By Ashis Biswas
Nine months after the army coup in Myanmar, poor administrative coordination between Government of India and the Mizoram government has emerged as a major problem as a steady stream of political dissidents from across the border continue to arrive in India’s Northeast region. Recent reports suggest that their number has crossed 20,000 in Mizoram and scores of Burmese ‘rebels’ are known to be staying in Manipur, Nagaland and other areas as well.
Mizoram authorities have drawn Delhi’s attention several times in recent weeks towards the growing number of refugees as well as pro democracy activists crossing over into their state. They have been put up in special camps and establishments by local officials. Local NGOs are also helping humanitarian efforts to help these people.
Unlike the normal run of refugees escaping from prolonged civil strife and violence, the status of such people is difficult to define. Many of them carry arms and use Mizoram, Manipur and other areas in the NE region as a base camp or sanctuary. Some carry out occasional raids against the Myanmar army in counter attacks. There are also women and children in the group whom it would have been difficult for authorities to turn away from the international border.
Initially the centre’s directive to Mizoram government and concerned authorities was not to encourage any such traffic of ‘aliens’ into the politically sensitive NE region, with its own long history of major ethnic violence and related problems. The Union Home Ministry’s advice to the NE states was to arrange for humanitarian assistance to stragglers seeking safety and shelter. But they should be dissuaded against staying on Indian territory and ‘politely turned away’ — Mizoram officials say that this was the centre’s approach.
With its major Kaladan multimodal connectivity project about to be completed after several delays — a critical project to bolster India’s own Look East initiative — GOI (government of India) is naturally keen to avoid further glitches. GOI has invested around $650 million in this and other ongoing infra projects in Myanmar. It is in touch with both the ruling Army top brass as well as groups fighting the soldiers — at a more informal level. The objective is to make sure that the project seeking to link Kolkata and Sittwe ports by river as well as set up an alternate Mioram/Myanmar road link, is no longer plagued by the turbulence of Myanmar’s domestic politics. To allow the rebels free use of Indian space to launch their counter attacks against the Myanmar army would have resulted in fresh complications, the way Delhi saw it.
However, accepting the centre’s advice was difficult for Mizoram. Several Burmese tribes especially those living in the Chin region with their ongoing battle for autonomous status, have relations living in Mizoram and other NE states. There are ties by marriage and religious rituals among tribesmen on both sides of the international border. Mizoram authorities could not ‘turn away’ people coming across the border politely or otherwise, and informed the centre accordingly.
Interestingly, authorities in Manipur, a non-Christian dominated state unlike Mizoram and Nagaland, at first tried to implement the centre’s directive. But there a strong negative local as well as international reaction. Chief Minister Mr Biren Singh was soon forced to adopt a friendlier line towards the refugees, falling in line with Mizoram. Meanwhile the movement from people from Myanmar went on increasing, until it crossed the 20,000 mark in Mizoram. The strain on Mizoram;’s resources began to tell. During the past few weeks, led by Chief Minister Mr. Zoranthanga state authorities have repeatedly appealed to the centre to handle the situation and help arrive at a solution.
It may be noted that during the initial influx from Myanmar, when 8000-plus people had arrived in Mizoram and Manipur, the centre managed to persuade over 5000 of them to return home. But the situation deteriorated thereafter, as complications arose. Official admissions by pro democracy leaders in Myanmar that people had regrouped and continued their fight against the army headed by general Hlaing, securing arms from India, have not helped. Further India has its own fears that a prolonged stay by armed activists crossing over from Myanmar could lead to a worsening of the security situation in the NE region itself. Delhi is still engaged in peace talks with Naga and other insurgent groups.
It was with some difficulty that GOI could put a stop to training camps that the rebels had set up in Mizoram, to sustain cadre morale. Meanwhile, some of the rebels have approached the UNHRC, Western NGOs and other organisations seeking help and support for the pro democracy struggle in Myanmar.
The main problem that GOI faces is its lack of effective options. It cannot afford to alienate the rulers in Myanmar too strongly for obvious reasons. On the other hand, a hard line against the rebels may create international image problems for the NDA government, already under considerable criticism from the mainstream Western media. No wonder it cannot communicate its decision on the matter to the NE states, one way or another.
Worse, the presence of the Burmese rebels has already had a negative fallout. In Assam around 20 of these people were rounded up as they were trying to reach Delhi presumably to contact representatives of other especially Western governments. Surprisingly some spotted documents secured from Indian authorities, seeking to establish that they had not crossed over illegally without proper identification — which is not a fact. In time more such efforts by the refugees can be expected.
As for the ongoing struggle in Myanmar, unofficial estimates suggest that over 900 people have lost their lives in the civil strife so far. Along with pro democracy rebels, the Arakan army is also at war against the ruling junta. (IPA Service)