Burmese refugees are awaiting return journey

By T. Navajyoti

India supports over one hundred thousand refugees from Burma (also known as Brahmadesh or Myanmar) and most of them live in Mizoram in northeastern region of the country. As the neighboring country is witnessing changes in political space for democracy under the leadership of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the refugees are expecting to return to their native places. But they are still apprehensive about the quality of political reforms and hence delaying their return to the land of golden Pagodas.

Most of Chin refugees are living in the city of Aizawl

The fate of Burmese refugees, who fled their country of birth because of continued turmoil there, and now taking shelter in many neighbouring countries including India, Bangladesh and Thailand, was discussed in a workshop held in Guwahati on May 11 and 12, 2012. Various speakers in the workshop, organized by Burma Centre Delhi (BCD) and North Eastern Social Research Centre (NESRC), insisted that the Indian government and its citizens should maintain the same sympathetic approach to the Burmese refugee families taking shelter in many parts of the country.

There were few speakers who opined that as Brahmadesh is passing through a pragmatic process of democratic changes, India should adopt favourable policies for the benefit of the common people living in both the countries. Moreover, the Look East Policy should be reviewed to suit the present socio-political situation of India’s eastern neighbours.

NESRC chairman Dr Walter Fernandez, while delivering the keynote address argued that the Northeast being closest to Burma, what happens there must have serious implications on the region. Stating that the minorities were not getting justice in Burma, Fernandez also asserted that justice can be delivered only through the democratic process.

“So our region has a very strong interest in Burma and we emphasize the importance of northeast people coming together on the issues,” added Fernandez. Addressing the first session of the workshop, Dr Tint Swe, former Parliamentarian belonging to National League for Democracy, argues that New Delhi’s response to the changes taking place in Burma was slow.

“The western countries have already started engaging the present Burmese government for various avenues. They have also reposed faith on the present Burmese regime where Nobel laureate Suu Kyi is an important component for planning future course of actions. China also remains vigilant and proves to be clever. But India seems to be slower in responses,”  Dr  Swe, who left his country two decades back and taking shelter in New Delhi, added.

The physician turned politician, Dr  Swe also appealed to the Indian government to pay a sympathetic approach to the Burmese refugees taking shelter in India. Unconfirmed sources claim that Mizoram itself supports over 80,000 Chin (Burmese) refugees and the people from the Chin State of Burma feel comfortable living with a Mizo society as both the communities share almost similar cultural backgrounds, religious sentiment, food habits, and more precisely similar physical appearances.

Dr  Swe, while  urging  New Delhi to provide necessary space for the refugees until they go back to Burma in near future, advocated for people-to-people contact in northeast India to drum up support for amendment of the Myanmar 2008 constitution which was drafted by the military government. Involvement of the civil societies in extra parliamentary activities would really help the Burma in the process of democratization, he said.

Dr Alana Golmei of BCD termed the entry of Suu Kyi into the Burmese Parliament at Nay Pyi Taw a landmark victory for pro-democracy movements in Burma. However, she pointed out that, despite this landmark victory, the fact remains that the NLD would hold only 6.4 per cent of the Parliamentary seats.

“Hence it will be a pressing task for them to go for a meaningful reform process including the amendments to the 2008 Burmese Constitution. Another major challenge and urgent issue to be addressed is the plight of the ethnic nationalities in Burma,” Dr Golmei said.

In his paper, Mr Kim, an activist form Chin State of Burma appealed to the Burmese government to immediately stop offensive against ethnic armed groups and declare nationwide ceasefire to engage the ethnic resistance groups for meaningful political dialogue. He also urged the authority to pay  respect to human rights and stop  atrocities on women.

“Unless there is a genuine political dialogue with all armed ethnic groups and political settlement that guarantees federal system and self-determination, there will be no lasting peace and progress in Burma,” said the young activist.

Kabi Gangmei, a social worker based in Shillong who had recently visited many remote parts of Burma, observed that Myanmar’s future is secured only in a democratic set-up, where ethnic communities are respected and resources are shared equally. He concluded saying that a democratic Burma will also be a more trusted friend for India in the long run.

Chairman of Naga National League for Democracy in exile,  U So Sa said that the Naga people in Burma are the most neglected tribe and that till date there are no proper roads, schools, electricity, water supply and health care centres. He informed that there are 2-3 lakhs Naga people are living in Burma’s Sagain division. He said the main objective of NNLD is to fight for restoration of democracy in Burma and creation of political status for Nagas in Burma.

Director of Zo Indigenous Forum, Lalremruata Rema pointed out that the Mizos and Chins share the same genetic, cultural, historical, and linguistic heritage, as they all descended from the Zo people. He said the total number of Chins in Mizoram actually constitutes 10% of the total State population. He suggested strengthening the relations between Chins and Mizos living in Mizoram and also setting up of UNHCR office in Guwahati or Aizawl.

Journalist from Nagaland working with The Morung Express, K Filip Sumi asserted that the Burmese government need to exempt pre-publication censorship of articles for a total democracy to take place. He also said freedom of the press (in Burma) should not fall short of the right to criticise and freely express opinions.

Other speakers including Suanmoi Guite ( Zomi Human Rights Foundation), Tangsoi Thongo (ex- MLA of Nagaland), Suan Moi ( Zomi Human Rights Organization), Rajib Bhattacharya (executive editor of Seven Sisters’ Post) highlighted about their expectations from a new Burma that is emerging after the elections in Burma.

The workshop concluded with five-point recommendations including the importance of studies on the consequences of the democratic process in Burma to the Look East Policy, checking and preventing drugs, arms and human trafficking between Burma and the region, establishing dialogues between the divided communities of Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur and Burma, and raising demands for review of Vision 2020 for north India.