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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

At Myanmar border, Assam Rifles, refugees keep endless watch

Unlike its border with Bangladesh, the state's border with Myanmar is completely unfenced. Since 2017 there have been multiple proposals to fence parts of it, especially around the Champhai region, but there has been no progress.

Written by Krishn Kaushik | Aizawl |
Updated: March 31, 2021 8:33:00 am
At Myanmar border, Assam Rifles, refugees keep endless watchAn injured person fleeing Myanmar in Thailand, Tuesday. (Reuters)

With the Centre ordering the border with Myanmar sealed, many fleeing the army crackdown following the coup that deposed Aung San Suu Kyi are believed to be stuck between the two countries. The job of holding them back, as per the Centre’s instructions, is almost impossible, given the porous 510-km border along Mizoram alone.

Unlike its border with Bangladesh, the state’s border with Myanmar is completely unfenced. Since 2017 there have been multiple proposals to fence parts of it, especially around the Champhai region, but there has been no progress.

Intelligence inputs suggest 733 Myanmar nationals have made it into the state, with the largest numbers being 324 in Champhai district, 144 in Siaha, 83 in Hnahthial, and 55 in Lawngtalai. Officials believe 90 more crossed over between March 18 and 20, and are yet to be accounted for.

A top official of the Mizoram government, that has opposed the Centre’s decision to identify the Myanmar nationals and depose them, pointed out that the Assam Rifles manning the border is “not standing hand-in-hand” to guard every inch, at all times. “So if someone tries, they can come. Those encountering patrols (while seeking to cross over) are just unlucky… They are trickling in every day, sometimes in large crowds, sometimes in smaller batches.”

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Senior sources in the Assam Rifles admit it is virtually impossible to man the border with just three battalions. Since it strengthened its vigil starting February 1, when the coup happened in Myanmar, an official said, “We have identified 58 crossing points traditionally used by smugglers.” Most of these routes are in the northern part of Mizoram because the southern part does not have many good roads. Champhai, in the north, for example, has seen the largest influx.

The border has also been divided into “go and no-go areas”, with 230 to 240 km length identified as where crossings can take place. “In other parts, deep rivers or dense jungles prevent people from passing through, and there have been no attempts in these areas,” said a senior officer.

The officer added that apart from the state administration and locals, the Myanmar nationals were getting help from the Chin Nation Army, an insurgent group in Myanmar active in the central and northern areas of the border. “Camp Victoria of the Chin National Army is opposite Farkawn in Mizoram… about 10-12 km from the border,” the officer said. “Around 120 people have been there for around 10 to 15 days, trying to cross over… The Myanmar Army is constantly patrolling along the border.”

What’s also keeping the influx restricted to the north is that in the south, the Arakan Army, a Rakhine state-based insurgent group, was earlier believed to be helping the Myanmar army stop the refugees. On Tuesday though, the Arakan Army joined two other armed ethnic groups in asking the Myanmar military to stop killing the protesters, warning that it would else join them.

While nobody has a clear estimate about how many people are trying to cross the border, Mizo Zirlai Pawl (Mizo Students’ Union), one of the largest civil society organisations in the state, says the number could be more than a thousand. C Lalremruata, advisor to MZP’s president, said, “It’s not just from one or two entry points, but several places from where refugees are trying to enter the state.” He claimed several high-profile names who feared being killed by the Myanmar army have made it to India.

Underlining the crisis, he said, “Every day the situation is changing… Most of the refugees are caught in the jungles. They cannot come here, and they cannot go back. They are travelling without a change of clothes or food to eat.”

According to Lalremruata, the numbers have further surged over the weekend since a shooting that killed three people in Tahan in Myanmar, where a majority of the people are of Mizo descent, adding that details are hard to get due to connectivity issues and security fears.

According to Pakhaw Chozah, general secretary of the Mara Thyutlia Py or the Mara Young Organisation, the number of refugees, including minors, stuck in the jungles was around 300 in the part opposite Siaha district alone.

The MZP president and Lalremruata were in Delhi for the past few days, trying to meet the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. But the office was closed due to Covid-19.

Officials in the security establishment deployed in Mizoram emphasise that almost all the refugees from Myanmar are restricted to the Free Movement Regime region of 16 km on either side, where unrestricted access is allowed as per a pact between the two countries. However, two of the safehouses with at least 38 Myanmar nationals, which The Indian Express visited, are located in Aizawl itself, not far from the Secretariat.

Meanwhile, officials in the state and district administration say that since that March 10 letter by the Centre on not allowing Myanmar nationals, no new instruction has come from either the Mizoram government or Union Home Minister Amit Shah.

The Centre took note of what was happening after it was alerted by the Assam Rifles regarding an SOP issued by the Mizoram government on February 27 for “the facilitation of refugees and migrants from Myanmar”. A top state official said the Union Home Ministry was furious, forcing revocation of the SOP on March 6, followed by the March 10 letter asking states to “prevent a possible influx” from Myanmar, and to take “prompt steps in identifying the illegal migrants and initiating the deportation process expeditiously”.

However, Mizoram CM Zoramthanga conveyed to both Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi that this could not be done, pointing out the shared ancestry of people on both sides of the border. He told Modi that while he understood that some foreign policy issues require India to “proceed cautiously”, “we cannot ignore this humanitarian crisis”.

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