Tens of thousands of Burmese Chin lead a shadowy existence in India's remote Mizoram State
The morning air is crisp and smells of wood fire. Up on the mountain crests, fog sits like snow in a fairy tale. People wrap themselves in clouds of tobacco smoke, puffing leisurely while sitting on their heels. Women carry their babies wrapped in colorful fabrics slung on their backs.
Mizoram’s capital, Aizawl, clings like an eagle’s nest to a mountain peak, where houses lean partly on stilts and partly on the hillside.
It’s a town where the local Mizo population and Chin from Burma go about their daily chores side by side.
Tens of thousands of Chin live in Mizoram illegally, slipping easily through a long, porous border. They cross over to earn money to send back home, or to escape poverty or persecution by the Burmese military.
But without legal status and proper permits, the Chin usually get the lowest-paid jobs, in road and construction work, markets, restaurants or as domestics. As porters they carry produce to the market in huge cone-shaped baskets fixed by straps to their foreheads. Others sell goods spread out on the ground.
The Chin lacking proper documentation generally face deportation if they are arrested by police and cannot afford the usual bribe of 200 to 500 rupees (US $4.50 to $11). Weavers among the Chin tend to fare better. They are skilled laborers in an important sector of the local economy, and this usually spares them harassment.
Pari, 37, is one of the lucky ones. “I arrived in 1997 from a Chin village in Sagaing Division,” she said. “Two of my six children are still back in Burma, and I support them with my work.”
Mizoram is now classified as a peaceful state within India, while protracted conflicts continue in other parts of the isolated northeast, which have high concentrations of Indian military and paramilitary forces, police and intelligence agencies.
Following the independence struggle of the Mizo National Front, the 1987 peace agreement granted Mizoram the status of a state within the Indian federal system with its own government and police—something along the lines of what ethnic groups such as the Chin would like to see happen in Burma. The Indian government has channelled modest investment into Mizoram. But the Mizos, in spite of being ethnic kin and somewhat sympathetic to the Chin, try to protect the little they have from outsiders.
Dr Walter Fernandez of the Guwahati-based Northeastern Social Research Centre in India says the lack of development amplifies the Mizos’ fear of outsiders attaining economic, political or social power. According to a leading Mizo activist, discrimination against Burmese prevails because they are associated with HIV/AIDS, drugs and crime.
From Aizawl, a day-long journey to the border between Mizoram and Burma winds through magnificent, lush green mountains. How easily this state’s tourism potential could be developed to benefit everyone, but along the roadside Chin live in shacks and eke out a living by breaking stones.
Pu Thang, a thin man in his 40s and covered in dust, said that he and his wife get 150 rupees ($3.40) for filling 15 baskets in a 10-hour working day. “Our children help us and cannot go to school, but anyway we have no extra money for schooling,” he said.
Next to their hut, red chillies dry in the sun and colorful clothes flutter in the wind. But what could look picturesque to passing tourists is merely an expression of the poverty of a marginalized population in an underdeveloped part of India.
The border town of Zokhawthar illustrates real poverty and a lack of education. The town’s refugee-run, Western-sponsored clinic is short of medicine and has no trained doctor, but it still manages to care for more than 2,000 outpatients a year free of charge. “We would welcome the help of local and international NGOs,” said the clinic’s manager, “but they never come here.”
Special 10-day permits are required for both Indian and international NGO workers, diplomats and even tourists. In a mountainous region with poor transport infrastructure, this is barely sufficient time for NGO workers to assess community needs.
Crossing the border is easy, provided fees are paid to the military on both sides.