On March 19, quoting a senior Indian government official, Reuters reported that over 1,000 people had crossed over from Myanmar into the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram since late February. Mostly from Chin State in western Myanmar, these people were fleeing the violence unleashed by the military regime, which snatched power from the elected civilian government in a coup on February 1. The influx, which includes dissenting police officers, came nearly a month after members of the Chin National Army (CNA), an ethnic armed group in Myanmar, requested authorities in Mizoram to give them political asylum.
Around March 6, Myanmar authorities, in a letter to the local administration in Mizoram’s Champai district, urged the Indian government to return eight police officers who had crossed over. Two days later, India’s Minister of Home Affairs (MHA) shot off a letter to four border states in the Northeast (including Mizoram), directing them to prevent influx of people from Myanmar, identify the “illegal migrants” who had already crossed over, and “initiate the deportation processes expeditiously and without delay.” One of the reasons that the MHA gave for this was that India is not a state party to the Refugee Convention of 1951 and hence, is not bound to take in refugees.
Then on March 26, the Home Department of the Manipur government sent a letter to five local district chiefs asking them to “not open any [refugee] camps to provide food and shelter” and “politely turn away” asylum seekers. Four days later, following public outrage, the directive was withdrawn.
In the interim, Zoramthanga, the chief minister of Mizoram, the border state that has received the largest group of asylum seekers so far, adopted a radically different approach to the situation. On March 20, he sent a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, rejecting the central government’s diktat to prevent the refugee influx or return those that were already in Mizoram and urging him to provide political asylum to those fleeing into India on humanitarian grounds. Despite this, New Delhi has deployed additional columns of Assam Rifles, the paramilitary force that guards the India-Myanmar border, to prevent the refugee influx.
Zoramthanga’s rare defiance of the central government did not come out of nowhere. His refusal to seal the borders for Burmese refugees reflects the unique sensibilities in India’s northeastern border worlds, which often transcend the standard imaginations of a postcolonial nation-state and its hand-drawn borders. The Modi government must appreciate and acknowledge these sensibilities in full and grant full political asylum to those fleeing the military’s violent repression in Myanmar. There are more than one reasons to do so.
First, Mizos and Chin share a longstanding ethnic affinity within the broader Zo ethnic fold. British colonial administrators were one of the first to state this on record. According to Mizo oral tradition, both are said to have emerged from a cave called “Chhinlung” that is believed to be in present-day China. They eventually migrated southward and settled in the Lushai Hills around the 18th century, only to be subsequently boxed in to three different administrative regions — India, Myanmar and Bangladesh — by colonial borders. But this hasn’t stopped the community, especially in India and Myanmar, from maintaining a shared existence through the ages, marked by blood relations and routine movements across the international border.
This long-held ethnic bond continues to spawn aspirations for reunification of areas inhabited by the Zo sub-tribes. In fact, it was as recently as 2017 that former Mizoram chief minister, Lal Thanhawla, publicly expressed his hope that all Zo people living in the three bordering countries would “reunite under a single administrative unit” one day. Recently, the Zo Reunification Organization (ZORO), an influential civil society group in Myanmar, appealed to the central government to accept the fleeing Chin and impose sanctions on the military junta in Myanmar.
Second, there is strong precedent from the past on the question of India providing asylum to refugees from Myanmar. One can hardly find a clear instance in which New Delhi has stood in the way of Chin seeking asylum, even temporarily, in Indian territory. In fact, in 1988, the Indian government proactively opened refugee camps for Chin (and Burmese student activists) fleeing the military crackdown next door. Then again, in 2007-08, thousands from Chin State fled to Mizoram to escape a famine caused by rodent infestation.
As recently as in May 2017, around 300 Chin were reported to have fled to Mizoram because of pressure from the ethnic Rakhine armed group, Arakan Army (who later denied any coercion). Six months later, another group of 1,600 Chin fled to Lawngtlai district of Mizoram to escape the armed conflict between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army.
The multiple waves of Chin asylum seekers crossing over has steadily created a sizable refugee community in India. While the exact numbers remain unclear, a seminal 2009 report by Human Rights Watch pegged the number of Chin in Mizoram alone at 100,000. Many of them have migrated to New Delhi over the years for better economic opportunities. They have also, on the side, kept a close eye on the happenings in their home country and even come together to demonstrate in the national capital against the Indian government’s “neutral” position on the Burmese military regime, such as during the 2007 Saffron Revolution in Myanmar. Notably, the then Congress-led government in New Delhi chose to not send them back to their strife-torn home country, despite having a clear option to do so.
The Modi government needs to acknowledge this history of benevolence, and the positive precedent that it set for India as a country that hasn’t ratified the Refugee Convention 1951 and yet keeps the door open for people fleeing violence and persecution in other countries. Reversing this policy could seriously mar the goodwill that India enjoys in this regard and weaken its position at international forums, such as the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Third, while India is not a state party to the Refugee Convention of 1951 or its 1967 Optional Protocol, customary international law prohibits it from deporting asylum seekers to their home country when they are facing an explicit threat to their lives. Known as “non-refoulement,,” this principle, which was once under the sole remit of the 1951 Convention, has now acquired the character of a peremptory rule of international law. This essentially means that India, as a U.N. member state, must uphold it despite not ratifying the Convention, something that the UNHCR’s India office has clearly iterated in the past within the Rohingya context.
Further, according to an UNHCR advisory, the norm (as set out by the Convention) also includes the obligation on states to not turn away asylum seekers at the border. One may rationally assume this to be the case even within customary international law. In addition, other advisories (see point 19 of this) by the U.N. refugee body have concluded that the non-refoulement principle is embedded within the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which India has ratified. Thus, by giving Chin refugees asylum, even if temporary, India would place itself on the bright side of international humanitarian law.
Fourth, by turning back Chin refugees and at the same time, dismissing the Mizoram government’s concerns, New Delhi stands to jeopardize its much-touted Act East Policy (AEP). There are two specific aspects to this.
One, India’s reluctance to harbor Burmese refugees or turn them away could seriously harm its public diplomacy narrative in Myanmar in the near future. The presence of the Indian military attaché in the recently-held Armed Forces Day parade in Myanmar has already irked many in the country.
“India is one of the greatest democracies in the world. Why do you shake hands with the generals whose hands are soaked with our blood?” reads a tweet by the official account of the Civil Disobedience Movement.
This souring of India’s image in a country that it considers as the “land bridge” to Southeast Asia cannot be good news. While it is the military that is in power today, and popular narratives do not hold much sway, India will eventually have to deal with a civilian government elected by the people in the not-very-distant future. When that happens, India, to its own detriment, might find itself in a vortex of negative public opinion. Ironically, that would put India on the same plane as its primary geopolitical rival in the region, China.
The cooperation and trust of locals is of utmost importance in implementing infrastructural and developmental projects. In fact, Chin State is particularly important for India. One of the key nodal points of New Delhi’s flagship Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport Project (KMMTTP) — an inland river terminal — sits along the Kaladan river in the Chin capital of Paletwa. India has also offered a grant of $2 million for a border haat (market) project in Byanyu/Sarsichauk. If India gives a cold shoulder to ethnic Chin who are fleeing the military’s violence today, New Delhi’s presence or influence in the state might not be seen very favorably in the years to come.
Two, without the cooperation of its border states in the northeast, New Delhi can hardly drive the AEP forward. The region lies at the heart of the policy, something that the BJP government at the center knows very well. From the KMMTTP to the proposed India-Myanmar-Thailand highway, there is not a single AEP project with an overland component that does not pass through these states. Much like Chin State in Myanmar, Mizoram is especially central to the policy, as one of the final KMMTTP legs — the 110 km-road from Zorinpui to Lawngtlai — passes through the state.
Thus, just like in Myanmar, New Delhi needs the support of the people in Mizoram if it wants to keep its border connectivity projects up and running in the longer run. The swelling anger on the ground against its directive to seal the border for Chin refugees is hardly a good sign in this regard. The Modi government must fix this, and the only meaningful way to do so is to recognize the profound specificity of the Mizo-Chin bond.
Ultimately, it is worth pondering what good is any foreign policy agenda, such as the AEP, that aims to build long-term linkages between India and its eastern neighbors, including people-to-people relationships, if New Delhi cannot come to the aid of a few hundred refugees from these countries in times of crises. India would be truly mistaken to underestimate the ramifications of adverse public memory on diplomacy. Simply put, if the Modi government continues to turn away people from Myanmar at its borders and disregard the unique fraternal sentiments of the people of border states in the Northeast, it might soon run out of favors in its own strategic backyards.