The fate of Myanmar nationals who fled the country and entered into Manipur crossing the Indo-Myanmar border for shelter to avoid the persecution after February 1 military coup and its fallouts in Myanmar is still uncertain in Manipur.
Though the people of Manipur are friendly towards them and extend a helping hand, the State Government has awkward situations in dealing with the Myanmar nationals who entered into Manipur for survival.
The Manipur Government drew sharp criticism from various quarters including human rights groups and civil society organisations due to an order which involves international humanitarian issues and foreign policy of India, and more international media attention including that in The Telegraph, London.
The state government’s March 26 order issued by Special Secretary Home H Gyan Prakash to the deputy commissioners of five districts of Manipur bordering Myanmar, directs officials to not set up any camps for Myanmar nationals crossing the border into India and to “politely turn away” those seeking refuge.
Consequent upon criticisms from various quarters and international media attention, the Special Secretary (Home) Government of Manipur, H. Gyan Prakash on March 30 said the state is taking up all humanitarian steps, including treatment of injured Myanmar nationals. He stated this in an official letter clarifying on the reports that Manipur has ordered not to provide food and shelter to Myanmar nationals.
“The state government has been taking all humanitarian steps and had recently taken all steps, including taking them to Imphal, to treat the injured Myanmar nationals. The state government continues to provide all aid,” said the special secretary.
However, there were reports that many Myanmar nationals tried to enter the border on March 27 but the Indian security stopped them from entering and made them go back to their own country. In order to check the entry of Myanmar nationals through the porous Indo-Myanmar border, a strict checking was conducted by a team of police and AR personnel on March 27.
Unfortunately, the most recent incident for which Manipur Government should be responsible is the death of two Myanmar women in a temporary prison in Manipur’s Churachandpur district.
The Human Rights Alert (HRA), a rights group based in Imphal said in a letter to the Manipur Human Right Commission (MHRC) on July 2 that the two women, identified as Ma Myint, 46 and Mukhai, 40 died of COVID-19 without proper medical care.
The HRA on July 2 has asked the MHRC to probe the alleged custodial death of two women from Myanmar, who were among 29 refugees kept at a centre that was turned into a temporary prison in Manipur’s Churachandpur district.
Babloo Loitongbam, Executive Director of HRA said the 29 Myanmar nationals, including six minors were arrested from Ngathal and Kawnpui villages of Churachandpur on March 31 for entering India illegally.
They were remanded to police custody on April 7 after the court of Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM), Churachandpur recorded that they “crossed over the border due to the threat and fear of persecution as a result of the military coup, and that their life had been endangered. Therefore, they escaped and crossed the border without any valid documents and papers”.
After the 29 accused persons were produced on April 7 before the CJM, Churachandpur, the government had planned to transfer the 29 Myanmar nationals to different jails in Imphal –28 of them were remanded in judicial custody and kept at the Centre. A juvenile, amongst them, was transferred to an Observation Home, at Ramthar Village, Churachandpur district.
However, scared of living separately, they requested the authority to let them stay together.
“The authority conceded to their request but did not provide them with any food or healthcare,” said Babloo in the letter to the MHRC, adding that local organisations volunteered to organise food for them.
Consequently, the Government of Manipur declared the Refugee Centre at Saadbhavana Mandop in Churachandpur district’s New Lamka as a temporary prison under Prison Act, 1984 vide its order No: 6/1(1)/2021-H (DC) dated April 1, the HRA stated.
The HRA sought the MHRC attention on the findings of an inquiry it had conducted on July 1, into the alleged custodial death of the two Myanmarese women who were kept in judicial custody at Saadbhavana Mandop at New Lamka in Churachandpur district.
The inmates of the camp started falling sick by the end of May and beginning of June. “They requested for medical help, but it was felt on deft ears. Only on June 5, some medical personnel came and checked their health conditions. Nine of them were found to be Covid positive. Two of them were in critical condition and immediately admitted to District Hospital (Covid Isolation Ward). One of them, Ma Myint daughter of Usan aged about 46 years died on June 6. Her condition was said to have worsened after being admitted to the hospital. Two days later, on 8 June, Mukhai daughter of Nita aged about 40 years also succumbed, in the same hospital. While the two women died, 13 others recovered”, the HRA stated.
HRA pointed out that the death of Ma Myint and Mukhai occurred after they were arrested and kept in the custody of the state for three months.
“The inmates are dependent only on the charity of the civil society organisations. They were deprived of their right to adequate nutritious food and mandatory medical attention they deserve as any other prisoner,” said Babloo, pointing out that the death of the two women was a violation of the right to life enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
The HRA requested the MHRC to direct the government to provide nutritious food and regular medical attention to the inmates of the centre-turned-prison without any discrimination and recommend monetary compensation to the tune Rs. 20 lakhs each to the next of kin of the two deceased women.
The rights group also sought adherence to the National Human Rights Commission’s guideline on custodial death in dealing with the death of Myint and Mukhai. The guideline includes mandatory reporting to the secretary of NHRC as well as conducting a magisterial inquiry.
“During the period in custody, the inmates were not provided food by the state, but depended solely on the charity of civil voluntary organisations. In doing so, they were deprived of their right to adequate nutritious food. Moreover, they were also deprived of the mandatory medical attention they deserve as any other prisoner. Even when they fell sick and were desperately calling for help, the help came only when the situation became out of control. This systematic deprivation of the right to food and right to health in state custody during the pandemic, ultimately causing the death of two of them, is nothing short of custodial violence,” the HRA stated.
Meanwhile, the MHRC on July 3 has issued order and asked the Director General (Prison), Manipur and Special Secretary (Home) of Government of Manipur to respond the complaint petition of the HRA in two weeks time. Both the Director General (Prison) and Special Secretary (Home) are required to furnish their responses on or before July 17, the order stated.
However, this is not the first time the State Government confronting issues regarding the Myanmar nationals who take refuge in Manipur while its counterpart, the Government of Mizoram are taking care of about 10,000 Myanmar nationals taking refuge in the state.
Civil society organisations and rights bodies in Manipur also estimated that about 9000 Myanmar nationals might be taking shelter in the state. However, there is no any official documentation of Myanmar refugees in Manipur due to political instability in Myanmar.
It may be mentioned that the Manipur High Court on May 3 directed the State and Central governments to ensure safe passage for seven Myanmar nationals to New Delhi, so that they could avail suitable protection under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). .
Earlier, the Civil Society Coalition for Human Rights in Manipur and the United Nations (CSCHR) stated that the protection of Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution of lndia is not confined only to the lndian citizens; but it is also available to “all persons”. “in a catena of judgements passed by the Supreme Court of lndia and High Courts, the human right to seek refuge has been well established and settled as the law of the land,” it pointed out, adding, “Even though lndia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, Article 14 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) clearly states that everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”.
As long as the Government of Manipur and Government of India do not 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, the Myanmar nationals taking refuge in Manipur shall meet dire consequences including death as that of the two women.
Senior Editor: Imphal Review of Arts and Politics