R Thangmawia, head of the Zo Reunification Organisation (ZORO) which led a popular movement for political unity among the ethnically similar Mizos of India and Chins of Myanmar in the late 80s and early 90s, was found dead in a Geneva hotel on Monday, according to the organisation he headed for almost three decades.
R Thangmawia had flown to the Swiss city last Wednesday with a colleague to take part at the UN’s 8th session on Expert Mechanism on The Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but he was found dead in his hotel room a little past 8 am local time. He was 79 years old, and was suffering from diabetes.
The popular movement spearheaded by Thangmawia and ZORO, which he was president of until his death, resulted in several Chin groups declaring their allegiance to the Indian Union soon after the 1988 democratic uprising in Myanmar, just two years prior to which Mizoram had attained statehood and the insurgent group Mizo National Front had entered a lasting peace deal with New Delhi.
Mizos in Mizoram, among them former Chief Minister Brigadier T Sailo, were enthusiastic about the movement and had even marched to the international border as a sign of solidarity with the Chins. But India never responded to the Chins’ call for merger although Chins in various parts of Chin State (which borders Manipur, Mizoram and Bangladesh) hoisted the Indian flag.
An alarmed Myanmar government meanwhile responded to the declarations of merger with India with a heavy military build-up in the relatively peaceful Chin Hills, with Chin groups reporting a host of associated atrocities subsequently.
The ZORO movement eventually fizzled out and today its message of political unity among ethnic Zo in Mizoram, Manipur and Myanmar mainly finds resonance in Mizoram’s student unions’ gatherings and rhetoric although some groups in Manipur still hold on to the ideal fervently.
Nevertheless, ZORO the organisation remained a small but vocal group that continued to press for indigenous rights at global bodies such as the United Nations, with R Thangmawia leading the group’s effort for decades even as political parties in Mizoram never failed to pay lip service to the organisation’s ideals.
But the lack of mass appeal can be gauged from the fact that there was little mention even in the local media of ZORO’s latest move, which was to declare the “freedom” of the “Zo Nation” on June 26 along with other indigenous groups from around the world gathered under the Indigenous People’s United Nations forum.