Bureau Report + BBC
MYANMAR/ NEW DELHI: Myanmar nationals have been fleeing the country amid violence against civilians in the aftermath of a military coup. Many who live close to the border are seeking refuge in India, reports BBC Hindi’s Raghvendra Rao.
It was on her third attempt that Makhai finally made it to India. She used a dirt track through the forest to cross. Others have come via an underground storm drain that connects villages on both sides of the border.
Unlike the previous two attempts, this time Indian security forces didn’t stop her.
The 42-year-old, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, fled her home in Myanmar, in the border district of Tamu, earlier this month, along with her sisters and her daughter. They crossed into the north-eastern Indian state of Manipur. It was the only thing they could do to save themselves, Makhai said.
“I had a chance to escape now,” she said. “If I waited longer, another chance may not have come my way.”
Myanmar, also known as Burma, is in the grip of violence. In February, the country’s military overthrew the democratically elected government and detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In the weeks since, it has crushed protests against the coup.
Rights groups say the military has killed more than 600 people, including 43 children. Makhai says soldiers have been breaking into houses and raping and killing civilians.
Witnesses have recounted stories of people being killed in the streets and even in their homes including a six-year-old who was allegedly shot dead during a home raid as she ran to her father.
Army spokesman Brig Gen Zaw Min Tun said in a recent interview that the army would never have shot a child inside their home – and if it did happen, they would investigate the incident.
But reports of such atrocities by the security forces are widespread and have sparked an international outcry.
“Ever since the violence began, we are scared to live in our homes,” Makhai said. “We have spent so many nights hiding in the forest.”
The Manipur government recently told officials in border district to “politely turn away” refugees from Myanmar and then retracted the order after a public backlash. In a second order, the state government said it was taking “all humanitarian steps”, including treating injured refugees from Myanmar.
But unauthorized immigration is a politically charged issue in India, especially now as regional elections are under way in West Bengal and Assam – two states that have historically seen a huge influx of refugees.
Two other women who crossed into India along with Makhai told the BBC they would consider going back home only if the situation improved. Their husbands and other men from the family are still in Myanmar.
“The men can fight if needed. For us women, it’s difficult to escape if the military suddenly comes knocking,” said Winyi, whose name has also been changed. She fled from Tamu with her teenage daughter.
Until they feel safe to return home, they are relying on their neighbors in Manipur’s Moreh district. Located along India’s border with Myanmar, Moreh finds itself in the thick of action as all official routes between the two countries are sealed.
For years, India and Myanmar have had a Free Movement Regime in place which allowed local people on each side to travel up to 16km (10 miles) on the other side and remain there for a maximum of 14 days. The arrangement was suspended in March 2020 to stem the spread of the coronavirus. People on both sides hoped that the border would reopen this year, but February’s coup dashed their hopes.
That hasn’t prevented many Myanmar nationals from risking an unauthorized journey across what is still a porous border.
“It’s difficult to come to India. Often, Indian security forces stop us but we manage to sneak in,” said a trader who comes to Moreh every day to supply milk to some 20 households. “Everything is closed back home – there is firing and exploding bombs.”
The anti-coup protests in Myanmar have led to large numbers of the armed forces being moved to other areas, leaving the border less protected. Indian troops are not heavily deployed along this border, much to the relief of those who make the daily journey.
After selling their wares, these Myanmar nationals rush back to their side of the border using dirt tracks and bushes. Some believe security forces on both sides turn a blind eye to this movement.