A Race Divided: Chin migrants in search of identity and a life of peace
According to a study from the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in Delhi, India; Mizos and Chins share the same genetic, cultural, historical, and linguistic heritage as they all descend from the Zo people that have settled in the Lushai hills some seven centuries ago. At present, the geographic separation of the Northeastern town of India and Myanmar’s western border has drifted the Zo’s into two ethnic groups of almost the same culture and appearance, the Mizos and the Chins.
The Mizos hail from the northeastern town of Mizoram, a mountainous area of lush hills and vast greenery said to be the most peaceful amongst the troubled northern part of India, and the Chins coming from the Chin state in western Myanmar, a place of supposed refuge and peace for these timid people but troubled for it’s country’s surreal sense of order.
Today, there are at least 70,000 Chin migrants living in Mizoram primarily because of human rights abuse by the military since it came to power in 1962. They have crossed the border illegally joining the hundreds of thousands of other ethnic Burmans trying to escape the oppression in their native land. In Mizoram, it would be hard for someone to say who are the Mizos from the Chins. But if one would study closely, the ethnic rift would be obvious just around the main market area of the city’s capital Aizwal, Mizos own the nifty shops selling imported goods and electronic gadgets and the Chins, sitting on the side streets selling whatever crop they have harvested for the day usually to buy their families next meal.
“There were several reasons why we have fled our country Myanmar; forced labor, oppression, physical and metal abuse and even sexual assault for women” says Pino (not his real name) who is based in Delhi working for Chin organization and local Christian congregation. “We traversed hard terrain and the constant threat of being caught by the Burmese military hoping to find a better opportunity across the border, but apparently it was also a hard life after all” he adds. Burmese migrants cross the border illegally everyday often ending up in Aizwal town, the capital of Mizoram. Here, most of them end up working on the roadsides crushing stones for construction use, selling root crops and to some, end up in illegal businesses such as producing local whisky and smuggling narcotics inside and out of the area.
Apart from their ethnic brothers the Mizos, the Chin migrants have forfeited their chances of basic education and proper housing once they’ve left Myanmar. There are no laws that protect migrant workers in India because of the government’s refusal to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 additional Protocol. In this manner, Indian authorities consider these migrants as illegal and leave no place for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to work farther than Delhi.
This has created another long sojourn for the Chins as to those hoping for a document from the UNHCR, they have to travel hundreds of kilometers from Aizawl to the country’s capital, Delhi to be able to acquire an official document that will serve as their proof that they are refugees. In Delhi alone, there are now 40,000 migrants; some of who have already been granted refugee status and the rest remain illegal migrants. The process takes at least two and a half years, as there has been a huge influx of illegal migration from Myanmar during the last decade. In order to survive city’s pandemonium, most Chin people work in local shops and factories earning not more than 2,000 rupees (approx. $40) and there has also been cases of being cheated by employers due to ethnic differences.
“We just want to have our own space as we have left our own for fear of persecution” says Pino. Thousands of illegal migrants face the same vicious cycle everyday, battling rigorous terrains of the forest to the spiteful urban jungle in their continued search for their own reserved space. As the drift between the Mizos and the Chins seems to be irrevocable, some are still hopeful that the tensions amongst them, through the help of the government, live a life of peace and re-live their lives as Zo people.
The fluidity of the Burmese border all depends on the political situation in Myanmar. For more than two years, there has been an increase in border crossing due to the continuous violations of the ruling junta. This project aims to illustrate how the illegal Burmese migrants live outside their homeland and also try and narrate their plight in search for their own space and inner peace as I document the following:
The border town of Mizoram in the Northeast part of India as this quiet town serves as the gateway for illegal migrants coming from the Chin state trying to make their way to Delhi to apply for Refugee status. I will also cross the border into the Chin state to be able to document the status of the Chins as they run from the abuse of the ruling military Junta, the root cause of most Burmese crossing to the other side of the border.
The illegal trade route in the jungles of Mizoram as this is considerably the most peaceful town in the highly conflicted Northeast state of India, Mizo businessmen and the Burmese junta use some areas as trade routes for goods and according to some reports, they also transport narcotics and illegal firearms in these areas.
Burmese migrants in Delhi as they wait for refugee status from the UNHCR, they face unfair treatment from employers as they are considered illegal aliens. The lack of healthcare facilities and other basic needs contribute to the already hard-up lives of the Chins living in the city.
The Burmese migrants who have successfully garnered the refugee status and have completely left their homeland in their search for a better life in a foreign land, in this case, in India.
The documentary aims to create a visual understanding on the main cause of illegal migration from Burma as the continuous oppression of the Burmese government to their people. As I have seen during my seven week documentation of the Chin’s situation, I aim to continue the story with the help of this grant as this part of the highly conflicted Burmese border towns has been under the mainstream media since the rebels was elected into government office in the 1980’s. The human rights issues and the hardships that the Chins, amongst other Burmese migrants, face are present up to this day. According to one of the Chin Christian organizations based in Delhi, it is important that the world knows what is happening to them and why they have risked everything to cross the border.
Photography has been used as visual evidence to the atrocities man has created for decades. With this issue, photography would hopefully serve as witness so as the public may know that their Burmese brothers are facing tumultuous adversities under the ruling Burmese junta. Illegal migration has been one of the by products of the aftermath of conflicts and wars. Considerably one of the longest running ethnic strifes in the region, the stories along Burmese border needs to be told.