The number of Myanmar nationals fleeing to the Indian border state of Mizoram has skyrocketed to over 15,000 in the last month, as violence escalates in various parts of the country following the February 1 coup. Myanmar’s armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, have been using brutal means to suppress opposition to the coup. The deadly crackdown has intensified particularly in the northwest Chin State, causing many to cross the western border into India. India has so far refused to offer asylum to those crossing over, but non-government groups are sheltering Myanmar nationals in Mizoram.
The influx into Mizoram began in late February when nineteen policemen fled Myanmar to avoid orders from the junta. “They didn’t want to take orders against the civil disobedience movement,” an unnamed Indian official told Reuters in March, adding that they crossed over fearing persecution for disobeying orders. By April, about 1,800 Myanmar nationals had escaped to Mizoram, including several lawmakers. This number has since grown to more than 15,400 and is “increasing day by day,” said the vice chairman of Mizoram’s State Planning Board, H. Rammawi.
He expects more people from Myanmar to seek shelter in his state as the crackdown rages on across the border. However, many are going to the homes of relatives in Mizoram, making it increasingly difficult to track numbers. Extended families are often spread across both sides of the border due to close ethnic ties within the region.
After the Tatmadaw seized power on February 1, pro-democracy demonstrations across the nation called for the reversal of the coup and the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Fighting erupted across the nation as the junta ordered a lethal clampdown on peaceful anti-coup protesters. Thousands of people from Myanmar have since taken refuge in Mizoram, the small, northeast Indian state that shares a porous, mountainous border with Myanmar’s Chin state.
Rammawi said residents and non-government organisations were taking care of the people but the state government had sought assistance from federal authorities. On March 10, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order to turn away the “illegal influx” in four border states, but the Mizoram government cannot “prevent locals from providing accommodating and assisting the Myanmar nationals,” according to the Hindu.
Majority of the people sheltering in Mizoram are arriving from Chin, which has become one of the “fiercest battlegrounds of resistance,” according to Al Jazeera. The Tatmadaw has stepped up their attacks in the rural, mountainous state, which is one of the least developed in Myanmar. The Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) alleges that war crimes and “grave breaches of the Geneva Convention” are being committed in Mindat, an embattled hill town about 100km from the border.
Mindat has been the site of some of the most intense fighting since the coup, as a local civilian defence force has taken up arms against the junta. The Tatmadaw has been arresting locals and bombing the town “indiscriminately, even in residential areas,” according to a local volunteer. As military forces are arresting mostly men, many have evacuated the town, hiding in the wooded hills in the outskirts of Mindat or fleeing to Mizoram. This has left women and children extremely vulnerable, and the CHRO shared concerns of sexual violence being utilized as a weapon of war in Mindat. The CHRO Deputy Director described the atrocities unfolding in Mindat as a “humanitarian disaster in the making,” warning that the pattern of violence could spread to other states and lead to more displacement. Without the assurance of asylum in India, however, he worries that the displaced will be left with no safe place to go.
As India is grappling with a vicious second wave of COVID-19, these refugees are likely to take precedence in the federal government’s agenda. Their initial directive to block and deport all Myanmar migrants crossing over shows their lack of humanitarian concern. In sharp contrast, Mizoram state officials are pleading for medical and food supplies to match the humanitarian efforts of civilians and NGOs. “There has been no response till date,” he added, referring to the lack of support from the federal government.
Indian border states are ready to accommodate Chin refugees, and need only the help and approval of the federal government to do so. If they cannot find it in their hearts, they can at least find it in the letter of international law under the principle of “non-refoulement.” India must grant asylum to the Myanmar nationals fleeing war-torn towns as a U.N. member state, as this law prohibits a state from deporting asylum seekers to their home country when they are facing an explicit threat to their lives. Still, whether out of compassion or legal obligation, India must provide asylum for the Chin refugees, lest they contribute to the humanitarian crisis that is evolving every day and shows no sign of stopping.