Buddhist refugees in Mizoram begin journey back to Myanmar, but unconfirmed tales of horror keep them on edge

Lawngtlai (Mizoram): Myanmarese refugees have began returning to their homes two months after they landed in Mizoram following raids in their villages by the Myanmar Army.

The first batch of the refugees left the border state on 25 January, and continued subsequently in small groups till the end of last month.

According to informed sources, 996 out of the 1,484 refugees who arrived in Mizoram, have already returned, and the rest are expected to leave the Indian state within this month. Currently, all the refugees are temporarily settled at Hmawngbuchhuah village in the Bumthlang subdivision of Mizoram on the bank of Sekul river.

When this correspondent visited the village, the migrants were found scattered over hillocks in and around the village in small huts of bamboo and thatch which were erected soon after they landed last November. A few families have even opened up shops but most of the migrants evinced a desire to return to their villages barring some exceptions.

Members of Zhakoi community leave for Myanmar. Firstpost

Members of Zhakai community leave for Myanmar. Firstpost/Rajeev Bhattacharyya

"My daughters have already gone back and they want us to join them soon," said Ubakhai, an elderly migrant whose village is located about 10 kilometres from the border in Myanmar. "We will select a date as per our calendar and hit the return trail with my wife."

All the refugees who arrived in Mizoram are Buddhists belonging to the Zhakai tribe from the disturbed Rakhine state in Myanmar. Rakhine has witnessed large-scale violence and displacement of the Rohingya Muslims since last August.

The Zhakai community inhabits some villages on both sides of the border and many refugees were putting up at the homes of their relatives in Mizoram. Their repatriation was planned earlier in December, but it had to be stalled after opposition from the community who were apprehensive of further retaliation by the Myanmar Army.

The crisis had erupted in Myanmar’s Paletwa and the adjacent region after 11 Myanmar Army personnel had reportedly died on the Kaladan river after being ambushed by a rebel outfit called the Arakan Army. A middle-aged refugee at Hmawngbuchhuah claimed that the Myanmar Army had burnt several villages believed to have offered support and cadres to the militant group.

Refugees from Myanmar's Zhakoi community in Mizoram. Firstpost

Refugees from Myanmar's Zhakai community in Mizoram. Firstpost/Rajeev Bhattacharyya

A senior employee of a firm engaged with the multi-crore Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project — it will connect eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with Sittwe seaport in Rakhine State — and stationed near Hmawngbuchhuah claimed that gunshots were being heard for over a month in the region across the border which severely stalled the progress of work on the highway.

However, conflicting reports are pouring in about the fate of the refugees who had returned to their villages.

According to one version, the Myanmar Army has confined them to camps in a manner similar to some Rohingya settlements located south-west of the Zhakai inhabited zone. But some refugees were of the opinion that they have been allowed to resettle in their villages with a warning to abstain from supporting the rebel group.

The turmoil in Paletwa reveals a complex pattern of conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. In this zone, Buddhist citizens seem to view the Myanmar government and the Myanmar army as "aggressors" who have illegally occupied their territory.

A young refugee cited the sale of natural gas from the region to China whose profits were garnered only by the government. But not very far in the Rohingya inhabited territory, there were reports of Buddhist civilians colluding with the Myanmar Army in raiding their villages and forcing them to migrate to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The disturbance in Paletwa and the activities of the Arakan Army could be a reason for the delay in the execution of a 109-kilometre-long road which is a vital part of the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project. The proposed highway will connect the river terminal at Paletwa to Zorinpui in the Mizoram border for goods to be transported from Sittwe port in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

(The writer is a senior journalist in Guwahati and author of the book Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men)

Updated Date: Mar 09, 2018 16:45 PM

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