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Life of Myanmar refugees in an Indian border village

September 30, 2021

The number of people fleeing Myanmar has increased in recent weeks as fighting between the military junta and opposition forces intensifies. DW met with some of those who have left their homes.

Myanmar refugees sitting outside a building in a refugee camp in an Indian border village in the state of Mizoram
Most of those living in camps are people from vulnerable groups, including older people, and women who have had to move with their children across the borderImage: Roshni Majumdar/DW

Hundreds of people opposed to military rule in Myanmar were forced to flee to the neighboring Indian state of Mizoram in the middle of September. 

Heavy fighting between the junta and opposition forces this month wiped out an entire town on the India-Myanmar border.

DW spoke to people from one of the Indian villages in Hnahthial district in Mizoram state that is housing people fleeing from the violence.

India and Myanmar share a 1,600-kilometer (1,000-mile) border. The state of Mizoram makes up almost a third of the border.

Where are people fleeing?

People are fleeing to the nearest villages, such as Thingsai, just across the border throughout the state of Mizoram.

Residents of border towns in Myanmar have been crossing the Tiau river — which forms part of the international boundary between the two countries — to reach border towns in India.

People crossing the bridge over Tiau river from India to Myanmar
India and Myanmar share a porous border, and people are still traveling back and forthImage: Roshni Majumdar/DW

Pawan Singh, from the paramilitary force Assam Rifles, which guards the Indian side of the border, said 20 to 25 people had crossed the border every day since the violence erupted in the middle of September.

He said nearly 1,000 people had fled to Thingsai village in recent days.

What are living conditions like?

Women from Myanmar are often seen riding bikes across the river to reach the refugee camp in Thingsai. They often travel with children, while the men stay behind to fight the military junta.

Basic food items such as potatoes, rice and lentil soup were distributed among those reaching the Indian villages by volunteers of the Young Mizo Association (YMA). The YMA is a local group that largely takes care of persons arriving from Myanmar. 

Shelving holding woods, food and other basic items in a refugee camp in Mizoram state
The Youth Mizo Association and local women's organizations greatly support those who've just arrived in Mizoram by providing them with food and other basic amenitiesImage: Roshni Majumdar/DW

Guards at the border emphasized that people had a lot of support from local citizens. They said life was impossible on the other side of the border as there was no food available there.

Life is tough in makeshift camps

One woman told DW that her husband was one of the people leading a local defense militia group in Myanmar. She was visiting his family in one of the other camps in the Indian village before going back across the border to bring her husband food from India.

On the day she headed back, she loaded all of her belongings onto a pickup truck and drove it to the bridge. Her bags were then carried by people from the border on the Indian side over to Myanmar, where she would be greeted by others who would take her home. She was also four months pregnant at the time.

A Myanmar refugee woman posing in front of a hut in an Indian refugee camp
Four months pregnant, she is still doing the heavy lifting for her familyImage: Roshni Majumdar/DW

There were at least three other pregnant women in the village camps. Others had given birth in the village's public health center.

Tial Hnin, an associate professor of law at Hakha University, said life was better for him and his family in the camp. He had fled with his daughters and his wife, but his sons remained in Myanmar.

Like many other professionals, Tial Hnin had joined the civil disobedience movement to oppose the military takeover. He said it was becoming nearly impossible for people like him to survive in Myanmar. Most people he knew were opposed to the military rule too. "People are very afraid," Tial Hnin said.

A new life

Several other people who first arrived at the camps when the military took over have since begun a new life with their family members in the village. One of the women who moved in with her sister to Thingsai said she closed her tailoring shop in Myanmar and decided to live there with her sister and mother. 

Even though adults are wary of the situation, young people remain hopeful that freedom will return to their country. In the camps, they can often be seen playing with each other or watching videos on YouTube together.

Ian Len Sui said all she wanted when she grew up was the freedom to live in her country. Around 300 refugee children have also begun going to public schools in Mizoram.

A man and his son sit smiling on the ground next to a tree, several other men are seen sitting behind them
A father and son spend time together at a refugee camp. Young people are often hopeful about their future, though it feels like a distant dreamImage: Roshni Majumdar/DW

Strong emotion among local Mizos

Even before the coup, border crossings were a common occurrence, often on bikes. The two ethnic groups on either side of the border — Mizos in India and Chins in Myanmar — are considered to fall into the same ethnic grouping.

"There's mutual understanding," a YMA officer said.

Three motorbikes stand parked next to a washing line in a refugee camp
It's common for bikes from Myanmar to stay parked along makeshift Indian campsImage: Roshni Majumdar/DW

PC Lalremkunga, the village council president, said most local Mizos supported their "brothers" even if the Indian government was opposed to their arrival.

A resident said the villagers were going to build houses for the new arrivals, even if it proved a difficult task.

But politics is not that straightforward

The Indian government alerted the four bordering states on March 10, noting the "probability of a large-scale influx" because of the situation in Myanmar. The federal government asked the state governments to identify and deport Myanmar nationals.

The Indian government's stance on Myanmar refugees has met strong opposition. Mizoram's chief minister, Zoramthanga, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the middle of March, saying that Mizoram could not "turn a blind eye" to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in its backyard.

But India lacks a legal framework to identify who has a right to asylum. It also has its own geopolitical interests in the region.

India has provided Myanmar with more than $1.75 billion (€1.5 billion) in developmental aid. And New Delhi is currently pushing ahead with the development of the Kaladan port and highway project in western Myanmar, for a cost of around $480 million.

The Indian government's reliance on Myanmar's military for border security and its reluctance to interfere in the country's affairs have kept New Delhi from commenting too strongly on the situation.

It remains unclear what the fate of the Myanmar refugees living in India's border villages will be.

Roshni Majumdar Roshni is a writer at DW's online breaking news desk and covers stories from around the world.@RoshniMaj