They traveled at evening to cover from navy patrols, and took unpopulated routes throughout the day. They managed to keep away from detection for nearly 110 miles (177 kilometers) — till the third day, as they have been nearing the India-Myanmar border.
“They were searching for us in our town,” stated the lady, 36, who CNN just isn’t naming for her security. “When we were about to cross over, the Myanmar police chased after us.”
The household ran — and simply managed to cross into India’s northeastern state of Mizoram, and into security.
They’re amongst not less than 400 Burmese nationals, together with cops, authorities officers, and civilians, who’ve fled to Mizoram for the reason that navy coup in Myanmar final month, in response to Mizoram Chief Minister PU Zoramthanga.
Although Mizoram and Myanmar share a porous 510-kilometer (about 317-mile) border, the principle crossing level has been closed for months as a result of Covid-19 pandemic. The distant, jagged terrain is troublesome to navigate, and people fleeing Myanmar have been reliant on native activists to assist cross safely into India. Many are actually being sheltered by kinfolk and locals in Mizoram, with whom they share shut cultural hyperlinks.
“We (the state government) are not sending them back as a humanitarian point of view,” stated Zoramthanga. “When somebody enters the land, the country’s border, for fear of their lives, we cannot simply send them back.
“They don’t seem to be criminals.”
The Indian federal government has not publicly announced what it will do with the new arrivals, and whether to comply with requests from Myanmar authorities to deport police officers who fled — leaving families like the woman’s hanging in the balance.
CNN has reached out to India’s Ministry of Home Affairs for comment, but has not yet received a response.
“We can’t say or do something freely, we will likely be residing in peril,” said the woman as she held her daughter in her lap. “If our nation is peaceable, we’re keen to return. If not, there is no such thing as a method we are able to return.”
Violent crackdown in Myanmar
Security forces, made up of police and military personnel, have responded by shooting peaceful protesters and pulling people from their homes in nighttime raids. Images and footage from the ground show security forces opening fire on crowds, bloodied bodies lying on the street, and police beating protesters and medical workers.
With mobile networks and internet often shut down on orders of the military, little information is coming out, making it difficult for news organizations and human rights groups to assess and verify the situation.
“When greater than 5 protesters collect and we will not break the group, we now have orders to shoot,” one now-former officer told CNN. “I do not wish to serve beneath the navy dictators, so I escaped from the police drive … I do not need the bloodshed of the civilians.”
Another police sergeant who fled said he had served in the force for 28 years, including under the previous military government, before the 2011 reforms.
“After I served beneath the democratic authorities, I could not persuade myself to serve a dictator once more,” he said. “I used to be ordered to kill protesters by my seniors. I can not kill my harmless countrymen. Even the police rulebook prohibits that — so I disobeyed, joined the protests and eventually fled to Mizoram.”
CNN cannot independently verify the allegations of the former officers, or of the woman. CNN has reached out to Myanmar’s embassy for comment, but has not yet received a response.
The Myanmar-India border isn’t typically heavily fortified, though security has now stepped up. The Tiau River, nearly 100 miles (160 kilometers) long, provides a natural border, and the two countries are connected by a bridge in the eastern Mizoram district of Champhai.
The narrow bridge, about 10 feet wide with steel and wire gates on either end, is the official international trade crossing — but is by no means the only access point. The river is little more than a stream at some points; when it runs shallow, people can simply walk or drive across. Locals say many families have relatives living on both sides, meaning people come and go across the border frequently.
But the journey to Mizoram isn’t easy. Western Myanmar is rugged and mountainous, and unpaved dirt roads can be treacherous at night, when protesters feel safest traveling. Those fleeing with families or children face additional challenges; they can’t bring much food or supplies, and have little time for rest.
A strong network of activists and relatives on both sides of the border help facilitate their escape. One activist from the ethnic Chin community says they have helped about 270 people enter Mizoram since the coup.
The trip typically takes days, though its length depends on where in Myanmar people are fleeing from. They also need to take extra time to evade military patrols and their posts, sometimes by taking much longer roundabout routes, said the activist.
“Probably the most harmful factor is to be noticed by the police or navy patrols,” the activist said. “We transport them at evening, we cover whether it is wanted.”
CNN is not naming the activist or the former officers for their safety.
After crossing the border, arrivals who have relatives on the Indian side stay with them. Those who don’t are sheltered by the network, and their location is kept secret. Those who spoke with CNN declined to give details about their route through Myanmar, hoping the discretion will allow others to follow undetected.
But not everyone makes it. The activist said they know of four people who tried to flee to Mizoram, and were caught before they reached the border.
“We do not know what grew to become of them,” the activist said.
An uncertain future
The pregnant woman who fled with her husband and child said she felt her fears dissipate when they reached Mizoram.
The family is now living in a single room in a temporary shelter. There is no bed; they sleep on cloths laid over a tarp on the floor, with a few pillows and blankets to share. The room is bare, save for a small table covered with their meager belongings: a backpack, water bottles, a motorbike helmet.
It’s not much, but “I really feel secure and in peace,” said the woman. Her second child is due in a few months, and she feels safer giving birth in India since many doctors in Myanmar are on strike, she said.
But it’s not clear where they will be in a few months, as the two countries and their leaders discuss what happens next.
In 2019, India passed a controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill that allows fast-tracked citizenship for non-Muslim religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. But Myanmar isn’t on the list, and Burmese ethnic minorities who fled to India have faced deportations in recent years — most notably the Rohingya Muslim population, who were forced to flee Myanmar to escape deadly violence described by various United Nations agencies as genocide.
Since 2017, Indian authorities have been working to deport Rohingya in the country. This month, they detained 150 Rohingya refugees and began deportation processes, despite outcry from activists and human rights organizations.
It remains to be seen whether the same approach will be used on those fleeing the crackdown in Myanmar. In early March, the deputy commissioner in Myanmar’s Falam District sent a letter to his Indian counterpart across the border, formally requesting the detention and return of eight Burmese police personnel who fled to Mizoram. The officers should be handed back “with the intention to uphold pleasant relations,” said the letter, obtained by CNN.
Soon after, a spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs told reporters the government was still “ascertaining the information,” and is “in talks with our accomplice international locations on this.” The status of the eight officers is unclear.
On March 10, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs asked several northeastern states, including Mizoram, to “provoke deportation proceedings expeditiously and directly,” according to a copy of the advisory obtained by CNN.
Within the advisory, the ministry referred to those that fled as “unlawful migrants,” and reiterated that states and union territories do not have the power to grant refugee status to any foreign national. India is not a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, nor the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. A total of 148 countries are signatories to one of these two legal agreements, which outline the rights of refugees and are meant to protect them.
Zoramthanga, the Mizoram chief minister, wrote a letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 18, criticizing the advisory as “not acceptable to Mizoram.”
“Day by day terrified Myanmar residents are struggling to cross over to Mizoram in the hunt for shelter and safety,” he wrote, urging Modi to give asylum and provide food and shelter to the new arrivals. “Mizoram can’t simply stay detached to their sufferings at the moment.”
The Home Ministry has not publicly commented on the advisory, and the federal government has not publicly taken a stance on the issue or announced any plan of action.
Most of the people who spoke to CNN — including Zoramthanga, the activist, and several of those who fled — were certain more people would flow across the border, raising questions about how India will accommodate a potentially large-scale influx.
For those who have made it across, all they can do is hide, wait and pray.
Families in Mizoram say their lives depend on the government’s decision. Both the sergeant and former officer said they feared returning to Myanmar while the military is in power — they could be jailed for years, if not killed, for disobeying orders and escaping, they said.
“Though their physique could attain Mizoram, their thoughts continues to be in Myanmar, they aren’t fully comfy,” said the activist. “They nonetheless consider their properties, pets, mother and father and households. They could attain India, however their coronary heart is in Myanmar, so they can not really feel peaceable.”
The woman said she has been in contact with her parents and siblings, who stayed in Myanmar, but fears for their safety. “The police could query them,” she said. “I do not know what they’ll do to them.”
“I am lacking my mother and father, my household. I wish to be with them,” she added. “We do not wish to be refugees. We wish to go residence.”
Helen Regan, Chanchinmawia, Sai Singson and Jacob Lalnunhlima contributed to this report.