all entry points along the Indo-Myanmar border. The MHA order on March 10 further directed the Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh governments to check the influx of people from across the border and called for illegal migrants to be identified, detained, and deported.
Following the MHA order, the Manipur Government’s March 26 order issued by Special Secretary Home, H Gyan Prakash to the Deputy Commissioners of five districts of Manipur bordering Myanmar, directed officials to not set up any camps for Myanmar nationals crossing the border into India and to “politely turn away” those seeking refuge.
However, consequent upon sharp criticisms from various quarters and international media attention, the Special Secretary (Home) Government of Manipur on March 30 said the State is taking up all humanitarian steps, including treatment of injured Myanmar nationals. Gyan Prakash stated this in an official letter clarifying on the reports that Manipur Government has ordered not to provide and shelter to Myanmar nationals.
Meanwhile, reports said at least 24 Myanmar nationals were caught with fake Aadhaar cards at Army Checkpoint, Khudengthabi in Manipur’s Tengnoupal District along Imphal-Moreh sector of Asian Highway-1 on October 5 on Indo-Myanmar border.
The arrested 24 Myanmar nationals including 14 females, seven males and three minors were travelling in three passenger vehicles when the personnel of 20 Assam Rifles stationed at Khudengthabi on Indo-Myanmar border caught them at around 3 pm.
They were accompanied by one Daniel Vanlalzawma, son of Pothawmna, a resident of Bulin Champhai in Mizoram and travelling to Churachandpur, Manipur.
Of the 24 Myanmar nationals, 21 were found possessing forged Aaadhaar cards; nine of them from Mungswa, Khutan village in Myanmar and the other 15 belong to Butalen and Toyero village in Myanmar. Aadhar card having a 12 digit unique individual identification number issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India on behalf of the Government of India serves as a proof of identity and address anywhere in India.
Daniel Vanlalzawma who accompanied the 24 Myanmar nationals, and the three drivers who ferried them were also arrested. The three drivers are identified as Thangkhochon Sitlhou, 30 son of Satkholal Sitlhou of Koite Village, Churachandpur; Lamkholal, 27, son of Lhukam of N Molhoi Village, Churachandpur; and Monthang, 42, son of Dearson of Teiseng Village, Churachandpur.
Reports further said an FIR No. 45(10)2021, MRH-PS, U/S 468/471, IPC, 51(b) D.M. Act & 14 Foreigners Act was registered at Moreh Police Station for further legal process.
Moreover, at least 14 Myanmar nationals who attempted to board an Indigo flight from Imphal International Airport, Imphal by using fake Aadhaar cards were caught by airport security personnel and handed them over to Singjamei Police Station at around 2.20 pm on September 30. According to reports, Indigo staff detected the fake Aadhaar cards as the passengers were about to board the Indigo Flight No 6E-2209 that was scheduled to depart for Delhi from Imphal. After the Indigo staff alerted the in-charge of Foreigners Check Post (FCP) Imphal Airport, the Myanmar nationals were detained and handed over to Singjamei Police Station for further legal action.
Reports said that the 14 Myanmar nationals have been identified as Tungbiakmung, 18, of Suangchoih Village,Myanmar; Ciin Deih Sang, 21, of Sezang Village, Myanmar; Gin Za Tuang, 21, of Guasing Village, Myanmar; Tuang Nang Suan, 16, of Guasing Village, Myanmar; Vum Tual Suan, 24, of Sezang Village, Myanmar; Zarnsuanpau, 35, of Khosak Village, Myanmar; Khupbiakthang, 16, of Suangzang Village, Myanmar; Nang Suan Lian, 20, of Guasing Village, Myanmar; Do Mun Zau, 19, of Guasing Village, Myanmar; Sing Cin, 22, of Guasing Village, Myanmar; Gin Khup Pau, 20, of Guasing Village, Myanmar; Pau Za Lian, 20, of Guasing Village, Myanmar; Vum Tung Nung, 20, of Guasing Village, Myanmar and Pau Cin Khai, 16, of Guasing Village, Myanmar.
Of the 14 Myanmar nationals, the Court of Chief Judicial Magistrate Imphal West on October 8 has remanded 11 Myanmar nationals in a 15-day judicial custody till October 22 while the three children in conflict with law (CICL) were also produced before the Juvenile Justice Board Imphal West on October 1. All the 14 Myanmar nationals hail from different villages of Myanmar’s Chin State.
Another 26 Myanmar nationals, including 10 women, were arrested with forged Indian documents from the Rehbari area of Guwahati in Assam on September 12. The arrested persons hail from Chin State of Myanmar and they were on their way to Delhi to study Bible.
Reports said that the Myanmar nationals were in possession of forged Indian documents made in Mizoram including Aadhaar cards and Voter-ID cards. They were arrested under section 468 of Indian Penal Code (IPC), read with section 14 of Foreigners Act 1946, read with 3/4 Passport (Entry into India) Act 1920, read with section 6 of Passport (Entry into India) Rules, 1950.
In the latest development, another four Myanmar nationals including 3 women were arrested with fake Aadhaar cards from border town Moreh in Manipur on October 8, while carrying out routine Frisking and Checking at the Kondong Lairembi Police Check Post. As per reports the Burmese nationals were detained from a Manipur State Transport bus moving towards Imphal from Moreh. On checking the passengers in the Bus, four of the passengers were found speaking with a suspicious accent, following which they were detained for further Verification.
Later on the Myanmar nationals revealed that they are from Tamu and Mandalay in Myanmar and were going fake Aadhaar cards to Imphal for Medical Treatment.
On the other hand, the handling of the displaced Myanmar nationals has become an emotive and sensitive issue in Mizoram. Mizoram government has gone against the Government of India, requesting protection for the displaced people as they consider them their brothers, with a shared ethnic identity in the Chin community. The Mizo and the Chins are considered a perfect example of the same people divided by political international boundary, who are both Zo people, sharing the same ancestry and ethnic ties.
Therefore, respecting such sentiments and to preserve cultural linkages between tribes on either side of Myanmar on one side of the international boundary; and Manipur and Mizoram on the other, there is a unique arrangement known as the Free Movement Regime (FMR), which allows residents on either side to go up to 16 kilometres into the other side and stay there up to 14 days without visas.
While this may be true in normal circumstances, the displacement crisis aftermath of the February 1 military coup is very different from that of the 1988 pro-democracy movement. For displaced Myanmar nationals, Manipur and Mizoram are the common destinations in India, given its close proximity and ethnic ties.
However, they are not given refugee status since India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, thereby, putting these people in a precarious situation as no legal status, proper livelihood, education, or healthcare is provided to them.
India’s response to the Myanmar nationals who took refuge in Manipur and Mizoram in the aftermath of the February 1 military coup is very different from the policy adopted in the aftermath of the bloody crackdown on 1988 pro-democracy movement. In 1988 relief camps in Manipur and Mizoram were opened for activists fleeing the crackdown. They were allowed to stay without any pressure on repatriation.
However, this time though the people of the bordering states particularly Manipur and Mizoram are friendly to the refugees and extend a helping hand to the displaced Myanmar nationals, New Delhi has taken a position different from 1988. Government of India seems give more emphasis in terms of security and geopolitical interests besides the Northeast insurgents shelter in Myanmar in spite of the sentiments, emotional response and views of the people of the Northeast particularly Manipur and Mizoram.
Since Indian law does not provide any proper definition to who a refugee is, the government can brand all refugees and asylum seekers under the term “illegal migrant” and book them as per India’s law. India’s lack of a formal legal framework, domestically and internationally and continuation of an ad hoc policy regarding refugees will have a far reaching security, socio-economic and political consequences. The displaced Myanmar nationals issue in the Northeast particularly Manipur and Mizoram challenges State Governments and Government of India to take a principled position as a democratic country upholding the rule of law and universally recognised human rights and come out with an open policy or decision to deal with the humanitarian crisis respecting the UN Refugee Convention and UDHR.
Senior Editor: Imphal Review of Arts and Politics