After the military coup on February 1, 2021 in Myanmar and subsequent unrest, there was strong apprehension that many Myanmarese will cross over to neighbouring countries, especially as the opposition to the coup refused to die down despite large-scale violence and even deaths.
Even in the early part of the opposition, aerial bombing was resorted to by the military junta in different parts of Myanmar. People tried to escape the unprecedented violence to seek sanctuary in neighbouring countries like India and Thailand.
In Mizoram, when people started crossing over the border, the state government issued instructions for their reception but this was cancelled after the Ministry of Home Affairs on March 10 issued a strong advisory to the state governments of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland to receive only those who are absolutely essential on humanitarian grounds.
The advisory draws attention to the Union Home Affairs Ministry (MHA) letter dated August 8, 2017 where it was instructed to sensitize all law enforcement and intelligence agencies for taking prompt action in identifying illegal migrants and initiating deportation process expeditiously without delay.
It also refers to the 2018 MHA strict advice issued to restrict illegal migrants to specific locations, capture biometric details, cancel any fake Indian passport and initiate legal proceedings.
It reiterates that states have no power to grant refugee status to any foreigner and India is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugee of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol.
Prior to this, the MHA had on February 25 written to the chief secretaries of the four states and the border guarding forces, including Assam Rifles, to stay alert and take appropriate action to prevent possible influx into Indian territories.
The reaction from MHA is not surprising as it has to be consistent with the stand taken against the Rohingya refugees in 2016 after violence in Rakhine State and any difference will be seen that the policy of India on refugees is religion centric.
Mizoram, however, started receiving refugees, and after taking the details including biometrics looked after them with many CSOs active in this work. Because of this exercise Mizoram is aware of how many had crossed over to the state from Myanmar, which now totals about 40,000, including those who had arrived from Chittagong after conflicts among communities in that region.
Manipur, however, directed on March 26, 2021, the deputy commissioners of five border districts of Ukhrul, Kamjong, Tengnoupal, Chandel and Churachandpur inter alia not to open any camps to provide food and shelter.
The Manipur government also stated that CSOs should also not be allowed to open camps, in case of grievous injuries medical attention may be provided on humanitarian considerations, people trying to enter or seek refuge must be politely turned away and Aadhaar enrolment should be stopped forthwith and the enrolment kits must be taken to safe custody.
This instruction was, however, withdrawn on March 29 as it appeared that it was misconstrued and interpreted differently.
The instruction was issued on the spur after the arrival of three bullet injured citizens of Myanmar to Imphal via Moreh for medical treatment. On the day (March 25, 2021), the three injured persons reached Moreh, it was learnt that another eight also came but were turned back.
Those sitting in Delhi could not appreciate and understand the complexity of the issues involved. Those who are seeking stay here are from the cognate tribes settled in the border with many having relationships.
Whether the government permits or not, those on the Indian side are bound to provide succour to their brethren during the time of acute distress. This is nothing but human nature. With the Rohingyas, it was different as their relationship with the indigenous people of Manipur is nil.
Many CSOs working on the field had then requested the government to at least regulate the entry of immigrants from Myanmar as it is not possible to guard the porous borders and illegal immigrants will cross over surreptitiously as their lives are at stake.
Mere order cannot stop crossing the border, it was only the physical presence of security apparatus which could stop but it was impossible to guard the long porous border. As the government refused to budge, many had entered quietly and the government was none the wiser about how many had entered.
A figure of 4,000 to 10,000 had been bandied around but these are all surmises and verifying now will be extremely difficult. The end consequence is that even new villages have been established though one was destroyed by the security personnel in Tengnoupal district.
During the height of the COVID pandemic, in Churachandpur, many illegal immigrants were detected and CSOs had to fight for their treatment.
Fallout of such illegal entry is the engagement of the immigrants in poppy cultivation. Without government support, they have to survive and they will work on anything to earn something to feed their kids and themselves. They are being utilised in poppy cultivation and in this column, it was then mentioned that many who are working in the poppy fields just do not know Meiteilon (Manipuri language) indicating they are outsiders.
Although some claim that they are from Karbi-Along, none could understand Assamese indicating they are not from that state but have been coached to provide the same answer. For them it is the option of starving or work in poppy cultivation and the latter obviously have to be the choice.
One disadvantage of this unregulated entry is that those who had entered had dispersed in almost all the districts and tracing them now will be an impossible task.
After Covid and the easy availability of Yongchak from across the border, Imphalites perhaps felt that the situation in Myanmar had slowly normalised. This is far from the truth and there are violent struggles in almost every part of the country, with ethnic armed organisations providing both moral and physical support to the PDF which is growing stronger day by day and now has the ability to engage the military junta through ambushes and guerrilla warfare.
The recent two-day bombing of a PDF camp at Konduang which is opposite Kwatha Khunou using both fixed wing and rotor aerial vehicle with shrapnel falling on the Indian side suddenly made Manipur realise that all is not going well on the other side.
The state government has issued instructions for regular patrolling of the border and the most sagacious decision is that a shelter home will be established in Holenphai, where after necessary recordings of details including biometrics those who come over from Myanmar will be provided with a safe place to stay.
There is even the demand that those who are already in the campus of Sajiwa jail may also be accommodated there, which can be decided later on.
It is not a surprise to learn that among those who are already across the border there was a former MP of Myanmar. One former MP of Myanmar after he arrived at Churachandpur played havoc by heading an organisation and indulging in various activities seen as inimical to the state.
Such acts should not be permitted and those who attempt to do so must be dealt with severely without any delay. There are even rumours that after the establishment of Kangpokpi District many from Somra tract had come over and quietly settled in Manipur, which may be correct or mere rumours.
But such rumour surfacing indicates that there is something brewing which in the long run will not be in the larger interest of the state of Manipur, especially when the relation between various communities are undergoing a strain and such rumours can only aggravate the situation.
The present decision of establishing a shelter home in Holenphai is a sagacious decision indicating that the state government had learnt from the past experience of doing nothing to regulate the inflow of immigrants from Myanmar due to the aftermath of the military coup there much to the disadvantage of Manipur.
The Centre must be made to understand the ground reality and one is confident that the Union goverenment will understand the state government’s present approach as it is based on a better understanding of the ground situation.
The central intelligence network may have briefed the Centre and it is hoped that they understand the complex inter-relationship of the various communities in Manipur.