Thousands flee Myanmar for India amid fears of growing refugee crisis
Terrified farmers and families with children in Myanmar flee to India as the military junta that seized power in a coup in February continues to seek and eliminate resistance along the country’s border.
The Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar army is called, has targeted areas that are home to thousands of armed civilians who call themselves the People’s Defense Forces. The soldiers fired rocket launchers at residential neighborhoods, torched houses, cut off internet access and food supplies, and even shot at fleeing civilians, residents said.
For more than seven decades, armed conflict, political repression and targeted campaigns against minorities like the Rohingya have forced hundreds of thousands of people from Myanmar to seek refuge in other countries. Many more should now follow.
Aid groups say they are preparing for an influx of refugees, but fear countries surrounding Myanmar, like Thailand, will push them back. In Chin state in northwest Myanmar, an entire town of about 12,000 people nearly emptied last month. Residents have reported a large build-up of troops in recent weeks, signaling a potential wider repression by the Tatmadaw and leaving many desperate to escape.
After troops burned down his house on September 18 with rocket-propelled grenades, Ral That Chung decided he had no choice but to leave Thantlang, his town in Chin State.
âI love Myanmar, but I will only come back if there is peace,â said Mr. Ral That Chung, who walked for eight days with 10 members of his family to reach India. âIt is better to suffer here than to live in fear in my own country.
In the eight months since the military took control, around 15,000 people in Myanmar have fled to India, according to the United Nations. Catherine Stubberfield, spokesperson for the Asia and Pacific office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said the agency had tracked down some 5,000 people who successfully entered India from Myanmar after the recent clashes.
âThe brutality in which entire villages are attacked indiscriminately has created a horrific situation in which people are absolutely desperate,â said Tom Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar. âAnd things are getting worse. “
The refugees say they sleep in the forests for days, some of them starved of food as they head to India. Once they reach the crossing of the Tiau river separating the two countries, they cross a bamboo raft or a boat to get to safety.
In the small village of Ramthlo, Crosby Cung said the 1,000 people who live there are preparing to leave. The villagers, he said, have selected two or three places where around 500 people can hide in the forest until they are ready to head for the Indian border. Last week, soldiers burned down a nearby village.
âIt’s really sad to see,â Cung said. âLeaving your village and fleeing into the jungle is not what we want to do. I want to protect my village so that they don’t loot and burn the village. But we civilians can do nothing. We have no choice but to flee.
The recent exodus has been most pronounced in Chin State, a People’s Defense Force stronghold where civilians have often suffered the brunt of Tatmadaw cruelty. In August and September, 28 of the 45 people killed in the rural border area were civilians, according to the Chin Human Rights Organization.
Chin State borders the Indian state of Mizoram and is predominantly Christian. Many Mizoram residents are also of the Chin ethnicity and have strong ties to the Chin people in Myanmar, but their patience has been tested by a recent Covid outbreak that Mizoram officials blamed on refugees.
An official from Mizoram district who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said that although the policy of the Indian government is to keep the borders closed to refugees, residents are informally helping those who are fleeing Myanmar. If residents did not provide assistance, the official said, the refugees would die.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, warned that the refugee situation would become more difficult over time. âResources will become increasingly scarce, and there could be pressures to send them back,â he said.
In India, refugees live in huts with tin roofs or plastic sheeting over their heads. Van Certh Luai, a refugee who arrived in Mizoram after three days of walking, said her family of six were only given three gallons of water a day for drinking, bathing and bathing. Mosquitoes feast on their skin. But the family says they are staying where they are.
âI don’t want my three children to grow up in fear,â Ms. Van Certh Luai, 38, said.
Fighting in Chin State began in August, when 150 soldiers arrived in the city and began firing mortar shells, injuring people and damaging homes. On September 6, the Chinland Defense Force – the Chin branch of the People’s Defense Forces – reported killing 15 soldiers.
Human rights activists say the junta has targeted Chin State because it is home to the Chin National Front, the first armed ethnic group to support the so-called national unity government, the organization founded by the elected leaders of Myanmar. The rebel group has also trained thousands of anti-coup protesters who have taken up arms against the military.
Innocent civilians have been caught in the crossfire.
Cer Sung said she heard gunshots and bombs drop around 4 p.m. on August 15 while boiling popcorn at her home in Thantlang, Chin state. In a panic, she searched for her 10-year-old son, who was watching his favorite Hindi cartoon on TV, remote control in left hand. When she entered the house, fragments of shells began to fall between her and her son.
Ms. Cer Sung, 44, remembers seeing the left side of her son’s body ignite. His left index finger, that of the remote, was blown out. He died instantly.
“I am angry with the Burmese army for brutally killing my only son,” Cer Sung said sobbing.
She and her family decided to stay in Myanmar for the time being, scared to stay but also scared of what life would be like if they had to leave. Other families rushed to leave so quickly that they didn’t have much time to prepare.
Sui Tha Par said she found her husband, Cung Biak Hum, lying on the side of a road with two gunshot wounds to his back and chest after rushing to put out a fire caused by Tatmadaw’s troops in Thantlang September 18. Her ring finger had been cut off and her gold wedding ring was missing, according to family members.
âThey shot my husband,â Ms. Sui Tha Par said in tears. She is pregnant and hopes to give birth next month, she said. After burying her husband, she and her two sons aged 11 and 7 decided to leave for Mizoram.
Suhasini raj contributed reports.