The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
The Chin and Mizo: Ex-brothers?

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. “The Mizo should give credit to the highly educated teachers from Burma. We contributed positively to the development of Mizoram,” Sakhong says. Today the Mizo no longer need the Chin. But the Chin are still there and they continue to come. The Mizo should give credit to the highly educated teachers from Burma. We’ve contributed positively to the development of Mizoram The total Chin population in Mizoram is estimated at 50,000, with most living in areas abutting the border, while in the city of Aizawl, it is between 9,000 and 15,000. Peace, stability and economic development—in sharp contrast to Burma—lure the Chin to Mizoram. In many cases, the Chin have no alternative but to cross the border, fleeing persecution at home. Pi Par, a 50-year-old Chin woman who speaks fluent English, came to Mizoram from Kalaimyo four years ago. She says that her salary as an English teacher in Kalaimyo was 7,000 kyat (US $9) a month, while in Mizoram it is 2,500 rupees ($57). It was not the salary, however, that made Pi Par leave Burma. Burma’s ruling military government, the State Peace and Development Council, closed the Christian school where she used to teach and tortured some of her friends. She describes what happened to some Chin pastors: “They [the SPDC] beat them, put a plastic bag over their heads…[they] let them live by occasionally removing the plastic bag to let them breathe. They repeated this again and again.” Pi Par’s dream of someday, under different conditions, returning to Burma and establishing a private English school in her hometown, remains. Generally, the Mizo recognize that Burma’s military government is responsible for the exodus of Chin into India, yet many Mizo see the Chin who reside in Mizoram as nothing but beggars and street laborers. From their traditional reference as khua-chak, or southerners, the Chin have now become known as Burma-ho, a strongly derogative term for people from Burma. “The Mizo look down on the Chin,” Pi Par says. History has demonstrated that those who are culturally and ethnically different to the Mizo have, in the past, been considered a threat and therefore rejected by society—from attacks on the Gurkha presence at the end of the 19th century to today’s dislike of Indians, the Mizo remain united in safeguarding the cherished distinction of their state as the only state in India where only one language is spoken—Mizo. But just 22 km away from the newly opened border trading post, on the Burma side, sits Rih Dil Lake, an idyllic and tranquil heart-shaped lake believed to be the place where the souls—of Chin and Mizo alike—pass to their eternal abode. “Being a Chin and not having ever seen the lake is like something is missing in life,” Sakhong says. Mizos must feel the same, as nearly every Mizo in the Champhai border area, but also many in Aizawl, 240 km and a 10-hour drive away, admitted to having visited the lake—long before Mizoram’s “new gateway” opened on the road to the sacred lake. Karin Kaasik is a researcher based in Thailand.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |