Myanmar’s growing crisis is spreading across its borders as thousands of refugees seek refuge in India and Thailand following the military coup and the bloody crackdown on anti-coup protesters.
Authorities in both countries have tried to block the new arrivals, fearing that a steady stream will turn into a flood if the unrest spreading across Myanmar worsens. A senior UN official warned last week that the country is “on the brink of becoming a failed state” if action is not taken soon to stop the bloodshed.
The catastrophic human costs of the regime’s brutal policies are visible in the crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh, home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees. Most fled after a military campaign that began in 2017 and have lived in limbo ever since.
Thailand reportedly tried to push back thousands of people fleeing Myanmar last week across its border, following airstrikes on villages controlled by forces of the Karen ethnic minority.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha admitted that the country was prepared for more arrivals, the Associated Press reported. “We do not want to have a massive migration to our territory, but we will also consider human rights,” he said. saying. “We have prepared some places, but we do not want to talk about the preparation of the refugee centers at the moment. We won’t get that far. “
At least one Indian border state retracted an order last month to “politely turn away” any refugee attempting to cross. The Manipur Interior Ministry said its instructions had been “misinterpreted”.
A Covid outbreak in the Chinese border town of Ruili, which authorities say dates back to imported virus cases from Myanmar, was another reminder of the risks of large cross-border movements of people in a pandemic era.
The UN refugee agency has highlighted the “decades-long history” of Myanmar’s neighbors to protect the country’s refugees, and issued a pointed warning that it is illegal under international law to block asylum seekers.
“Children, women and men fleeing for their lives must be given shelter,” said Gillian Triggs, UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection. “As the situation in Myanmar further deteriorates, we call on states to continue their humanitarian tradition of saving lives of safeguarding the lives of all who were forced to flee.”
In the Indian state of Mizoram no reminders have been needed. Politicians and local residents have welcomed more than a thousand people who have walked through Myanmar’s forests and crossed rivers seeking refuge.
A large number of them are policemen, who fled after refusing to obey orders to shoot their own people during the protests, authorities said.
At least 550 civilians, including 46 children, have been killed in protests that have rocked Myanmar’s major cities since the military took power in a coup in February, a leading human rights group said. More than 2,750 people have also been arrested or convicted, according to the Myanmar Political Prisoners Assistance Association.
Despite the repression, protesters have continued to take to the streets of the country, demanding that the military respect the results of the democratic elections held late last year, which gave opposition parties an overwhelming majority.
There is great sympathy both for the cause of the protesters and for those who have fled across the border into Mizoram. Most of the refugees belong to the same ethnic group as the local residents, known as Chin in Myanmar and Mizos in India.
“We are the same tribe. We share the same language, culture and religion: Christianity, ”said Lalbin Sanga, deputy general secretary of the Mizo Student Union. “We all have family and blood ties because, although a border and different nationalities separate us, we are effectively the same people.”
On social media, outraged Mizos have shared pro-democracy slogans and songs of freedom, and a series of fundraising street music concerts in the state capital, Aizawl, drew crowds of more than 3,000 and donations of 300,000 rupees (£ 3,000) to support refugees.
But these sentiments have put the local government on a collision course with the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party in New Delhi. He has tried to classify many of those seeking amnesty as illegal immigrants and has taken a hard line on deportations, including the controversy last week over trying to deport a lonely Rohingya teenager, whose parents are refugees in Bangladesh, back to Myanmar. .
In March, the national Interior Ministry ordered Mizoram’s chief minister, Zoramthanga (who goes by one name) to verify the influx of newcomers and deport those who had already arrived.
He responded by asking Interior Minister Amit Shah to change government policy. “I have told Amit Shah that the people who came from Myanmar are our brothers and sisters. We have family ties to most of them. Once they enter Mizoram, we have to give them food and shelter. “
Few of the refugees represent a financial burden on the government, due to their extensive local ties. “The vast majority of those who cross into India do not need help. They have moved into the homes of relatives and merged with the local population, ”said a local official.
That may change if the numbers increase. There is a 500-kilometer border between Mizoram and Chin, and the extensive ties mean that large stretches are not fenced.
It has served as a safety valve for decades, with people fleeing an insurgency in India during the 1960s and 1970s, then fleeing Myanmar after a previous military crackdown in 1989.
With protesters determined to continue defying the government and fearing that the situation in Myanmar could escalate to full-blown civil war, some in the region are already preparing for many newcomers.
At least three armed groups from Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, who have a long history of guerrilla warfare against the central government, have vowed to join what they called the “spring revolution” if the crackdown continues.
The opposition is also working on an interim constitution that would include a “federal army” to replace the current military system. Although outnumbered and outnumbered, if the various opposition forces can unite effectively, they could pose a significant challenge to the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military forces.
“As things are going, I anticipate that more people will seek refuge in Mizoram,” said Lawma Chhangte, president of the NGO United for Democratic Myanmar. “Right now, most of them are staying with relatives, but we have started renting some houses in case the number is too large for families to manage.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism