A daily walk to school, from Myanmar to India
It’s 7.50am on a rainy June morning, and four-year-old Manguii is dressed in a bright pink raincoat. Next to her, her mother Chinpuii is worried about time, carrying a bag slung across her shoulder, and a big umbrella. There is a kindergarten class Manguii must make. They cross a bridge, with the river Tiau flowing underneath. On the other side is a cement arch, a steel gate, and a sign that says, “Thank You, Visit Again.”
That bridge, that sign, the gate, and the river are significant milestones. Because they are the international border between India and Myanmar, that Manguii and her mother cross it every day — to go to school.
Manguii isn’t alone. In February 2021, a violent military coup in Myanmar left the country in the throes of violence, forcing several schools, particularly in the areas bordering India, to shut down. Khawmawi, just across the border from the town of Zokhawthar in Mizoram’s Champai district, is one such place. So, beginning April 2022, when Mizoram’s schools opened after a two-year Covid-induced hiatus, Manguii, and about 300 to 500 other students, started crossing the international border every day to keep their education going.
“Schools in Khawmawi have remained closed due to the unrest and since I didn’t want my daughter to miss out on her education, I got her admitted at St Joseph’s School in Zokhawthar,” said Chinpuii.
Every day, the walk from their homes takes close to half an hour. On days when the schools are open, personnel from the Mizoram Police keep the iron gate on the border open from 7am to 9 am to allow the schoolbag-carrying students to enter. The police post is the only one with personnel manning the gate. There is a Customs office a few metres away from the bridge, empty and forlorn. As the clock strikes 9, chains are loosely placed on the gate, which restricts people with bags, but leaves enough wiggle room to cut across.
“There’s no fixed number of students from Myanmar who come to attend schools in Zokhawthar on a regular basis. On some days it goes up as high as 500. On Thursday, our logs say 396 entered India till 9am,” said a Mizoram Police official, posted near the bridge, on the condition of anonymity.
Once they enter the India, these students go to the nine government and private schools in Zokhawthar. In these schools, they study not only with Indian students, but also with children of refugees from Myanmar who entered Mizoram over the past year, and now live in camps following the military coup.
FREE MOVEMENT REGIME
In May 2018, India and Myanmar inked the Free Movement Regime that allows tribal people living in border areas to cross the international boundary and travel up to 16 kilometres into either side without visa restrictions, and on a simplified permit. In Mizoram in particular, state officials said, there are over 250 villages with over 300,000 people living within 10km of the border who frequently cross the border via 150 formal and informal crossings including the border town of Zokhawthar.
When HT visited the Zokhawthar border this month, on the Indian side, one police official kept count of the children entering each day, but prevented nobody. On the Myanmar side, there were no checks at all.
“As we were already admitting children of Myanmar refugees, when those who had not actually moved to India began coming for admissions, we took them in as well. They pay fees like anybody else,” said principal of a private school in Zokhawthar on condition of anonymity.
Champai deputy commissioner James Lalrinchanna, however, said, “I don’t have information on students who come to India and then return. If it is happening, I think that is just restricted to one place.”
Once they come to India, the students are placed one level below what they were across the border.
“Students from Myanmar lost out on their studies with Covid and the violence. They may have fallen behind. We have added three new classrooms,” said Francis Sailo, principal of St Joseph’s School. The school has 524 students from classes 1 to 8, of which 206 are Myanmarese.
Twelve-year-old Khrihmngnkin is happy that she is in school, but there is a tinge of sadness. “I missed out on classes in my country. I should have been in Class 6 now, but here I am studying in Class 5,” she said. Khrihmngnkin is from the Myanmarese village of Tio, located next to Khawmawi, and crosses the bridge across the river Tiau. Next to her, on most days, is Joseph Lalsiamthara, from the same village. “I used to love going to school. But since last year, everything closed down. I am happy I can be in a classroom again,” said 13-year-old Joseph.
DELUGE OF STUDENTS
Two kilometers away, the government-run pre-primary school is also dealing with a deluge of students. There are eight teachers for 306 students, 215 of them from Myanmar, close to 200 of whom come and go every day. “In order to accommodate the new entrants, we had to make a new pre-primary section where 97 students are studying at present,” said principal H Lairikhuma.
For teachers, there are learning challenges to overcome. “We noticed that students from Myanmar are usually weak at English. So from Class 1, we focus on the alphabet. We have books in Mizo, while they used to study in Burmese. But since Mizo is written in the Roman script, once they understand English, they catch up quickly,” said Rosangpuia Tlaisun, a teacher in the same school.
The daily entry and exit of students in Zokhawthar is also testament to a broader crisis since the February 2021 coup, and repressive military action, particularly in the Chin state. With Mizos sharing traditional ethnic and social ties with people from Chin, the state reached out with humanitarian assistance, allowing them to enter the state along its 510 boundary with Myanmar and live as refugees.
There has not always been consensus on this in India, with disagreements between the Centre and the federal Mizo National Front government. On March 10, 2021, the central government directed the governments of four states — Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, all of which share a border with Myanmar— not to allow the influx of people from across the border and detect and deport those who had already entered.
Mizoram’s chief minister Zoramthanga, however, asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to allow asylum in the face of a “human catastrophe of gigantic proportions”. “Myanmar areas bordering Mizoram are inhabited by Chin communities who are ethnically our Mizo brethren with whom we have been having close contacts throughout these years even before India became independent…Therefore Mizoram can’t remain indifferent to their sufferings today,” he said in a letter to the Prime Minister.
State government data shows that till June 4, a total of 29,964 refugees from Myanmar have moved to Mizoram. Of them 11,833 live in 149 relief camps, while 18,131 live by themselves in different parts of the state. The Mizoram government has also issued 29,751 refugee cards, which are temporary certificates of identity. “We have constructed relief camps, given electricity, water and other amenities,” said Vanlalmawia, Mizoram’s additional home secretary.
It is 11.30am, and the biggest of three relief camps in Zokhawthar, in the town play ground, is buzzing, its inhabitants trying to make the best of what has become of their lives. Some have left to find work, others have gathered at a hand pump to wash clothes, or cook and clean utensils. Children, not yet in school, play in one corner.
In two hours, Manguii and her mother, their hands tightly clasped together will walk past the playground, reach the border gate and the arch with the sign, and disappear across the bridge — only to return tomorrow.