A young refugee from Burma’s ethnic Chin minority holds a placard during a protest rally to mark World Refugee Day in New Delhi on June 20, 2011. (Photo: Reuters / Parivartan Sharma)
Expatriate refugees from the poverty-stricken nation of Burma have begun filtering back, partly as their country of origin has democratized and more ominously because they are feeling the heat from host countries like Thailand, India, Bangladesh and Malaysia to leave.
But so far, the Chin, an impoverished Christian minority that has been likened to the persecuted Rohingya, who have been set upon by majority Buddhists unmercifully, have yet to join the exodus. About 100,000 thousand of them are just across the border in India’s Mizoram State, where they fled in the wake of 1998 riots. Chin State, on the country’s southwestern flank, is one of Burma’s poorest. Nearly 75 percent of its 500,000 population live mired in poverty, deprived of support from the successive Burmese regimes in Rangoon or the new administrative capital of Naypyidaw.
Initially the refugees were either political activists or student leaders who were targeted by the then military rulers. But even with a quasi-democratic regime in Naypyidaw, the influx to India continues, with people entering India not to escape dictators or authority, but for a better life.
In some cases the Burmese Army may have already confiscated their lands and destroyed their properties. Finding difficulties in surviving inside India as well, the Burmese refugees are now seeking resettlement to a third country.
The majority of the Chin complain about discrimination from the Buddhist-dominated federal government. The 1988 movement against the then military rulers of Burma was crushed, leaving thousands dead across the country.
“Like other ethnic communities in Myanmar, the Chin people bore the brunt of severe poverty and military rule, prompting many to flee across the 1,463-km border into India’s Mizoram State,” according to a 2011 report by Physicians for Human Rights.
The refugees feel somewhat comfortable in Mizoram as it is one of the India’s few Christian-dominated states. The Chin and Mizo people, share ancestry, physical appearance, food habits and language accents. In some occasions, the highly influential churches also play an important role in propagating the sense of brotherhood between the two communities. Nonetheless, asylum seekers often face the problem of finding livelihoods. Mostly they work as cheap daily wage earners in construction sites, agriculture fields, market areas and also in local Mizo households.
“Our people frequently face rights violations here [Mizoram] even though they are reluctant to go back to their native places in Burma. We are actually afraid the situation in Chin State is yet to be favorable us,” said Pu Win, a Chin activist based in the frontier town of Saiha in Mizoram. The activist added that the Chin are worried about medical care and education for their children. So ignoring the troubles in Mizoram, most of the Chin refugees prefer to stay in India until their country develops a little more, he added.
Unlike those in Mizoram, Burmese asylum seekers in Delhi face more trouble as they are physically different, as is their culture, religion and language. As they are not comfortable in Hindi, the primary language, the refugees find it extremely difficult to communicate with their short-time employers and authorities.
India’s national capital gives shelter to over 8,000 registered Burmese refugees, but New Delhi is also home to another 10,000 asylum seekers, half of them women and children who have to travel over 2,200 kms from Mizoram to Delhi to enroll with the office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
India, which supports a few hundred thousand refugees from Tibet, Burma, Sri Lanka etc., has yet to adopt a specific refugee protection policy, resulting in persistent confusion about the refugees and their legitimate rights. Moreover, India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN refugee convention or a 1967 refugee status protocol.
“As there is no procedural mechanism for protecting the refugees in India, the Burmese refugee women have to struggle for their basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter in New Delhi,” said M Kim, a Burmese exile based in New Delhi. “In addition to this, they battle with the constant fear of sexual assault and physical abuse.”
Quoting a report titled Doke Kha Bon with the accounts of 20 Chin women refugees in New Delhi, which was sponsored by the Burma Center Delhi and released recently, Kim asserted that the capital city remains universally unsafe for asylum seekers.
According to the UNHCR office in New Delhi, persecution due to minority ethnic race, religion and political opinion are cited as the main reasons for their seeking asylum in neighboring countries. “The most frequent complaints reported to UNHCR include difficulty in communicating with local health and education service providers,” said the BCD-sponsored report.
Prepared by the Pann Nu Foundation, the report includes case studies relating to Chin refugee women now living in west Delhi.
“Those women, many of them widows and single mothers, have bared their hearts during the interaction. In fact, every woman has a pathetic story to tell. Originally hailing from some remote areas of Chin, the refugee families were once dependent on Jhum [shifting] cultivation. But due to land confiscation practices adopted by the Burmese Army, the Chin villagers gradually lost their livelihood and left for India,” said Alana Golmei, founder and president of the Pann Nu Foundation.
Often the women and girls were compelled to serve the Burmese military as porters and laborers, made to serve food, and camp in the jungle with no proper shelter, without even knowing when they could return home.
“Needless to say, they all lack proper education. The interviewees can only read and write in their local Chin dialect. All these women, who are Christians, had no respite from the Buddhist dominated military personnel, who even barge into their houses and demand food time to time,” Golmei said. “They said the continued sexual assault by the Burmese soldiers is their worst nightmare there.”
But their lives in New Delhi are turning into another nightmare.
“They allege that they become victims of physical abuse, molestation, sexual assault and discrimination everywhere they go, be it at their rented apartments, workplaces, public spaces or even the roads for that matter,” Golmei said, adding that they keep mum about sexual assaults due to the fear of social stigmatization and shame.
Now voices have been raised for reviewing the existing foreign policy of the Indian government, taking into consideration the Burmese refugee women and children in the country. Understanding that the refugee women are more vulnerable and are easy targets, the activists appealed to New Delhi to continue supporting the asylum seekers.
“The new difficulty for the Burmese refugees has started with the news of democratization of Burma. Now most conscious people of India argue that the refugees should leave the country, as India has enough problems to deal with,” said Dr. Tint Swe, a physician and an exile in India for decades.
Tint Swe however admitted that Indian people in general remain merciful. Of course they are lately starting to believe that if Burma becomes comfortable and safer, they should leave.
“But the question arises here if the changes in Burma have prepared the ground for returning the refugees. In reality it has not. So we have urged the Indian government to review its existing foreign policy with an aim to continue safeguarding the refugees here for some more years,” he added.
Following the call from Burma President Thein Sein’s government to exiles taking shelter in different countries to return, many refugee families have already responded and have left India. Others, however, remain apprehensive about their future. In some cases it is understood that the Burmese Army might have already confiscated their lands and destroyed their properties. Finding difficulties in surviving inside India as well, the Burmese refugees are now seeking resettlement in a third country for a dignified life.