The Mizos and Myanmarese share deep cultural bonds that go beyond the citizen-refugee divide

The support for Myanmarese refugees is strong in Mizoram because of a long and deeply shared cultural history, a connection that cannot be ignored

Updated - July 06, 2022 12:39 pm IST

Published - April 24, 2021 04:03 pm IST

On the bridge over the Tiau river in Mizoram

On the bridge over the Tiau river in Mizoram

Salai Uk Thang, 31, a policeman from Myanmar’s Sagaing Division, knew his arrest was imminent. Last month, Thang had joined the civil disobedience movement, a rapidly expanding resistance movement that has attracted tens of thousands of Myanmarese in the wake of the coup that toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government in February. He, like many police personnel, fled Myanmar.

Thang’s instinctive choice was to head to Mizoram, divided from Myanmar by a porous international border, part of which is formed by the 159-km long Tiau river.

Thang simply walked across the shallow waters. “I crossed the border and was given a warm welcome by the people of the nearest village,” he says. He has distant relatives in Mizoram’s capital Aizawl, and they welcomed him with open arms even though he was meeting them for the first time.

Thousands of Myanmarese like Thang, mostly from Myanmar’s Chin State, the Sagaing Region, and other neighbouring provinces, have trooped into Mizoram since February, an influx that once again raises questions about identity and borders, refugees and relatives, friends and foes.

The India-Myanmar border stretches over 1,600 km, of which roughly 400 km runs along Mizoram, and then it snakes north along Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. The sudden and large influx of Myanmarese people sent alarm bells ringing in New Delhi, and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) sent a note on March 10 to the four States asking their governments to stop people crossing the border and to deport anyone who had found their way in.

Surprisingly, what Raisina Hill had overlooked was the rich fabric of religious, linguistic and ethnic ties that binds people in these border regions. This is especially true of Mizoram, which has seen the greatest number of Myanmarese refugees. The MHA’s stance drew flak from the Mizo government and people, and K. Vanlalvena, the lone Rajya Sabha member from the State, reacted sharply, saying the Mizo people could not act against their own brothers and sisters.

Not just rhetoric

The use of the phrase ‘brothers and sisters’ was not mere rhetoric. The Chins of Myanmar and the Mizos come from the same ethnic roots and fall within the broad ethnic grouping, Zo. They speak the same Tibeto-Burman languages and are bonded by the same customs, cultures and traditions. As Vanlalvena explained, these ties are manifest in all the Chin-Kuki-Mizo tribes living in Myanmar, India and Bangladesh. The Mizos have long believed that the people of Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts, Myanmar’s Chin Hills, and India’s Mizoram and Assam States are one ethnic group, divided into three nations by the British.

Myanmar citizens living in India and members of Mizo Zirlai Pawl, a student organisation, hold a candlelight vigil for casualties of the Myanmar resistance movement

Myanmar citizens living in India and members of Mizo Zirlai Pawl, a student organisation, hold a candlelight vigil for casualties of the Myanmar resistance movement


In an unusual move, Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga, who heads the State’s ruling Mizo National Front, sent a strong missive to Prime Minister Modi, saying the MHA’s instructions were not acceptable. “Mizoram cannot remain indifferent today,” he said. “India cannot turn a blind eye to this humanitarian crisis unfolding right in front of us in our own backyard.” While the Centre has yet to respond officially, the Mizo government and people have continued to welcome refugees from Myanmar. “The Chin communities are ethnically our brethren with whom we have had close contact down the years, even before India became independent,” Zoramthanga said in the message to Modi last month.

Citizens for democracy

The present situation is unique in Myanmar. Unlike the military takeover by General Ne Win in 1962 or the military coup d’etat in 1988, a large majority of the refugees today are police, fire service personnel, and government employees, seeking refuge in India and Thailand. They have joined the civil disobedience movement in large numbers, as have doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, bankers and engineers. They have boycotted work, and are demanding a reversal of the coup. And what began as an online campaign has morphed into a popular pro-democracy movement.

Linda Cin Par, 28, who works in a government bank in Chin State, is one such person. She joined the movement last month and refused to cooperate with the military junta. Par says she had to leave because the army would have arrested her any minute. She fled, leaving family behind, to join her uncle, a trader in a tiny Mizoram hamlet near the Myanmar border.

Based in Aizawl, V.L. Tana Bawitlung is the president of MZP, the Mizo Zirlai Pawl or Mizo Students’ Federation. He says India cannot call itself the world’s largest democracy if it doesn’t extend help to the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar and to those who have taken shelter in Mizoram fearing persecution. MZP has been at the forefront of providing assistance to the refugees, working closely with a non-profit called United for Democratic Myanmar, which consists of Myanmarese nationals as well as those who moved to Mizoram decades ago. Bawitlung says, “The people of Mizoram will continue to give shelter and food on humanitarian grounds because these are Chin-Kuki-Mizo people even if the Indian government objects.”

Marches, rallies, concerts and fundraising drives are on in full swing. MZP collaborates not only with non-profits, but also with cultural organisations such as the Mizo Zaimi Inzawmkhawm Pawl (Mizo Singers United), Music Domain of Mizoram, People United for Music with a Purpose; religious organisations such as Chin Baptist Churches USA; and local television channels such as ZONET and LPS that broadcast fundraising concerts. Money is collected on the streets as well as through donations in cash and kind, and eventually distributed to the refugees.

Spread across villages, smaller towns and Aizawl city, at least 6,500 refugees are estimated to be in Mizoram, including 18 members of the Myanmar Parliament and State legislatures. They have been accommodated in camps like the one established in RAY Building at Falkland in Aizawl; many are with relatives; and others are in community halls and schools.

Police personnel from Myanmar cooking at an undisclosed location in Mizoram

Police personnel from Myanmar cooking at an undisclosed location in Mizoram


In the UN, the Indian Ambassador T.S. Tirumurti, in a closed-door Security Council meeting, expressed India’s commitment to democratic transition. This gave fresh hope to the refugees in Mizoram.

On the ground, however, the Centre-State mismatch continues. The Assam Rifles personnel guarding the Myanmar border have continued to stop cross-border movement, despite the fact that the Free Movement Regime is still in force here. This means that people from both sides of the border can enter the other side up to 16 km (as the crow flies) without any travel documents. Traditionally, people visit relatives across the border to attend weddings, funerals and other ceremonies. Cross-border romance and marriages are common.

Long history

Now, Assam Rifles personnel are again reportedly demanding ID cards and travel documents from people moving in the area, reminding locals of the days when the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was in force here for two decades from 1967 to 1986. In 1966, a movement to unite the ethnic Mizos or Zo people of India, Myanmar and Bangladesh under a single sovereign ‘Zo Nation’ had been launched by the Mizo National Front, which had led to armed insurgency and the AFSPA.

The history of the region is a layered one. Legend has it that the Mizos and Chins emerged from the same cave called Chhinlung. According to history, they were possibly part of a wave of migration from China and Tibet dating back to the 7th century. Mizo oral history talks of their place of origin being Chhinlung, and historians speculate that this might be Chhinlungsan on the banks of the Yalong River in China.

As they travelled south, they passed through the Shan and Kachin States of Burma before reaching Lushai country, now known as Mizoram. Many of these ethnic Mizos, mainly Pawi or Lai clans and the Paites (now officially recognised by the Myanmar government as Chins) remained in the Chin Hills, while a large number of them, led mainly by Sailo chiefs, settled in the present Mizoram.

Later, when Burma got independence from British India, a number of Mizos, especially from the eastern parts of the State, left to settle in Burma’s Sagaing Division, mainly in the Kalaymyo township.

Neihkima, who lives in Tahan in Kalaymyo, says that he enlisted in the Burmese Army during the late 1940s and settled in Myanmar with his family. “All of us who migrated from Mizoram to Myanmar and settled there, we are all identified as Chins,” says Neihkima, adding that a large number of people living in Tahan speak Lushai, the Mizo language, flawlessly.

No differences

This history has meant that although the people of Chin State and Sagaing region of Myanmar and the people of Mizoram might have been administered by different governments down the years, there was no other real difference between them.

In appearance, language or custom, it is almost impossible for outsiders to differentiate between a Mizo from Mizoram and a Chin from Myanmar. This is one big reason why refugees can remain undetected in Mizoram. Another strong bond is that of religion — they are all Christian. The Presbyterian Church of India’s Mizoram Synod has a close relationship with the Presbyterian Church of Myanmar, and the latter still uses the Mizoram Synod’s church literature printed at the Synod Press in Aizawl.

Bollywood bonds

Cinema is another unifying factor. Both Hollywood and Bollywood movies, subtitled or translated into Lushai, are extremely popular in the Chin-Kuki-Mizo inhabited areas of Myanmar. In fact, these films have helped disseminate Lushai widely among the various ethnic groups in Chin State. Though they have their own dialects such as Falam, Hakha or Tiddim, they are now fluent in Lushai as well, making communication seamless when they come into Mizoram.

Cultural exchanges, such as the Zofest organised by the MZP have been another connection. The Zofest has been hosted in turn by Mizoram, Bangladesh, Tripura, Assam (hills region), Manipur and Myanmar, where several tribal groups showcase their distinct traditional music, dance and costume.

The cultural unification of the people of the border areas has been a major preoccupation in recent years, with organisations such as MZP, the Mizo Students Union, the Zo Reunification Organisation, and Zofa Global Network working to bring Chin-Kuki-Mizo peoples from Mizoram, other Indian States, Myanmar, and Bangladesh together in festivals and collaborations.

These cultural bonds continue to colour the political dreams of an ultimate ‘Zo Nation’, a dream encouraged by local political parties. In 2017, former Mizoram Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla spoke of Zo people reuniting “under a single administrative unit” one day and of how cultural and emotional integration of Zo ethnic groups would help in the “reunification process”.

On April 20, the Manipur High Court restrained the government from taking action against seven Myanmarese taking refuge in Moreh, and ordered their safe transit to Imphal. “The protection afforded by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution is not limited to citizens and can be availed by non-citizens also,” the bench said.

The fact remains that the highly emotional support extended to Myanmar’s refugees in Mizoram has its roots in some strong historic and cultural ties that the Centre will have to understand and acknowledge sooner or later.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Mizoram.

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