Mizoram, India – Dozens of residents gather at Vanapa Hall in Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, a small, tribal-dominated state in northeast India that borders Myanmar. They light candles and carry placards, denouncing Myanmar’s military coup and the subsequent crackdown on anti-coup protesters.
During the protest last week, the crowd raised the three-fingered salute, symbol of resistance in Myanmar as a young woman sang Kabar Ma Kya Bu, a ballad sung for the first time after of a similar coup in 1988 which has now become the protesters’ anthem. after the last one.
The protest in Aizawl was organized by Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP), an influential student group from Mizoram.
On Saturday, the MZP, along with other civil society groups, held charity concerts, in which people donated more than 500,000 Indian rupees ($ 6,900), according to a member of the MZP office, to help Myanmar security officials and nationals who fled the coup.
At least 300 people were killed in Myanmar as the military government continues its crackdown on anti-coup protesters since February 1, when the coup took place.
Since then, according to K Vanlalvena, a legislator in Mizoram, “the number of migrants has exceeded 1,000 spread across the state.”
‘Brothers and sisters of Mizos’
But there are differences between Mizoram and New Delhi’s handling of this exodus from Myanmar.
While the state government is sympathetic to those fleeing the coup and demands that they be granted asylum, the latter gives instructions not to allow anyone to cross the border lest it become a full-fledged refugee crisis.
But the local Mizoram community stepped in to support these fleeing repression.
Residents of Farkawn, a small hilltop village overlooking the Chin Hills along the Indo-Burmese border in Champhai district, have opened their homes to more than 300 Burmese citizens, some of them pretending to be police officers and emergency services.
“When they arrived, we went from house to house and asked people if they could give food, shelter. Many have responded to the demand, ”said K Lalmuankima, local unit president of the Young Mizo Association (YMA), an influential community organization.
“All the refugees are Chin. They are brothers and sisters of Mizos, ”said Lalmuankima, pointing to three Burmese citizens who were taking refuge in the house visited by Al Jazeera.
Hkaw, 22, dressed in a green longyi (traditional dress) and a blue jacket, claims to be a police officer from Thantlang in Chin State. He said he escaped after the army started cracking down on the protesters.
“Every day, 2,000 to 3,000 people organized protests. We were ordered to fire rubber bullets and tear gas at the demonstrators, ”Hkaw said.
“We cannot follow such orders. They capture community leaders and send them to jail, ”he said as two other Myanmar nationals nodded.
All three had joined Myanmar’s anti-coup Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) before fleeing to India.
Farkawn’s host family, meanwhile, prepared their morning meal – rice, boiled vegetables and meat.
“These people have come to leave their homes and families. They want a democratic administration in their country ”, declared the head of the family which shelters them.
“Even if more people come, we will keep them,” he said, requesting anonymity.
Residents of Mizoram are afraid to give details of who they are receiving after instructions from the federal government to state authorities to prevent the influx.
In the headquarters of Champhai districts, local community groups held a meeting on Sunday in which they decided not to allow any journalists to meet the Burmese migrants.
“We are under pressure. You have to understand, ”a local organization official told Al Jazeera.
But the net of Burmese nationals crossing and seeking shelter continues. Many of them took refuge at Camp Victoria, the headquarters of the Chin National Army (CNA), one of Myanmar’s many ethnic armed groups with a history of conflict with the Burmese military.
Camp Victoria sits just across the Tiau River on the Indo-Burmese border with a small bridge connecting the two nations in this remote border.
The first sign that people from Myanmar were considering fleeing to India came when CNA leaders contacted authorities in Farkawn village to obtain permission for their families to cross in the event of hostilities with the Myanmar army.
With reports indicating that some members of the Burmese military had settled near Camp Victoria, YMA’s Lalmuankima said there was fear of a conflict between them and the CNA.
“The camp is no longer safe,” said Hkaw, who remained at the camp before crossing. Residents say fears of hostilities between the CNA and the Burmese military forced them to cross.
Sources on the Indian side dismiss the information as exaggeration and claim that the Burmese military may have set up to prevent people from entering India.
The CNA signed a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government in 2012. The group was also among the signatories to a 2015 Myanmar national ceasefire agreement.
Families on both sides of the border
“If the citizens of Myanmar who are our blood relatives come here to seek help, we can help them,” said VL Chama Hnamte, a YMA official.
“In many cases, the same families live on both sides of the border.”
Hnamte has two uncles and other relatives living in Chin State in Myanmar.
In the predominantly Christian state of Mizoram, community organizations such as YMA and MZP are often the first responders to civil society during times of crisis in Myanmar.
The YMA, modeled on the Christian Association of Young Men (YMCA), has a presence in every corner of Mizoram, with at least 400,000 members among the state’s 1.1 million residents.
“The Zo people were divided by the British between India, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The British came, conquered us and divided us, ”said R Sangkawia, president of Zo Reunification Organization (ZORO), a group that aims to bring together the Zo people spread across the region.
Sangkawia, in his eighties, was an armed member from 1966 to 1972 of the Mizo National Front, which led a secessionist movement until 1986, when it signed a peace accord with India.
The group then formed a political party currently in power in Mizoram.
“In the Chin Hills, we are called Chin; in Mizoram, Lushai; in Assam, Manipur, Tripura and Bangladesh, we are called Kuki, ”he told Al Jazeera.
Assam, Manipur and Tripura are three other states in northeast India.
“During the uprising, the Chin gave us shelter,” said Hnamte, who was also part of the MNF during the uprising.
This is not the first time that migrants from Chin have arrived in Mizoram. There are thousands of such migrants in the state, many of whom came in 1988 after the Burmese military crackdown on Chin fighters.
There have been instances of conflict between the Chin settlers and Mizo groups such as the YMA, the latter accusing them of “crimes and illegalities”.
However, when some Burmese citizens arrived in Champhai for refuge, it was the local YMA unit that intervened and handed them over to other community groups.
Community groups walk a tightrope
In its instructions to four states in northeast India and the paramilitary forces stationed in the area, New Delhi made it clear that it did not want Burmese citizens as refugees and ordered them to stop the influx.
India is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention or its protocols.
The New Delhi order has forced community organizations in Mizoram to be wary of the possibility of openly sheltering Myanmar nationals while avoiding confrontation with the authorities as they attempt to strike a balance between close ethnic ties and Indian laws.
“We give them shelter only after they cross the border,” said PC Lalrawnliana, YMA secretary in Champhai, adding that the organization does not help people cross the border.
In Farkawn, when the Assam Rifles paramilitary force arrested 14 Myanmar nationals seeking shelter earlier this month, Lalmuankima said he asked them to let them stay and did not protest when they were repulsed.
“Assam Rifles told us they had orders to push them back,” he said. “We do not have the right to protest,” Lalmuankima stressed. “They came without permission from the village authorities.”
Others who avoided being arrested were hosted by local families. Al Jazeera met two women who arrived to join their spouses, who had crossed earlier.
“Before, the people who came were supporters of the MDP. The people who have come now are civilians, ”Lalmuankima said.
Request for sanctions
ZORO, meanwhile, demanded that the Indian government impose sanctions on the Burmese military and pressure it to release government leaders. He also demanded that India treat migrants from Myanmar like refugees.
“Those who come here must be protected as refugees in accordance with international law. They should not be pushed back, ”Sangkawia said.
“Blood is thicker than water. We have sympathy for them (Myanmar nationals).”
Amid this local pressure, the state government has also supported migrants despite New Delhi’s tough stance.
Last week, Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga spoke with Zin Mar Aung, who was appointed acting foreign minister by the Committee representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw comprising members of the ousted government of the National League of the democracy in Myanmar.
Zoramthanga called her Myanmar’s foreign minister. “We had a fruitful meeting (online) this morning with Zin Mar Aung, Hon’ble (sic) Minister of Foreign Affairs of Myanmar. Our thoughts and prayers are with #Myanmar in these difficult times, ”he tweeted.
On March 18, Zoramthanga wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying that the Chin and Mizos had close contact even before India became independent.
“India cannot turn a blind eye to this humanitarian crisis unfolding before our eyes in our own backyard,” he wrote.