Updated: March 31, 2021 8:32:34 am
In a nondescript community hall in a nondescript village along the India-Myanmar Border, Kawg Heht Kyaw clings to his mother. The nine-month-old is the youngest person in the room. His mother, Nuzel, 22, who is the second youngest, keeps ruffling his hair, kissing him, thankful they are together.
Her voice barely a whisper, Nuzel says, “If democracy is reinstated in Myanmar and Suu Kyi is released, we will definitely go home. If not, we don’t feel safe there.”
Nuzel arrived with her son and husband Joseph, 24, in Chapi village in Siaha district of Mizoram on March 6. Like several Myanmarese policemen now on the Indian side, Joseph says he chose to defect rather than open fire on his own people who are protesting against the military for deposing Myanmar’s elected government on February 1.
The country has erupted in protests since, with Saturday the deadliest day with 90 killed.
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Joseph and Nuzel, who came of age under a democratic Myanmar, say that had Joseph not been a policeman, they would have joined the protesters. Instead, they sneaked out of their house in the Matupi police township in the middle of the night on March 5 on Joseph’s motorcycle, and rode to Chapi, the closest Indian village, more than 80 km away. If he goes back now, Joseph says, he will be executed.
There are around 70 Myanmarese nationals sheltering in Chapi village alone, most of whom crossed the border on March 6 and March 7, including six women and three children. More than 20 have taken refuge in neighbouring Siasi village.
Of the 1,643-km border that India shares with Myanmar, 510 km is in Mizoram. Under a Free Movement Regime, residents within 16 km on either side are allowed to move freely between the countries, and can stay up to 14 days at a stretch. However, the border has been sealed since the Covid lockdown in March last year — although it remains so porous that movement is impossible to stop.
There are no official estimates on how many Myanmar nationals have come into India since the coup, although a top state bureaucrat estimated their numbers at over 700.
Joseph and Nuzel belong to the Matu tribe, and hence can’t speak the language of Siaha villagers. But the people are part of the larger Zo-Chin ethnic community, which gives the couple a sense of security — and underlines Mizoram’s decision to stand by them despite the Centre’s objections.
The Myanmar policemen say the military was putting them in front to take on the protesters, knowing several of them were their friends and family. When some of them chose to fire in the air, they were warned to either shoot or be killed themselves. Joseph, who is in Chapi with three others from the 32 at his police station, says he spotted more than 20 of his family and friends among the crowd he was told to fire at.
The peoples have a bond
The border is porous and many people in Mizoram have family and friends in Myanmar. There is a cultural and ethnic connect, because of which hundreds of fleeing Myanmar nationals have been given shelter by villagers in Mizoram. The state has refused to push back those who have entered.
In a safehouse on the outskirts of Mizoram’s capital Aizawl, Kya Moe, a 28-year-old constable from Cikha, says he refused to carry out the orders. “If I had shot, many would have died. If I refused, only I would die,” he says. So Kya Moe left from Cikha on a motorcycle, crossed over into India from near Zoke village in Champhai district on foot, walked through jungles to avoid the Assam Rifles, and drove with 12 others to Aizawl, reaching on March 9.
Joseph, who joined the Myanmar police in March 2019, earned close to 2.8 lakh kyat, the equivalent of just over Rs 14,000 in India. He and Nuzel worry about how long the generosity of the Chapi villagers and the Mizoram government will last.
Around 3 km from the community hall where the two are staying, there is Border Pillar 23 (3), marking the limit of Indian territory. A few metres further is Myanmar. With the Centre telling the state authorities that no one should be allowed to come in along Mizoram as well as Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur, the Assam Rifles has blocked this route since March 8. The Centre has also demanded that those already in should be deported, which Mizoram has refused to do.
The state official said Union Home Minister Amit Shah had spoken to Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga on the matter. According to him, Zoramthanga said, “To declare anyone a refugee is up to the central government, we cannot do anything on that. But they (the Myanmarese) are our brethren, if they need shelter and food, we will provide it.”
Most of the locals, who have family links across the border, have rallied behind the Myanmar nationals. Pakhaw Chozah, general secretary of the Mara Thyutlia Py, founded in 1954 and the largest NGO in the area, says it may be an international border for the government, “but for us, it is east and west Maraland. There is no partition in our minds… Where should they go in times of this trouble?”
Chozah claims around 300 refugees, including minors, are stuck in the jungles on the Myanmar side now because of the Assam Rifles crackdown, without food and other necessities. “The Myanmar armies are on the hunt. They are being terrorised to get back home by March 21 or their families and assets would be destroyed.” As the world’s largest democracy, India should not refuse those people fighting for democracy, he adds.
Hlichie, 46, who came to Chapi on March 7 with her policeman husband Kote, 51, says they don’t want anything from India except that they be allowed to stay till the military is ruling there, and that their three children, between the ages of 15 and 21, and a daughter-in-law be also allowed to come. “We will be happy.”
Joseph wonders what happened to the protesters he encountered. He and his wife have not been able to get in touch with anyone back home.
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