While the 1,600-kilometer border between India and Myanmar has seen waves of Burmese refugees fleeing to India as the civil war and air strikes have intensified, the Chinese government has been vocal about its support of Myanmar's military junta. Inevitably, already tense relations between China and India
MIZORAM — In early May 2023, reporters entered the Simei Camp in Mizoram, northeast India. The camp, located on the outskirts of Aizawl, the capital of the Indian state of Mizoram, has housed 140 refugees since the coup of Burmese military ruler Min Aung Hlaing in 2021.
Prior to the February 1, 2021 coup, the term "Burmese refugees" was primarily associated with the Rakhine/Rohingya people of Myanmar. The first wave of Burmese refugees was in 2015, when more than 25,000 Rohingya refugees crossed the Indian Ocean on overcrowded and dirty boats to countries such as Malaysia, and became known for being stranded at sea.
The second wave occurred between 2016 and 2017, when armed conflict and genocide erupted in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, home to Rohingya, and a large number of refugees fled to neighboring Bangladesh. As of May 2023, there were 930,000 Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh.
But the Rohingya are not the only refugees in Myanmar, as more than 1.49 million people, regardless of ethnicity, have been displaced or exiled to neighboring countries as a result of the civil war against the military regime that followed the coup d'état in 2021. According to UNHCR, 88,300 people have fled to neighboring countries since the coup until May 1 of this year, with more than 40,000 Chin refugees, who are of Sino-Tibetan origin, fleeing to the neighboring Indian state of Mizoram.
The 1,600-kilometer border between India and Myanmar has seen waves of Burmese refugees fleeing to India as the civil war and air strikes have intensified. Although the Indian government has repeatedly reiterated that India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, and that the state government has no authority to grant "refugee status to any foreigner".
The long-standing rebel unrest in India's northeastern provinces has been one of the destabilizing factors in the region; after the 2021 coup, the established interests of the Burmese military government and India's northeastern rebels have become even closer, making the local situation even more chaotic. And refugees fleeing the Burmese civil war have been flooding the Indian border.
In addition to relying on local political organizations and civil society for relief, India's central government, which lacks a legal framework for refugees, is unable to provide them with humanitarian assistance or a clear path to a future that includes relocation to a third country and legal work rights. Refugees are forced to work illegally to make ends meet, adding to regional insecurity.
Sandwiched between China and India, which also see it as a strategic priority, the refugee crisis in Myanmar is also closely related to the Asia-Pacific rivalry between China and India. The Chinese government's statement to the military government in May this year that "China stands by Myanmar in the international arena" and that it favors China has put India on pins and needles.
This has made India, which has been ambivalent about the military coup in Myanmar, rethink whether maintaining an amicable relationship with the military junta will ensure India's best national interests. Or should India, as the world's largest democracy, support the democratic camp in Myanmar, which opposes military rule, and safeguard the status and rights of Myanmar's refugees, thereby stabilizing the situation in the region and demonstrating the value of democratic institutions?
Chin refugees with no return date
On Feb. 1, 2021, Min Aung Hlaing staged a coup d'état and the growing civil war reached the Chin State, the poorest state in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi, then Senior Minister of State, and Win Myint, then President, were imprisoned after the coup, and their ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), formed a National Unity Government (NUG) on April 16, 2021, comprised of members who were prevented from taking office by the coup. The NUG has focused on raising public awareness and international support, raising funds for weapons and arms for the newly founded People's Defense Force (PDF).
The military government is under great threat in this land war because of the strong ethnic armed groups and the PDF. As a result, since 2022, the military government has used bomber air strikes to indiscriminately attack the PDF and unarmed civilians in the areas of greatest resistance.
After the onset of the coup, a large number of refugees fled across the border to India. As of May 2023, more than 40,000 refugees from Myanmar have arrived in the Indian state of Mizoram, which borders Myanmar. The rugged, mountainous and difficult-to-guard India-Myanmar border is unlike the tightly guarded state border between India and Pakistan.
"The Simei refugee camp has 28 houses and 140 people, including 40 children. We have been living here for a year and a half," says Boehkap, a 45-year-old farmer from Chin State who explains the state of the camp to reporters. "When I first fled to India, I arrived at another refugee camp; later, the owner of this land was willing to lend the land for free, and my Burmese neighbor and I set up house, and we were the first group in the Simei refugee camp.”
Built with bamboo sheets by Boehkap and his Burmese village neighbors, the long houses can accommodate more than 10 families, each sharing a unit of about 6 to 8 square meters, separated only by bamboo walls and curtains. The narrow space is used as a living room and a dining table during the day, and a bed with pillows and mattresses in the evening, clothes and other necessities are piled up along the walls, there is also a wooden stove and kitchen for most of the families.
"One by one, with the assistance of the government and civil society organizations, we built water storage towers and latrines, power lines and solar panels. And of course, we built churches," Boehkap says.
June 19, 2021, Chennai, India: A Rohingya woman is seen with a child inside a makeshift room.
Buying an escape
But not every Chin refugee has to live in a refugee camp – and it seems that Benjamin Sum, a music star of Chin descent from Myanmar's Sagaing Division, is one of the exceptions. Sum started his career as a rock singer in Myanmar after winning second place in the 2019 Myanmar Idol Contest.
When the coup broke out in 2021, Benjamin Sum was on a nationwide tour, and he, along with other performers, had been showing solidarity with the protesters on the internet and in the streets. In 2021, he was convicted of "incitement to insurrection" and sentenced to three years imprisonment, so he fled Myanmar with his mother to Mizoram.
Even if there hadn't been a coup d'état, they still wouldn't be able to survive in the center of Myanmar.
In late April 2023, on a private Facebook page, independent journalist Zmp Tlau posted Benjamin Sum's "Mizoram birth certificate,” identity card (Aadhaar Card), voter's card and driver's license.
This has triggered mixed reactions in Mizoram, with the Central Mizo Youth Association, Mizoram's largest civil society organization, calling on government units to "verify the issuance of relevant identity documents to genuine residents of Mizoram with Indian citizens", but Benjamin Sum's immense popularity has also led to some people speaking out against the independent journalists who broke the story. Sum’s previously active Facebook page became inactive. After a month's hiatus, Benjamin Sum's Facebook fan page was relaunched at the end of May, and he released a new song with his band in June.
"Wealthy Chin refugees are able to rent houses and live with relatives in the city of Aizawl. They even speak fluent English and are ready to use India as a springboard to migrate to countries like the United States or Singapore." Van La, a Mizo who runs a guesthouse, has hosted media reporters, Indian businessmen, and even members of the PDF who travel between India and Myanmar.
"Many poor Chins only speak Chin, not Burmese, and even if there hadn't been a coup d'état, they still wouldn't be able to survive in the center of Myanmar, in metropolitan areas such as Yangon or Mandalay."
January 22, 2019 - Tripura, India: 31 Rohingya who were stranded on the India-Bangladesh border for three days are held at the Amtali Police Station.
Mizoram in a fragile state
The Mizos of Mizoram belong to the Zo ethnic group, who live throughout northeastern India, northwestern Myanmar and the Chittagong Hill Tracts in southeastern Bangladesh. Most live in the Sagaing Division of Myanmar, alongside Chin.
Lianlong, who has been in the refugee camp in Simei for more than a year, is from the rural Chin State. "When a bomb from the Myanmar National Army landed in a neighboring village, I immediately fled to India with my wife and children, without any hesitation,” he said. He got on his motorcycle and crossed the Tiau River, the border river between Mizoram and the Chin state, with all his belongings.
Security on the India-Myanmar border is not tight, and since 2018 the two countries have had a degree of free movement, where within 16 kilometers of the border on either side, people can enter and exit for up to two weeks without travel documents. The free movement area includes more than 250 villages, with more than 300,000 people.
When the coup broke out, many refugees fled across the mountainous border to India. Because India never signed the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, the country’s Ministry of Home Affairs demanded that border regions prevent irregular migrants from entering and identify and deport those who have already entered.
K. Vanlalvena, a Mizoram member of the Rajya Sabha, India’s upper house of parliament, who is also a member of the Mizo National Front, made a strong statement against the repatriation measure in the Parliament in March 2021, arguing that "The state government, along with the NGOs, should provide immediate assistance and shelter to the refugees."
At the time, the Home Ministry had banned state governments from sheltering refugees.
"The people of Mizoram will not be comfortable if the central government insists on deporting Myanmar refugees,” Vanlalvena said. "India, as the world's largest democracy, has a responsibility to support any struggle to preserve the democratic system … Burmese refugees are our brothers, and to repatriate them would undoubtedly be sending them to their death."
Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga, who is also the president of the Mizo National Front, sent a strongly worded letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in April 2021, arguing for greater support: "Mizoram cannot remain indifferent and India cannot turn a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis happening in our backyard,” he wrote.
"The government and people of Mizoram welcome refugees from Myanmar. Ethnically, the Burmese Chin are our brothers and even before India's independence, we had close ties,” Zoramthanga explained.
Almost all of the Mizo people who spoke with TheInitium welcomed the Burmese Chin to stay in India. "The people walking along the main road with their belongings, ready to go and sell them, are Burmese,” said Thangte, a Mizo man, in the mountain town of Aizawl.
At 1,000 meters above sea level, the town’s roads slope up and down by more than 30 degrees, making it a difficult trek for cars, motorcycles and pedestrians alike.
"Honestly, this is my first time in a Burmese refugee camp,” said Thangte, after leaving the Simei refugee camp. "I will bring my friends here to visit them again. It is only a 40-minute drive from the city to the camp. Maybe we can provide rice and daily necessities and bring some children's books and toys for the kids.”
Van La, a 67-year-old Mizo, said his family employs two Burmese men to assist with cleaning and cooking, and only has to pay each of them 5,000 rupees (about $61) a month. "They are very hardworking, except that they often take time off work because they have to travel between Mizoram and Chin State to visit their family still in Myanmar."
Lalnuntluanga, general secretary of the Central Mizo Youth Association, said that there could be as many as 40,000 refugees in the region.
India's hosting history
India has traditionally hosted waves of refugees from neighboring countries, among them Tibetan refugees including the Dalai Lama, as well as Hindus fleeing Bangladesh's 1971 military crackdown in East Pakistan and Tamils fleeing the civil war in Sri Lanka.
Even India's history of hosting refugees from Myanmar can be traced back to the 1962 military coup by General Ne Win and the 1988 "8888 Democracy Movement," which saw large numbers of pro-democracy activists who opposed totalitarian military rule fleeing to neighboring countries, as well as the 2021 coup, which saw an even larger influx of refugees to India.
Refugees from Myanmar who are Christians or Rohingya Muslims are considered illegal immigrants.
Since the coup d'état, India’s government has said that it cannot provide humanitarian assistance to refugees, nor is it in a position to offer them a clear path to the future, including transfer to a third country.
In India, the granting of citizenship to refugees has always depended on national interests and international circumstances. For example, second-generation Tibetan refugees born in India have been able to obtain Indian identity cards and passports in recent years, and a 2019 amendment to the Citizenship Act allows some non-Muslim refugees to become citizens under certain conditions – though that act has sparked controversy because of its religious discrimination.
Persecutions of refugees who are not Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain or Parsi has also been documented. Refugees from Myanmar who are Christians or Rohingya Muslims are considered illegal immigrants, who must be deported or must have work visas to legally settle in India. This is a harsh condition for refugees from Chin State, who had to flee Myanmar suddenly and may be forced to work illegally in order to earn a living.
June 19, 2021, Chennai, India: Rohingyas are seen collecting food at the Rohingya Refugee Camp at Kelambakkam.
Sri Loganathan Velmurugan/ZUMA
A hub for China's Belt and Road
The current refugee situation in Myanmar is not only a humanitarian issue, but also a geopolitical tug-of-war between China and India for supremacy in the Asia-Pacific region. Myanmar is an important hub of China's Belt and Road Initiative, and an important part of India's Look East and Act East policies.
The Chinese government has been cultivating political, military and economic relationships in Myanmar with the country’s politicians, businesses and civilians, including successive Burmese leaders, military strongmen Than Shwe and Myint Aung Hlaing, as well as former Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and a wide range of investments and construction projects.
In the early days of the coup in 2021, China did not support Min Aung Hlaing's military rule, and tried to use the tools and relationships it had cultivated over the years to argue that it was capable of resolving Myanmar's internal conflicts. As a result, China engaged with both the anti-military Democratic Unity Government and the Min Aung Hlaing-dominated military regime.
But as the civil war in Myanmar has continued, China has come to favor military rule. For China, protecting its investments in Myanmar, including the Belt and Road Initiative, is a top priority. Since the coup, China has invested $113 million in Myanmar.
The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) under the Belt and Road Initiative provides an important link between China and Myanmar in the post-coup period. The CMEC starts from China's Yunnan Province in the north, goes southward through the China-Myanmar border to the central city of Mandalay, and then extends east-west to Yangon and Kyaukpyu in the Rakhine State.
In addition to the China-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline, which opened in 2017, China and Myanmar have reopened post-coup discussions on projects that had been put on hold, including a high-speed railroad plan for Yunnan-Rakhine State, a wind power plan for Rakhine State, and hydroelectric and natural gas-fired power plants in Kachin State.
However, security and stability along the route must be ensured as a prerequisite for promoting the CMEC. China has a long history of targeting militant groups along the border, and those that have not signed ceasefire agreements with the Myanmar government must rely on Chinese envoys to travel to the capital to attend peace conferences. The areas under the control of these groups straddle the CMEC, which includes the Rakhine State and the northeastern Shan State bordering China.
Around the time of the 20th national congress of the Communist Party of China in Oct. 2022, the Chinese government's support for Myanmar's military government became more explicit. This included a visit to Myanmar by then-Foreign Minister Wang Yi, a meeting with Min Aung Hlaing in May this year in which Foreign Minister Qin Gang said that "China stands by Myanmar in the international arena" as well as a rare visit to the China-Myanmar border to ask for greater border security.
India's policy toward Myanmar today depends heavily on national security along its northeastern border, as well as the evolution of the military government's relationship with China and other countries. Key components of India's "eastward policy" include the Indo-Myanmar-Thailand highway and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Program (KMTP), which connects India's northeast region with Southeast Asia.
The Indian-funded Sittwe Port began operations in May 2023. While the port, which is adjacent to the Kyaukphyu Port, built with Chinese investment, balances India-Myanmar-China relations somewhat, construction of a planned 109-kilometer road through Myanmar's Chin State to India's Mizoram State has not yet begun.
With armed conflict ongoing against the military regime in much of Chin State, the construction of the road will have to be negotiated with the NLD and the PDF, which control the area. Myanmar’s armed forces have conducted 14 airstrikes and bombings in Chin State since the coup.
India has failed to provide actual relief, resettlement and relocation for the refugees.
India has remained cautious regarding Myanmar since the coup, avoiding confrontation with the military government. India abstained from voting on a 2022 UN Security Council resolution on Myanmar, "calling for 'quietness' with the regime, 'patient' and 'constructive' diplomacy with the military government."
Rich in resources
Although India has sold more than $51 million worth of arms and materiel to the Myanmar military, instability in the country poses two major challenges for India: the growing ties between Myanmar and China, and the opening of the door to unease and chaos in the northeastern region of the country.
In the aftermath of the coup, the Indian government had misjudged the situation, staking its interests in Myanmar on Min Aung Hlaing and the military government. But as the civil war dragged on, the government was only able to suppress the fierce PDF with air strikes, and as more nationalist soldiers defected, Min Aung Hlaing's control over Myanmar was diminishing.
The regime has guaranteed China's security along the China-Myanmar border, but it has been unable to ensure the stability of the Indo-Myanmar border, including the continued harboring of rebels in the Northeast region under the protection of the military regime.
Air raids by the Myanmar National Army on Chin State and Sagaing Division have caused more refugees to flee along the border with India. Meanwhile, India has failed to provide actual relief, resettlement and relocation for the refugees, and the large influx of people has also brought drugs, smuggling and law and order problems.
"India must open its eyes to the trouble Min Aung Hlaing has caused," said Shyamy, a Burmese senator from the Chin State who is stranded in Mizoram. "If India can open its eyes to the plight of Burmese refugees in India, it will be able to get more civil society organizations to come and assist the needy refugees,” she argued.
"We don't expect India to shoot down Min Aung Hlaing, but we hope the Indian government will provide humanitarian assistance to the Burmese refugees. How can India, the world's largest democracy and economy, watch these people suffer and starve and lack medical care?" she said.
"And as Myanmar is very rich in natural resources, India will be the first to benefit if it can assist Myanmar to return to democracy and support a government of national unity."