Myanmar nationals who fled their country to avoid military persecution and civil unrest since the 2021 February 1 military coup to Manipur for safe haven continue to be victims of refugee including death and arrest.
The Myanmar nationals who have entered Manipur for shelter are facing another nightmere in India due to the response extended to them by the Government of Manipur and Government of India while those who fled to Mizoram including the Chief Minister of Chin State for shelter are safer due to the hospitality and humanely response of the State.
Last year in 2021 amidst COVID-19 lockdown, at least two women Myanmar nationals identified as Ma Myint, 46 and Mukhai, 40 died of COVID-19 without proper medical care in Manipur who were among 29 refugees kept at a centre that was turned into a temporary prison in Manipur’s Churachandpur district. The 29 Myanmar nationals, including six minors were arrested from Ngathal and Kawnpui villages of Churachandpur on March 31, 2021 for entering India illegally.
Another 24 Myanmar nationals including 14 females, seven males and three minors while travelling in three passenger vehicles were also 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, 2021 on Indo-Myanmar border.
Notably, they were accompanied by one Daniel Vanlalzawma, son of Pothawmna, a resident of Bulin Champhai in Mizoram and travelling to Churachandpur, Manipur.
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, 2021.
The most recent is the arrest of 80 Myanmar nationals (25 males, 35 females and 20 children) on June 28 from Churachandpur district of Manipur after launching intensive search operations at different locations in the district by the police. They are arrested under section 14 of Foreigners Act 1946 for they could not produce any valid document for staying in India and disclosed that they were all citizens of Myanmar.
Report said that a huge team of Churachandpur district police conducted a cordon and search operation from 5 am till 8.30 am on June 28 after receiving reliable information regarding the presence of Myanmar nationals in the district particularly at the general area of Ngathal village.
A house-to-house search operation was conducted at Vaal Veng, Churachandpur wherein 40 persons were arrested from two rented places.
Search operations were also conducted at another rented house at Vaal Veng, Churachandpur town wherein 13 males, 16 females and eight children suspected to be Myanmar nationals were also arrested.
Further, three male Myanmar nationals who were roaming around in the new bazar area and selling some goods were also arrested from Gouchinkhup Veng, New Lamka, Churachandpur.
Notably, the owner of the rented place, identified as one Biakchunga, 58, on being asked revealed that he came to Mizoram from Myanmar in the year 1986 and came to Kwanpui in Manipur’s Churachandpur district bordering Mizoram and Myanmar in 2013.
Expectedly, the Myanmar nationals have crossed into India considering their neighbour is the largest democratic country in the world and they will get refuge.
However, contrary to what they believe and hope, it was already reported that the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) after the Myanmar military coup of February 1, 2021 issued an advisory on February 25, 2021 to the Chief Secretaries of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland, and also to the Assam Rifles to stay alert and take appropriate action to prevent a possible influx of refugees into the territory from neighbouring Myanmar, saying state governments have no power to grant refugee status to any foreigners.
The MHA order on March 10, 2021 further directed the governments of India’s Northeast States of Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh 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 order on March 26, 2021 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.
Not unexpectedly, the March 26 letter drew sharp reactions from various sections on social media, criticisms from various quarters and international media attention. Consequently, the state government was compelled to withdraw the order of March 26 in another letter dated March 29 issued by the same Special Secretary (Home), H Gyan Prakash.
“It appears that the contents of the letter have been misconstrued and interpreted differently. The state government has been taking all humanitarian steps and recently taken all steps, including taking them to Imphal, to treat the injured Myanmarese nationals. The state government continues to provide all aid,” the March 29 letter said.
However, Manipur Government continues to treat the Myanmar nationals who fled their country to escape from military persecution and civil unrest for shelter in India particularly in Manipur as illegal migrants and arrest them under Foreigners Act 1946.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the recent arrest of 80 Myanmar nationals from Churachandpur district, the Citizen’s Committee Manipur (CCM) has appealed to the Manipur government that the suspected Myanmar nationals be treated humanely, transparently and by respecting their rights guaranteed by the law at every stage of the arrest and detention.
The press statement released by Babloo Loitongbam, Convenor of CCM, stated that considering the civil unrest and tumultuous situation inside Myanmar following the military coup, our brethren and sisters who have fled their home and herds seeking shelter in our land should be treated as refugees and asylum seekers as per international human rights standards and not as illegal immigrant.
As done by the government of Mizoram, the Government of Manipur should seriously consider adopting a smarter and more humane response to the refugee crisis. The first step could be to issue identity cards for the Myanmar nationals living in the state and setting up designated camps with basic facilities where they can spend some time before the situation back home comes to some level of normalcy. The release further stated that the state government should desist from any attempt to forcibly repatriate them before normalcy.
However, some individuals and section of Manipur society express their apprehension that the Myanmar nationals once given shelter will become mingled with the other Kuki-Chin ethnic groups who have inhabited in Manipur for years and will claim to be the original setllers of Manipur while the state is facing a demographic imbalance from the onslaught of immigrants.
It may be noted that 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 in normal circumstances.
However, it needs to be distinguished between the Myanmar nationals who crossed the border illegally in normal circumstances to settle in Manipur and the Myanmar nationals who fled the country to escape military persecution and civil unrest after the 2021 February 1 military coup and crossed into Manipur for shelter like in the case 1988 pro-democracy movement.
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.
If the Manipur Government, though the Government of India is not pleased, does not have a policy as done in Mizoram by detecting the Myanmar nationals who fled after the coup for shelter and issue identity cards by registering them as refugees and asylum seekers, they will continue to hide and seek shelter amongst population having close ethnic affiliations. The arrest and detention under Foreigners Act 1946 will just be the tip of iceberg because more than 9000 Myanmar nationals are reported to have been in Manipur after the 2021 February 1 military coup.
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.
If Manipur Government 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 1951 or its 1967 Protocol and UDHR, Myanmar nationals who fled into Manipur to escape from the military persecution and civil unrest in Myanmar will become Manipur’s burden of immigrants.
Senior Editor: Imphal Review of Arts and Politics