Unpacking Mizoram’s stance towards Myanmar’s Chin refugees
As more refugees pour into Mizoram from Myanmar, a look at the ties that bind the people across the borders, and historical disquietude that underpins it
In the summer of 2015, torrential rains triggered by Cyclone Komen in neighbouring Bangladesh swept across western Myanmar, causing devastating floods and landslides in some of the poorest and remotest parts of the country. Chin state, bordering India, suffered heavily. According to civil society estimates, by mid-November of that year, more than 54,000 people were directly affected by the deluge.
Local civil society organisations in Chin state — one among seven ethnic states of Myanmar — immediately jumped into action, mobilising and distributing aid to those in need. The quasi-civilian union government of Myanmar too was able to send some relief. But, help for Chin state also came from someplace else – Mizoram, located right across the border in northeast India.
The Presbyterian Church in Aizawl, a pivotal social institution in Mizoram, directed all churches in the city to join the humanitarian effort. Local Mizo musicians held impromptu concerts in public squares across the state capital and a three-day event at a shopping mall to raise funds. Influential youth organisations requested students to contribute. The all-powerful Central Committee of the Young Mizo Association (CYMA) dispatched truckloads of rice across the border.
What’s more, then Mizoram chief minister, Lal Thanhawla, wrote to his Chin counterpart, Hung Ngai, expressing “solidarity to all affected citizens of Myanmar, who are our kith and kin”. It was almost as if the international border between the two states did not exist.
It is, therefore, no surprise that Mizoram promptly came to the aid of Chins fleeing the Burmese military regime’s brutal violence after the February 2021 coup. It was muscle memory, in many ways. In fact, Mizoram’s defiance of the Union home ministry’s March 2021 directive to Northeastern border states to seal the border was not surprising. In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Mizoram chief minister Pu Zoramthanga called the refugee crisis a “human catastrophe of gigantic proportions”.
Sure, his party, Mizo National Front (MNF), is a member of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). But, Zoramthanga is also a Mizo – an identity that has a political life of its own in Northeast India. This identity continues to shape not just the politics of Mizoram, but also the unique lifeworld of the India-Myanmar borderlands in ways that even New Delhi cannot fully mediate.
But, there is also a strategic political imperative to the MNF’s humanitarianism. In late September, five months after the MHA asked Aizawl and Imphal to collect biometric details of refugees from Myanmar, Zoramthanga refused to undertake the data collection, asserting that it would “amount to discrimination against people who are of our blood and kindred brothers and sisters.”
Just two months before refusing to collect biometric data, the MNF government was doing the opposite. In July, it reportedly undertook a pilot project for biometric data collection of refugees in Lunglei district. However, Zoramthanga walked back on this effort in view of the Mizoram assembly election — that concluded last month — to likely shore up Zo (a supra-ethnic identity covering the Chin-Kuki-Mizo spectrum) nationalism and in the process, placate his political constituencies. As noted Mizo scholar, Joy LK Pachuau argued recently, the MNF’s under-performance on the economic development agenda might have also driven Zoramthanga to redirect the political mood towards Zo ethno-politics.
This he did not just by audaciously protecting the Chin refugees from arrests and deportation, but also by supporting and sheltering thousands of Kuki-Zo people who have fled strife-torn Manipur into Mizoram since May. Reviving the language of ethnic kinship, he called the Kuki-Zo displaced from Manipur his “own blood.” In this manner, the Mizoram chief minister has positioned himself as the top vanguard of all Zo people.
A more complex reality emerges when one goes beyond the headlines. The MNF’s political humanitarianism shouldn’t be mistaken for unconditional altruism. It is primarily guided by popular sentiments in Mizoram, which in turn, is shaped by influential volunteer organisations like the Young Mizo Association (YMA).
In September 2022, the Zoramthanga government issued a stern directive asking refugees from Myanmar to not purchase land or run businesses without official permission and to not apply for formal documents such as Aadhar, driving licences and voter cards. In fact, the unofficial IDs that the Mizoram government has issued to 30,000 odd asylum seekers are merely meant for identification and do not give access to core state services. The aid that they receive is mostly directed through non-state channels.
This restrictive approach towards the asylum seekers emanates from a latent yet longstanding anxiety within Mizo society about “outsiders”. Even the Chins, who are otherwise deemed as ethnic kins, are often seen as temporary “guests” at best, and the “unwanted other” at worst. They are often profiled with terms like Burma-mi and Burma-ho, which are laced with pejorative connotations.
This hostility isn’t new. Throughout the 2000s, right up to 2013-14, the YMA, Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP), and others undertook several “quit Mizoram” expulsion drives against Chin refugees, often with state authorities in tow.
There is also anxiety within government and civil society circles in Aizawl about refugees engaging in narcotics trafficking across the border. Recently, the CYMA warned refugees to refrain from taking advantage of the Myanmar crisis and Mizo hospitality to smuggle drugs into the state. Some also feel that the ongoing war in Chin State is destabilising Mizoram, which has remained mostly peaceful since the MNF signed a peace accord with New Delhi in 1986.
In April, when three Mizos were found charred to death in Myanmar, the Young Lai Association (YLA), the largest civil society organisation in southern Mizoram’s Lawngtlai district, blamed the Chinland Defence Force (CDF) for the murder. It also expressed a sense of betrayal. Add to these, overwhelming concerns about Mizoram’s financial limitations in supporting not just the Chin refugees, but also the Kuki-Zo Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from Manipur.
Therefore, the political economy of the Mizo-Chin relationship is more complicated than it looks from the outside. It is shaped by historical disquietude around successive refugee waves and contemporary socio-economic frictions. The absence of a national refugee policy further compounds this equation, as the Central government continues to shirk its imperative to share the humanitarian responsibility with Mizoram and render the refugees vulnerable to ad-hoc treatment.
Angshuman Choudhury is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal
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