This is a draft of an op-ed I was working on before winter break. It got lost in the shuffle, but I thought I would publish here for possible reference later.
As fighting continues in Rakhine State, Myanmar, the Rohingya crisis has achieved remarkable international attention. Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State have been denied government services and citizenship, subjected to massive violence at the hands of the Myanmar military and Rakhine/Buddhist nationalists. Many in Myanmar accuse the group of crimes ranging from illegal immigration, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and the rape and molestation of Buddhist women. Recent bombings in Rakhine State have reignited violence in the state, resulting in massive flows of Rohingya refugees in India and Bangladesh. Despite close linguistic and religious connections with Bangladesh, especially so with Chittagong, where most refugees have settled, their position in the state is precarious at best. Many have also sought refuge in India, where they have had better access to relief services, but are still in a precarious position, largely unwelcome, with many calling for their immediate repatriation, despite no signs of improvement in the situation their places of origin.
While the Rohingya crisis is certainly a major tragedy, with strong genocidal undertones and a disturbing glance at the future of ethno-religious politics in a transitional Myanmar, the conflict has not been confined to the dyadic relationship between Rakhine nationalists and Rohingya Muslims. Rakhine state is also home to a significant Chin population. In the past two days, over 1200 Chin refugees from the northern Arakan Hills have entered Mizoram through Lawngtlai, capital of the Lai Autonomous District Council (LADC).
These Chin refugees are fleeing violent clashes between the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) and the Arakan Army, one of the few insurgent groups in the country that hasn’t signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, or been active in political negotiations between Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), the military, and the government.
Chin communities in Rakhine State are ethnically closely related to Mizos, and even more so to the Lai communities of Lawngtlai District, seat of the LADC. Despite religious connections through a shared Baptist-Christian faith and linguistic similarities, Chin refugees have not always been welcome in Mizoram. Major clashes have broken out twice in the past two decades, with far-right, conservative elements in the Young Mizo Association and Mizo Student Association (Mizo Zirlai Pawl) accusing refugees of rape, drug smuggling, and human trafficking. Both clashes included the distribution of “Quit Mizoram” notices, a slogan also used by the Mizo National Front during the insurgency period from 1966 to 1987. Recently, relations between Mizos and their ethnic kin in Myanmar have improved dramatically, with the creation of TV documentaries highlighting the similarities between the two groups, and exchange programs encouraging interaction and communication across international borders. However, Chin civil society leaders remain unsure about how long this improvement will last. The LADC has historically been welcoming of Lai/Hakha refugees, but that acceptance has never been tested in so intensive a way.
At present, the Union Minister of India has instructed the Chief Minister of Mizoram, Pu Lalthanhawla, to allow the refugees to stay in Mizoram, and the LADC has been preparing food and shelter arrangements. However, moving provisions in this extremely mountainous state often takes days, even in the best road and weather conditions.
Beyond logical limitations, the influx of refugees comes at a particularly difficult time for the Mizoram state government, which has been dealing with its own refugee crisis in the western part of the state. Over the past couple months, protests have been breaking out against the state’s growing Chakma population, many of whom are accused of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). Although many Chakma in Mizoram are indigenous to the area, their is an undoubtable influx of refugees and other types of migrants from the restive CHT. Chakma speak an Indo-European language, far closer to Bangla than the Tibeto-Burman languages of Mizoram. They are also Theravada Buddhists, marking them for extra suspicion in the strongly and reactively Christian state. Tensions between the communities have slowly simmered since the influx of refugees during the flooding of huge swaths of traditional Chakma territory by the Pakistan government with the creation of the Kaptai Dam in 1962, and the insurgent movements in the CHT from 1977 to 1997. This year, tensions took on a more aggressive tone, with calls for massive anti-immigration drives and the immediate forced repatriation of Chakma asylum seekers. Prompted by the inclusion of one Chakma student from Mizoram for a position in the state university, the YMA and MZP have organized protests and threatened violence for what they see as a reduction in the rights of Mizo youth for a population whose residence in Mizoram is commonly seen as illegitimate.
Earlier this year, reports of hundreds of refugees entering Mizoram through Siaha, capital of the Mara Autonomous District Council (MADC) just southeast of Lawngtlai, marked the connection between the Rohingya crisis and Mizoram. While Muslims have been fleeing for the relative safety of Bangladesh, Chin communities caught in the crossfire are fleeing to Mizoram in unprecedented numbers. The LADC has noted that the refugees are settling just on the other side of the border, and that the local police and Assam Rifles are working closely together to patrol the border, with the likely aim to both control the influx of refugees and ensure that the Mizoram does not become a safe haven for the Arakan Army.
The crisis in Rakhine State has far greater repercussions than the already sufficiently tragic circumstances of the Rohingya population. While fighting has more or less ceased in Chin State, Chin peoples in Rakhine find themselves in the crosshairs and cross fire of a conflict that really has nothing to do with them. The repercussions of their fleeing to Mizoram may have pronounced effects on politics in a state that already prides itself on not being welcoming to refugees. Indeed, President Trump’s anti-immigration message is extremely possible in Mizoram, where populist messages and fears of being over powered by outsiders ring true, even if taken outside the US context.
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.