AIZAWL, India (Reuters) – A secret network of activists and volunteers, chained up in remote mountain settlements, is helping hundreds of defending Burmese policemen to move away from the brutal military crackdown on dissent and put them in relative safety in a small state of the Northeast India.
Their escape, by car, motorcycle, and on foot through thickly forested terrain, is often led by volunteer-led groups on both sides of the border, according to accounts from at least 10 people who are involved in or have used the united network. to cross the border. Once in India, activists and local residents provide food and shelter in safe houses, the people said.
Some members of the police personnel have said that they fled Myanmar because they feared persecution after refusing to obey orders from the military junta to fire on protesters.
More than 1,000 people fleeing the violence in Myanmar have crossed into the neighboring Indian state of Mizoram since late February, according to Indian lawmaker K. Vanlalvena, Reuters reported. That includes some 280 Myanmar police officers and more than two dozen fire department staff, according to a senior police official in Mizoram.
The tools used by members of the network are simple: social media messaging applications, SIM cards from mobile phones from both countries, rugged jeeps, and knowledge of smuggling routes along the Tiau River, a narrow stretch of water that it flows between the sparsely populated mountains that separate India. and Myanmar.
Several members of the police staff told Reuters they feared being jailed if the Myanmar authorities caught them fleeing.
“It is a matter of life and death,” said a 29-year-old activist named Puia, who has been helping people arriving from Myanmar in the town of Champhai, in eastern Mizoram, a seven-hour drive from the capital. of the state, Aizawl. He asked to be identified only by part of his name.
More than 280 people have died in Myanmar amid a wave of protests in the Southeast Asian country demanding the return of the civilian government led by elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, according to figures from the activist group the Political Prisoners Assistance Association. (AAPP). . The group says thousands of people have been detained since the army staged a coup on February 1.
On Wednesday, the junta released hundreds of people who had been arrested during the crackdown on the demonstrations, according to witnesses and the AAPP.
Myanmar’s military, officially known as the Tatmadaw, did not respond to a request for comment.
The junta earlier this week accused the anti-coup protesters of arson and violence, while expressing sadness over the deaths of what it said were 164 protesters. He added that he would use the least possible force to quell the violence.
Myanmar’s military has said that the November 8 elections won by Suu Kyi’s party were fraudulent, a charge that the country’s electoral commission has rejected. Military leaders have declared a state of emergency. They have promised a new election but have not set a date.
The influx from Myanmar could represent a diplomatic challenge for India, which has close ties with the Tatmadaw.
The arrivals from Myanmar have also generated some disagreement between the federal government of India, which wants to keep them out, and the state administration of Mizoram, which is willing to provide assistance according to local sentiment. The Mizoram tribes share close ties with the Chin community of Myanmar, which dominates the border areas with the Indian state.
India’s Foreign Ministry and the Mizoram state government did not respond to requests for comment.
India’s Foreign Ministry has previously expressed “deep concern” over the military coup, saying that democracy and the rule of law must be respected. The Indian government has issued a directive to four states that share a border with Myanmar, including Mizoram, to strengthen security, according to three Indian officials.
Mizoram State Prime Minister Zoramthanga has urged Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to grant asylum to “political refugees” from Myanmar. The situation in neighboring Myanmar is a “human catastrophe of gigantic proportions” that India could not ignore, wrote Zoramthanga, who uses only one name, in a March 18 letter to Modi.
‘SOMETIMES I’M AFRAID’
The 510 km long border between Mizoram and Myanmar has long been fluid, with a constant flow of people and goods thanks to a visa-free travel regime in the border region.
A man who runs a critical section of the network in an Indian border town in eastern Mizoram is a 60-year-old teacher from Myanmar who speaks Burmese and several local dialects. He described his role on the network on condition of anonymity.
The teacher said that he had left Myanmar as a result of the military junta’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 1988. Some 3,000 people are believed to have died in these clashes.
The teacher, a slim man with a short streak of curly hair, said calls for help from people across the border began around February 26, when Myanmar security forces stepped up their crackdown on protesters to favor of democracy. He said he receives about a half dozen or more requests for assistance a day, some through phone calls and some through Facebook.
“I help you as much as I can,” she said, tapping on her smartphone. “Sometimes I’m scared,” added the teacher, saying he feared that his participation in the network could jeopardize his job in a public school.
As of March 11, the day Reuters interviewed him, he said he had recently helped guide a total of around 80 people to Mizoram. Three other local activists who spoke to Reuters more than a week later corroborated that count and said they believed the figure was now probably double.
The teacher said that many of the people coming from across the border were directed at him by a community group in Myanmar’s Chin state. The teacher said that one of his married relatives living in Chin State is a member of the group.
Two policemen who recently crossed into India told Reuters they were also led by volunteer-led groups in Myanmar. Both recalled trips that passed through municipalities in northwestern Myanmar.
One of them, a Myanmar policeman named Peng, who fled his country in early March, said he had approached “young men” in Chin State to help him escape. He asked that only part of his name be used to protect his identity. Reuters looked at his police and national ID cards, which confirmed the name.
Four other police personnel who entered India in early March said they too received help from a Myanmar-based community group for their trip. They traveled through the Sagaing region of Myanmar and the Chin states before crossing into India. His account is contained in a joint statement in a classified Indian police document reviewed by Reuters.
Another police officer Reuters spoke to, named Ngun, described a similar crossover. Reuters saw his national identification card, which confirmed his name. The man said he did not have his police identification card with him.
The cost of the trip through Myanmar to the border is between $ 29 and $ 143, depending on the distance traveled, according to police officers Peng and Ngun. The cost was primarily to pay for transportation, such as renting a vehicle or using shared taxis, they said.
Ngun, the policeman, said he entered India in early March near a remote Mizoram village perched on a steep hillside surrounded by thick forests, about an hour’s drive from the Tiau River.
Since February 25, more than two dozen police officers, including four in uniform, have been pulled from the river by community leaders in the village, according to a 51-year-old school teacher who lives there and spoke on condition of anonymity. The village is located about 200 kilometers from the capital of Mizoram.
Members of the network in Mizoram receive news from the Burmese side about when and where people plan to cross, according to the teacher and Puia, the activist. Local community leaders on the Indian side then dispatch vehicles along established smuggling routes that entwine around paramilitary posts, according to the teacher. Many of those fleeing Myanmar rested in the village before going further into Mizoram.
“Because they look like us,” the teacher said of the arrivals in Myanmar, “they can travel without anyone noticing.”
‘I WILL NOT COME BACK’
On March 12, around 116 people from Myanmar flowed into eastern Mizoram, according to the senior state police official, taking advantage of a borderless border.
In a nearby village, on March 15, a group of about a dozen newcomers from Myanmar were resting in a living room at the home of a community leader. Most of them said they were police and firefighters.
Dressed in a red Manchester United soccer jersey, a man who identified himself as a fire department official described a difficult motorcycle and foot journey to India from Myanmar’s Chin State. The man, who said his name was Khaw, said he and his fellow travelers hid in the jungle for fear of being captured by Myanmar security forces. They did not sleep for days.
He said he constantly worries about his wife and the four children he claims to have left behind. But while the military repression in Myanmar lasts, he said: “I will not return.”
Report from Devjyot Ghoshal in Aizawl, India; Additional information from Chanchinmawia in Mizoram, India; Edited by Cassell Bryan-Low