Health

Stay or go? For Myanmar’s latest wave of refugees, there’s no good choice

In a panic, Biak Tling stuffed two days’
worth of clothes into a backpack and fled. He covered 220 miles over two days
on his motorbike, eventually making his way across a narrow suspension bridge
from his strife-ridden home of Myanmar into the relative refuge of India.

A week earlier, he had sent his wife and
three young children on a similar journey. “Take care,” he told them. “And wait
for me.”

Across Myanmar, hundreds of thousands of
people have fled their homes, trying to escape the violence and bloodshed since
the military seized power in a coup Feb. 1. Many are living in tents in the
jungles of Myanmar. Some, like Biak Tling, have left their homeland entirely,
pouring into neighbouring countries.

For those who stay, it is a fight to
survive. The junta has created a humanitarian crisis in Myanmar that is
worsening by the day, according to rights groups. Soldiers are blocking aid
convoys, keeping critical food and supplies from the people who need them.
Children are dying because they have not been able to get medical help.

For those who leave, it is a life in
limbo. Many are struggling to adapt to a place they do not quite know, a
government that does not quite welcome them, and a future with no certainty.
India does not recognise refugees, so they are unable to get assistance, legal
status or jobs.

“We escaped from the mouth of hell, but
we are lost,” said Biak Tling, 31, who was a clerk in a church before he fled.

The ranks of the displaced are swelling
as the country sits on the precipice of civil war between armed protesters and
the military. More than 1,300 people have been killed by the junta, according
to a rights group. The military was accused over the weekend of massacring at
least 35 villagers in Kayah state, including women and children.

In the northwest, the Tatmadaw, as the
military is known in Myanmar, has deployed thousands of troops in what appears
to be a concerted push to crush the resistance.

In late August, soldiers entered Biak
Tling’s hometown, Thantlang, firing mortar rounds and artillery
indiscriminately. Thantlang is along the route to Camp Victoria, headquarters
of the army belonging to the Chin National Front, an ethnic armed organisation
training protesters.

One group of protesters killed more than
a dozen soldiers, prompting the troops to retaliate. They fired rockets into
villages, destroying homes, churches and an office belonging to Save the
Children, a British aid organisation.

By late September, all of the town’s
roughly 10,000 residents had left.

Makeshift houses in Farkawn, India, where hundreds of refugees from Myanmar are living, on Dec. 11, 2022. Hundreds of thousands who fled deadly unrest at home confront an uncertain future abroad. (Saumya Khandelwal/The New York Times)

Makeshift houses in Farkawn, India, where hundreds of refugees from Myanmar are living, on Dec. 11, 2022. Hundreds of thousands who fled deadly unrest at home confront an uncertain future abroad. (Saumya Khandelwal/The New York Times)

Like most refugees from Chin state, Biak
Tling headed to India’s Mizoram state, which shares a porous border with
Myanmar. The residents of Mizoram and Chin share the same forefathers; many in
Mizoram have family ties with the Myanmar refugees. For decades, Chin people
moved back and forth to visit family, conduct business or escape religious
persecution.

See also  Cambodia to take 'different approaches' to Myanmar crisis as ASEAN chair

They usually returned home — until now.

Internally
Displaced

The Chin are a predominantly Christian
ethnic minority who live in western Myanmar. Like many minorities in the
country, they had suffered decades of repression and discrimination under
previous governments dominated by the Buddhist Bamar majority.

Soldiers abducted men from homes,
forcing them to dig trenches and carry supplies for the camps that they built
in the state. They occupied churches, imposed travel restrictions on preachers
and prevented Christian gatherings.

While Chin people have long sought
safety in India, the current exodus has outpaced any previous flight. In just
months, roughly 30,000 people have crossed the border, a level of migration
that in the past was spread over two decades, according to Salai Za Uk Ling,
director of the Chin Human Rights Organization.

After the coup, the first wave were
protesters, politicians and dissidents, followed by government workers who had
gone on strike, military defectors and then tens of thousands of civilians.
Some were grandparents and toddlers who journeyed for days in the jungles.

Daniel Sullivan, the senior advocate for
human rights at Refugees International, said he saw parallels between the
current crisis and the mass exodus of 700,000 Muslim Rohingyas into Bangladesh
in 2019.

“It’s going to be a future in limbo,”
Sullivan said. “I do think some level of displacement is going to last for
several years.”

In the decade before the coup, life was
peaceful for Biak Tling and his family.

In 2020, he moved with four of his
siblings into a four-bedroom house that his father, Hei Mang, had built. Biak
Tling, whose name means “Perfect Worship” in Chin, was the fourth of six
children.

Biak Tling and Tial Hoi Chin dine with their eldest son, Van Nawl Tling, 5, at their new home in Farkawn, India, on Dec. 10, 2022. They are among the hundreds of thousands who have fled Myanmar in fear of their lives. (Saumya Khandelwal/The New York Times)

Biak Tling and Tial Hoi Chin dine with their eldest son, Van Nawl Tling, 5, at their new home in Farkawn, India, on Dec. 10, 2022. They are among the hundreds of thousands who have fled Myanmar in fear of their lives. (Saumya Khandelwal/The New York Times)

Then on Aug. 25, about 150 soldiers
entered Thantlang and shot at the Chinland Defense Forces, an armed group of
protesters. A 10-year-old boy was killed when a mortar shell fired by the
troops landed on him. More than a dozen homes were destroyed. Hei Mang dug a
bunker for his family in his garden. They called it “the pit.”

The junta sent more soldiers into
Thantlang, which continued to be rocked by fighting. During one overnight
episode, the family stayed inside the pit until 5 a.m. the next day.

On Sept. 7, Biak Tling learned on
Facebook that the National Unity Government, established by a group of deposed
leaders, had declared a “people’s war” against the junta.

See also  Tunisia state TV bars political parties: press union

Fearing that things would get worse, he
told his family they had to flee. The plan was for his wife to leave first with
their young children — a 5-year-old boy and 18-month-old twins.

His father, Hei Mang, 70, chose to stay
in Myanmar and return to his birthplace, a village called Aibur, to live with
another son. He felt that he and his wife were too old to make the journey.
More than 223,000 people have been internally displaced since the coup,
according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

In Aibur, Hei Mang lives in government
housing with his son, Bawi Zahu, who was a civil servant. After the coup, Bawi
Zahu, 33, walked off his job as an employee in the General Administration
Department, joining thousands of others who had stopped work in protest against
the coup.

With no income for 10 months, the family
has been forced to ask neighbors for food.

“Now we are alive, but it’s no different
from being dead,” Hei Mang said.

Rights groups say the junta is
preventing humanitarian aid from reaching hundreds of thousands of people
displaced in Myanmar. The troops have blocked roads and aid convoys and
attacked health care workers, according to Human Rights Watch. Children are malnourished,
and at least nine have died because of acute diarrhoea in central Rakhine
state.

In some parts of Chin state, residents
have trouble getting access to drinking water and toilets. In Magway region,
children are getting skin disease. In Kayah state, four babies died in June and
September because the junta has blocked medical aid, according to Ko Ba Nya,
the spokesperson for the Karenni Human Rights Group.

The United Nations estimates that the
number of people needing assistance will rise to 14.4 million by 2022, from 1
million before the coup. By next year, about 25 million people, half the
population, could be living below the national poverty line.

Doctors Without Borders has warned that
the delays in getting access to medical care could be life-threatening for
patients with conditions requiring regular care, such as HIV, tuberculosis and
hepatitis C.

Hei Mang’s medicine for his anemia and
vitamin deficiency are swiftly running out; so is his wife’s hypertension
medication.

“All the buses coming into Chin state
have to pass the gates guarded by the military, who check everything in the
vehicles,” Hei Mang said. “They take everything they want, including medicine.”

Building
a Life

Biak Tling now lives in the hilltop
village of Farkawn, along with hundreds of people from the Chin state, in a
house with a blue tarp roof and corrugated metal walls that he built himself.

He is doing the same for his fellow
refugees, including Tial Sang, 20. He and his family left their village,
Chincung, after days of explosions and gunfire, the nightmarish cacophony of
the conflict between the resistance fighters and the military forces.

See also  Storm Ana kills at least three in Mozambique and Malawi

“We were too afraid to die, so we
decided to come here,” Tial Sang said.

People cross over from Myanmar into Farkawn, India, on a wooden bridge over the Tiau River on Dec. 12, 2022. Hundreds of thousands who fled deadly unrest at home confront an uncertain future abroad. (Saumya Khandelwal/The New York Times)

People cross over from Myanmar into Farkawn, India, on a wooden bridge over the Tiau River on Dec. 12, 2022. Hundreds of thousands who fled deadly unrest at home confront an uncertain future abroad. (Saumya Khandelwal/The New York Times)

The government of Prime Minister
Narendra Modi, fearing the economic strain, had instructed the four
northeastern states bordering Myanmar to not accept refugees from the country.
Guards were told to seal the border and prevent entry.

In an interview, Pu H. Rammawi, a senior
official in Mizoram, said he told officials from the Home Ministry and Foreign
Ministry that the locals would not accept such a decision.

“They are our brothers and sisters,”
Rammawi said. “We cannot betray them. If they go back, they will be killed.”

For now, the border guards are letting
the refugees cross. The government declined to comment but referred to
questions raised in Parliament by Mizoram officials.

Although the government of Mizoram has
offered children schooling and COVID-19 vaccinations, officials are limited in
what they can do. Mizoram is one of the poorest states in India, and because
the Indian government has no formal refugee policy, international aid
organisations have not been able to provide shelter and food.

Rammawi said he has asked the central
government for humanitarian assistance. The refugees, he said, need proper
housing because they are in a cyclone-prone area.

They are mostly left to fend for
themselves.

Biak Tling had never built a house
before. He had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history from Kalay
University in Myanmar and another bachelor’s degree from the Northern Institute
of Theology Seminary in New Delhi.

Biak Tling was recently appointed
secretary of the refugee committee. He collects money from the refugees to
donate to families in need.

His wife, Tial Hoi Chin, 29, cried a lot
in the beginning.

His 5-year-old son cries, too. Classes
at his new school are in Mizo, a language he does not know. He misses his
friends.

Without money, they struggle to find
food and are surviving on rice, potatoes and beans. They huddle around the
fireplace because the days are cold.

But at least in India, they do not have
to hide from the soldiers. They are safe and free.

Biak Tling and his fellow refugees know
that returning to Myanmar is impossible the way things are now. But they cannot
help wishing.

“I don’t know what our future will be
like,” he said. “I just want to go home and live peacefully with my family.”

©2022 The New York Times Company

Related Articles

Back to top button