The Chin and Mizo: Ex-brothers?
By Karin Kaasik/Mizoram, India
APRIL, 2004 - VOLUME 12 NO.4
The “new gateway to Indo-Burma trade” opened in February, announced the New Delhi-based magazine, the Northeast Sun. Actually, the trading post is not new at all: merchants and travelers have plodded the route that links India’s northeastern state of Mizoram with Burma’s Chin State for centuries.
Although the government moved to curtail trade along this route after gaining independence in 1947, New Delhi has barely meddled in the local affairs on its side of the Tiau River. Cross-border trade was deemed illegal, but commerce continued to flourish. The opening of the formal checkpoint is intended to legitimize the informal trade.
“Before [the opening of the gate] we could do as we liked. Now we have to go through the gate,” says a 28-year-old Chin trader in Aizawl, the present capital of Mizoram. “Before the trade was illegal, now it is legal,” he said, adding that his profits have dwindled now that the government collects tax.
This border region comprises the Chin Hills in the south and the Mizo Hills, otherwise known as the Lushai Hills, in the north. For centuries multiple tribes and clans living in these hills were referred to simply as khua-chak, southerners, or khua-thlang, northerners. Today they have become the Chin and the Mizo of their respective countries. But relations between the two have been strained in recent years, and now many Mizo are distancing themselves from the Chin.
For the convenience of the colonial administration, the British divided this hilly region into three parts. The western part was administered directly from Assam and Bengal and the eastern part directly from Burma, with the river used as a convenient administrative boundary between the Chin Hills District of Burma and the Lushai Hills District of Assam.
In the 1960s the Lushai Hills, still an Assamese district, suffered widespread famine caused by the blossoming of a variety of bamboo that attracted rats, which then ate up rice and vegetable fields. Government neglect drove the Mizo to form the Mizo Famine Front, a hunger-fighting squad that was would soon morph into the Mizo National Front, or MNF, under the leadership of Laldenga. In the MNF’s armed struggle for independence it briefly overran Aizawl in 1966, much to the embarrassment of New Delhi.
The reprisals that followed were severe and Aizawl became the only place in India where India’s airplanes were used to attack its own people. During the ensuing counter-insurgency operations, hundreds of villages were destroyed and civilians were resettled into concentration camps in order to cut off the rebels’ source of food and shelter. Many Mizo escaped to Burma.
A market and a hill side view in Aizawl.
“A lot of young Chin men joined the MNF,” says Dr Lian Sakhong, the General Secretary of the exiled Chin National League for Democracy. “The Mizo movement was basically based in Chin State.”
In 1986, Laldenga agreed to accept the Indian constitution, lay down arms and hold elections, which the MNF won with ease. The MNF, still in power today, is led by another ex-military officer, Chief Minister Zoramthanga, the long-serving secretary to the late Laldenga. He is currently facilitating peace talks between the Naga and New Delhi.
The Chin took a different course and guided by Burmese independence hero Aung San signed the Panglong Agreement to establish a federal Burma. The outcome for the Chin—Burmanization and swelling discontent with the central administration—resulted in the 1988 uprising, and they joined the countrywide pro-democracy forces attempting to topple the military dictatorship.
Many Chin students who fled Burma after the 1988 crackdown took refuge in a camp near Champhai, on the Mizo side of the border. Later, they moved to Kachin State for military training shortly before forming the Chin National Front. Today many ordinary Chin villagers and townspeople, but particularly the Chin political opposition, do not feel secure in Burma and continue to seek refuge in Mizoram.
Once Mizoram gained Indian statehood in 1987, the government pumped a substantial amount of money into the state as part of its appeasement policy. Mizoram boomed as a result. Ever since, the state has been peaceful and voted its own nationalist leaders into government, says the superintendent of police in Aizawl.
But after peace was restored, Mizoram sorely lacked for human resources—a demand that was filled by the Chin, many taking jobs as nurses, doctors and engineers. Schools had been closed during the seventies, due to insurgency, so hundreds of Chin schoolteachers who had graduated in Rangoon and Mandalay came to work in Mizoram.
According to the 2001 census, Mizoram has the second highest literacy rate in India. The Superintendent of Police in Aizawl emphasizes that Mizoram is peaceful and has its own nationalist leaders in the government.
1 | 2 next page »