No Way Out: India’s Burmese Refugees

"I never wanted to be a refugee. I don't like to be, but I am; and I cannot help it," a slim, 30ish Burmese named Ko Thura (not his real name) told Asia Sentinel last week. One of nearly 50,000 Burmese refugees scattered across India, Ko Thura is part of the forgotten detritus of Rangoon’s military crackdown on pro-democracy activists and sympathizers in the 1990s. Only around 2000 of these displaced people are recognized by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.

Indian society as a whole is largely sympathetic to the Burmese pro-democracy movement and the grotesquely named State Peace and Development Council is a frequent target of criticism. The junta that seized power in 1988 and refused to ratify the results of the 1990 elections overwhelmingly won by Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, runs a land of atrocities, human rights violations and censorship. But Ko Thura and his fellow refugees are likely to stay in limbo, and there is little chance that New Delhi will snap its ties with the junta, for three reasons:

  • First, India is concerned about the presence of separatist militants in northern Burma. New Delhi believes that at least seven armed outfits, all fighting India for various demands ranging from sovereignty to self-rule, run training camps inside the thick jungles across the border. New Delhi needs the help of the Burmese generals and their army to wipe out the camps.

  • Secondly, India is looking to Burma to play an important role, as described by foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, in realizing India's Look East policy, which was launched in 1992 with the intention to connect India by land to Southeast Asia.

  • Third, In order to blunt China's growing presence in Burma and its geostrategic implications, India wants increased cooperation with the present Burmese rulers. The two countries are cooperating in several areas, including military affairs and trade. India is involved in the massive Shwe gas pipeline project through ONGC Videsh and the Gas Authority of India. The pipeline is expected to become Burma’s largest single source of earnings.

It wasn’t always this way. India was the first neighboring country to condemn the September 1988 crackdown on protesters. Then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was sympathetic to the student agitators in Rangoon. The Indian embassy in Rangoon actively helped student activists enter India following the coup, and New Delhi expressed sympathy and set up camps in Mizoram and Manipur for them. The government honored Aung San Suu Kyi with the Jawaharlal Nehru Award in recognition of her struggle against the dictatorship. However, the situation changed after Ghandi’s assassination, and his successors began improving ties with the junta.

Ko Thura, who left his country in December 1990, was hunted by Burmese military personnel for his active involvement in the pro-democracy movement. He and a few others crossed the porous border to reach Manipur in northeastern India. Carrying little baggage, the group first landed at Moreh, a border town, then eventually left for New Delhi with the help of another Burmese refugee. Ko Thura traveled the 2,000 km to New Delhi alone, by bus and train, in four days, then applied for recognition as a refugee

Unlike Ko Thura, most Burmese refugees live in Mizoram, the northeastern state bordering Burma, having fled from Chin province of northwestern Burma to escape the carnage following the 1990 general election. As relations improved between New Delhi and Rangoon, the Mizoram camps in Champhai were closed in 1995. The other camp at Lei Kum in Chandel district of Manipur supports not more than 60 people today.

"Due to financial difficulties, most refugees here cannot afford to rent a room, not to speak of a flat on their own,” said Ko Nyo, a Burmese who works for Radio Free Asia. “So two to three families live in a room. One can see more than 15 refugees staying in a 20 ft room and sharing a single toilet cum bath room. In summer they face severe water scarcity and also the soaring heat, which compels them to sleep on the roof or in corridors."

But the nearly 40,000 Burmese refugees living in Mizoram lead more hopeless lives. They are treated as illegal immigrants and cannot ask for legitimate work. Most subsist as daily wage earners in the unorganized sectors, and the women as maids for well-to-do families. Their only advantage is that both the Chin and Mizo people are primarily Christian and the two communities share similarities in physical appearance, food habits and language.

Refugees International has asked New Delhi to enact a refugee law to support genuine asylum seekers and treat them equally irrespective of their countries of origin. Certainly, in many respects, India is relatively accepting of refugees. Some 300,000 are in the country, including Afghanis, and Palestinians who fled Iraq. India provides space for as may as 100,000 Tibetans and around 80,000 Tamils fleeing the Sri Lankan conflict.

RI is also pushing New Delhi to allow UNHCR officials to visit Mizoram and other northeastern states to take stock of the situation. India, which is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention (UN), prohibits UNHCR officials from visiting Mizoram and other states in Northeast.

India has invited brickbats from the international community for its support of the Burmese junta. Nonetheless, New Delhi, the largest democracy in the world, is determined to maintain its strategic relationship with Rangoon. During a recent visit to the northeast, foreign minister Mukherjee reiterated the significance of the relationship. Talking to journalists and civil society representatives in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, Mukherjee listed India’s involvement in a variety of cross border development projects such as roads, railways, telecommunications, IT, and power as a ways to improve ties between northeastern India and Burma.

This is all flies in the face of condemnation and economic sanctions from both the European Union and the United States. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, has also gently increased its pressure on the junta to improve its rights record. Recently, the US, the EU and ASEAN all condemned the junta for extending the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and called for her immediate release.

"Believe it or not, Burma's refugee problem has become an international affair,” said Tayza Thuria, an exiled Burmese physician living in London. “As long as the military regime is in power, fear of torture, rape, summary execution, imprisonment, forced labor and forced relocation by the Burmese army will continue,"

Speaking to Asia Sentinel from London, Dr Tayza asserted that more refugees from Burma will arrive in the western countries as well.

"There are an estimated half a million Burmese in the USA currently, as refugees, as asylum seekers, as legal migrants and as illegal workers. And the European countries have had their fair share of refugees and asylum seekers from Burma. Hence removing the present military regime of Burma becomes an obligation for the entire international community," Tayza added.