Myanmar ex-soldiers look to build a new life in Mizoram | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Myanmar ex-soldiers look to build a new life in Mizoram

Nov 27, 2023 01:35 AM IST

Earlier this month, at least 74 Myanmar army personnel, who had deserted their posts in Myanmar, had entered India after rebel groups captured their bases.

The 74 Myanmar army personnel who fled to India two weeks ago because of the civil war between rebel forces and the junta aren’t the only ones who came to India for safety. In Mizoram’s Champhai’s town, 25 km from the border, there are 41 Myanmar army and police personnel who have abandoned their uniforms, crossed into India at different times over the past one year and now work as labourers and porters.

That Pian, Myanmar army ex-rifleman, works as a porter wherever he can find work.
That Pian, Myanmar army ex-rifleman, works as a porter wherever he can find work.

On Saturday, many had gone out to work. Some refused to speak, fearing for the safety of their families back home. But at least eight among them agreed to speak. They narrated why they shed their uniform, rebelled against their own, and chose to live this life in a foreign land.

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Also read: Hundreds of school students displaced from strife-torn Myanmar resume studies in India

This is their story.

Sergeant Thang Liankham, 54, who crossed over to India in September 2021, said he had won medals for valour. “I was part of the LIG 269 military camp and was in uniform for over 20 years. After the military coup in Myanmar, many of us were seen with suspicion for helping rebel forces. In one operation, I sustained a bullet injury on my right shoulder when rebel forces fired. My bosses refused to send me for medical aid because they thought I was helping rebel forces,” he said. “That day, I realised how our army is against our own people.”

Unlike other refugee camps where people are lodged in tents, these 41 along with their families are staying in a government building belonging to a defunct industrial training institute.

The other refugees in the complex requested that these men be given shelter on the first floor (above them) as a sign of respect for voluntarily leaving their jobs. Those with families share a room, bed sheets form a makeshift partition between their kitchen and bedroom. The singles are housed in a dormitory in what could have been a classroom of the institute.

They do not have their old uniforms. Memories and evidence of their past are their photographs in uniform and identity cards saved in their cellphones.

But there is one evidence of the life they left behind.

On this bright Saturday afternoon, two of them had hung out their shoes to dry after a wash. These were military boots they did not leave behind in Myanmar, even after shedding their uniform.

Among the most recent entrants in the camp is former Sergeant Chitko, 38, who crossed over in April. Chitko said he was last posted with the army’s LIG 3 Military Camp. His wife and two kids was killed by members of the junta, when they learnt he had actively participated in the civil disobedience movement after the 2021 military coup.

“I lived in Kalaw (Taungggi). I wont’t lie. I was also helping the rebel forces. Sometime in February, while returning from a protest, my relatives informed me that my wife and two children had been shot dead,” Chitko said. “They told me to flee to India. I lived in hiding for weeks before taking a lift in a supply truck. The members of the Chin National Army (CNA) helped me cross the border at Farkawn (another border village in Champhai).”

None of these army or police officers brought their arms or the uniform. In the months since the Myanmar military coup of 2021, like the thousands of refugees from Myanmar, they undertook different water crossings along the 496.53 km porous border. The Tiao river serves as the border between India and Myanmar.

Earlier this month, at least 74 Myanmar army personnel, who had deserted their posts in Myanmar, had entered India after rebel groups captured their military bases. These 74 men did not use any of the two official checkpoints in Champhai, but entered India after crossing the river at points where the water is less than a few feet deep.

The two official border checkpoints are no longer in control of the Myanmar army; they are guarded by forces such as CNA and People’s Defence Force. On Saturday, the rebel forces even removed the earlier board that proclaimed the Republic of Union of Myanmar with a new one that said — Welcome to Chinland.

These 74, who do not owe allegiance with the pro-democracy rebel forces, were shifted to Moreh, a border village in Manipur, in an Indian Air Force chopper and handed over to the Myanmar army, which is still in control there.

At the Champhai camp, former Myanmar police rifleman, Bualkham, 29, who was posted at the Hakha police station in Chin State, said he had grown tired of fighting against civilians. “Hakha sustained the most damage after the military coup in 2021 because of the protests and violence. I simply could not fire at my own people. One day during a protest, my senior ordered me to fire at an unruly crowd. I could not and I was punished,” Bualkham, who now sells poultry, said. “Two months later, sometime in March last year, I along with my wife and two children came here.”

Bualkham estimates there are more than 300 Myanmar police personnel like him who work as daily wagers in different parts of Mizoram. The register maintained at this camp has the names of 41 people, 21 army and 20 police. “Here, at this camp, we even have my senior, who is a three-star officer (inspector rank),” he added.

The men said they are still in touch with their friends in the army and police. They message and talk over Facebook messenger.

Bualkam earned around 290,000 Myanmar Kyat, which is equivalent to around 8,000 in India.

Mizoram’s influential civil society organisation, the Young Mizo Association (YMA), helps them find jobs as daily wagers at construction sites. The YMA coordinates with the state government contractors who need labourers. “Sometimes they even earn 700 a day. But this is not fixed,” said Robert Zoremtluaga, chairperson of the Champhai district refugee subcommittee.

Also read: Village life before and after the Myanmar crisis: Hard to harder

Those who left their families also send money back home.

One of them, That Pian, 50, a former rifleman, works as a porter wherever he can find work. “After 2021, even my relatives questioned me why I was helping the army,” Pian said.

Sometime in August last year, he took his wife to a relative’s place. He did not want her to risk her life by hiding from border guards and entering India. He regularly sent money to his wife back home but has stopped now, Pian said.

Last month, his parents told him that his wife had married another man, supposedly a soldier.

“There is little I can do now,” Pian said. “Maybe I will go back and join the rebel forces.”

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    Prawesh Lama covers crime, policing, and issues of security in Delhi. Raised in Darjeeling, educated in Mumbai, he also looks at special features on social welfare in the National Capital.

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