Delhi – Yangon – Delhi
15 January 2013
A trip across borders geographical, political and cultural unravels the complex histories between India, Myanmar and their peoples
My association with the Burmese community living in exile in India began when I helped secure the release of Burmese pro-democracy activists from an Indian jail in 1989. The first activist I managed to bail out was a student of the Rangoon Institute of Technology, who, after police shot a student protestor named Phone Maw in March 1988, rose up to spark off what became the nationwide 8888 Uprising. The second activist I helped release was a Chin woman who joined the national uprising and had to leave her four children behind in Myanmar. Although at the time they were the only Burmese activists in Delhi, I noticed that the two did not interact at all, and carried out their activities separately. That was my first glimpse into the ethnic minority issues of Myanmar.
Almost all those who came to India after taking part in the national uprising of 8 August 1988 (hence 8888) finally opted for resettlement in a third country, moving on to Europe, Australia or the USA. In the West, they got opportunities to study, work and buy property. Since then, many of them have become full-fledged citizens; one of them, now in Norway, even teaches more recent Burmese arrivals about the Norwegian way of life.
A few refugees did choose to remain and work in India. One of them was Soe Myint, who came to India in November 1990 after he and a friend hijacked a Thai Airways flight from Bangkok to Yangon and diverted it to Kolkata in order to highlight the brutal military rule in Myanmar at the time. The hijacking was done very politely, and without arms. When the second hijacker spoke in Burmese to explain why they were hijacking the plane, a Japanese passenger asked him to translate the speech into English for the benefit of those who did not understand the language. When they landed in Kolkata, the crew and passengers requested that the Indian authorities allow them to have a photograph taken with the two hijackers.
When the Burmese hijackers were produced in court, Bengali youths came to garland them with flowers. In jail, they were treated as freedom fighters. Soe told me: “Aunty, the jails in India are really nice. We got such good food.” I warned him not to generalise. Eventually, more than 30 Indian MPs signed for the hijackers’ release, and Than Than Nu, daughter of former Burmese prime minister U Nu, stood bail for them. At the time, Than Than Nu and M S Prabhakar, who went by his Burmese name U Maw Thiri, were working for All India Radio’s Burmese Service. Prabhakar had come to India after General Ne Win threw out the Indians in 1962; he translated Aung San Suu Kyi’s writings into Hindi and ran a school in Delhi.
The 90-minute broadcasts lashed out at Myanmar’s military junta, and at one time the junta threatened to close down the Indian Embassy if AIR continued in this vein. But by the mid-1990s, India changed its policy and stopped officially supporting the pro-democracy movement. With that, the broadcasts also became tame.
Soe Myint was acquitted of hijacking charges in 2003, and has since become an award-winning journalist. Equipped with just a mobile phone and a laptop, in 1998 he was instrumental in starting Mizzima News, a news agency focused on Myanmar. Mizzima grew to become one of the most respected sources of news on the country, maintaining its professional integrity without compromising on its fight for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar.
The moment he could, Soe took Mizzima back home to Myanmar, as he had always intended to. Now he is busy setting up his Burmese weekly, an English-languge business magazine called M-zine+, and also dreaming of starting a daily newspaper while still running Mizzima’s Burmese and English websites.
Earlier this year I got an invitation to visit Myanmar from Soe, which I immediately accepted. Soe asked what I would like to see in his country. I said I would like to take the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of Indo-Myanmar relations.
I noticed that he had used the word ‘Myanmar’ and not ‘Burma’. I am not sure if this was a political statement. I know Aung San Suu Kyi has said she prefers to call her country ‘Burma’ because the military junta changed the name to ‘Myanmar’ in 1989 without consulting the people; but then the British did not consult the people either when they changed the name of the country from ‘Myanma Pyi’ to Burma. International law recognises the country as Myanmar.
India and the NLD
Just before I left for Yangon, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD), came to New Delhi on an invitation from Sonia Gandhi, the president of the ruling Congress party. I was in Vigyan Bhawan to hear Aung San Suu Kyi deliver her Nehru Memorial Lecture and to collect the Nehru Award for International Understanding, which had been given to her in 1993. For the media, two things linked Aung San Suu Kyi with India. First, that Jawaharlal Nehru, our first prime minister, had presented her father, General Aung San, with an oversized woollen coat when the latter stopped over in New Delhi on his way to London in January 1947. Second, that as a young woman Aung San Suu Kyi had studied in Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College while her mother was the Burmese Ambassador to India. One TV anchor smiled warmly and asked her Burmese guest if this fact meant ‘we’ (I presume she meant we Indians) had a special claim to her. Almost every TV anchor asked her how she felt about coming back ‘home’, and ignored the fact that her Indian ‘family’ had failed to support her while she was under house arrest in Yangon for nearly a decade. Having been brought up to believe that it is extremely bad manners to remind someone of a gift of help that could have been given but was not, I felt quite ashamed. Graciously, Aung Saan Suu Kyi mentioned the gift of the coat made to her father and remembered her friends in Lady Sriram College, and left it at that.
Why did India decide to change her stand? New Delhi had several reasons for forsaking the Burmese pro-democracy movement. There were economic reasons: greed for a share in Myanmar’s natural gas reserves, and the hope of better trade relations. There were also security concerns: insurgents from the Northeast were taking refuge in the jungles of Myanmar, and India also wanted to counter the growing Chinese presence in the country.
Still, Indian government continued to support a large community of Burmese in exile, giving them the freedom (albeit unofficially) to carry on their political activities, to travel the world on false passports (many times Indian ones), to bring out political journals, and to hold rallies, meetings and international seminars. Unfortunately, there is no space in official discourse for mention of this ‘unofficial’ support. The media could have put it on record but they had neither the knowledge nor the political maturity to do so. But the Burmese activists valued this democratic space in India, which was denied to them in Thailand.
There was another side of the visit that wasn’t much talked about. The two hundred exiled Burmese who had come to Vigyan Bhawan to hear Aung San Suu Kyi speak were deeply disappointed that she did not mention them in her speech. Earlier they had stood outside the airport to receive her, but she whizzed past without acknowledging their presence. Later, she did visit Vikaspuri, where the Burmese exiles live, but there was little time for meaningful interaction. Strangely, Aung San Suu Kyi’s invitation to the meeting did not come from Dr Tint Swe, the NLD’s representative in Delhi.
When the Burmese hijackers were produced in court, Bengali youths came to garland them with flowers
Tint Swe is a professional doctor, and had practiced for 15 years before resigning from his job to join the NLD on the eve of Myanmar’s 1990 elections. The doctor stood in the election and won a seat on the committee meant to draft a new constitution, but the military junta refused to recognise the democratically elected representatives of the people. Instead, they sentenced Dr Tint Swe to 25 years of imprisonment, and he had to leave his home and country, walking six days and five nights to reach Mizoram. When I first met him, Dr Tint Swe looked fairly disoriented and kept playing with his laptop while asking me for help in securing him the protection of the UN refugee agency UNHCR. I kept meeting him from time to time at various meetings organised by the Burmese community in Delhi. I noticed he looked calmer and more composed ever since he began devoting his time and energy to his new medical practice at Vikas Puri, where he provided care for a community too poor to access other health services. About two years ago, he told me of a small celebration to commemorate the 100th baby he had successfully delivered since coming into exile.
The NLD leaders in India did not invoke much confidence. Even the Burmese pro-democracy activists were in constant conflict with the party on various issues. The meeting at Vikaspuri was organised by the exile community, and not by the NLD. It was boycotted by the Kachins, who felt the NLD’s stance on federalism had not been strong enough. For the Kachins and other minority nationalities such as the Shan, Arakan, Karen, Mon and Chin, autonomy and federalism remains integral to democracy in Myanmar.
Even before Burmese independence, Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, had initiated the Panglong process, by which he intended to make the Union of Burma a genuinely inclusive country for its many ethnic nationalities and religious minorities. The constitution he had approved included a provision for the Shan to secede after ten years. No one in the Indian media asked Aung San Suu Kyi about her stance on the question of federalism. However, they did ask about her silence on the recent violence in Rakhine State, where the Buddhist Arakan people had attacked thousands of Rohingya Muslims, who have been described as ‘the most persecuted minority in the world’. While she was speaking at her alma mater, Indian Muslims organised a loud protest against Suu Kyi’s silence on the Rohingya issue. Later, Suu Kyi said she did not want to take a stand on the matter because she wanted to act as a mediator.
My husband and I landed at Yangon airport just a few days after Aung Saan Suu Kyi’s visit. Soe was there to receive us. We laughed and shook hands. As we drove towards our hotel, Soe pointed out: “That is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s house.” NLD flags with the fighting-peacock emblem flew aloft, and a black-and-white photograph of General Aung San marked the famous grey gate behind which his daughter was held prisoner for many years. The gate was so high I wondered how she had managed to reach its top to deliver her famous speeches to her crowds of supporters. Now there was no one near the house and the road was virtually empty.
By the mid-1990s India changed its policy and stopped officially supporting the pro-democracy movement
Seeing the red flags with the fighting peacock, I could not help but smile. When the Burmese students told me that the peacock was a symbol of struggle and defiance because it never turned back I had been genuinely amazed, because in India the bird – with its beautiful mating dance and showy feathers spread out in a fan – is associated with romance and sexual ecstasy.
A few days later I headed for the NLD office. Our driver and interpreter said they had never seen the place, but after asking for directions a few times we reached a small office with its doors wide open and at least three shops just outside doing brisk business selling caps, t-shirts, calendars and posters with pictures of the Lady to Western tourists.
Inside the office, I asked to meet the NLD lawyer with whom Soe had fixed an appointment for me. The two young women behind the reception counter said he was busy and could not see me. Our interpreter told them we had arranged a firm appointment for a human-rights lawyer from India. Reluctantly, one of the receptionists climbed up the rickety wooden stairs, and returned after a few minutes to ask that I come back in an hour.
Feeling a little peevish, I recalled my fierce battles with the UNHCR in Delhi to secure refugee status for an exiled NLD MP despite specific directions from the Government of India to the UNHCR not to give protection to anyone from Myanmar. I got the feeling that even if I did return in an hour, the NLD lawyer would still be too busy giving an interview to some Western fan of the Lady. Indians seemed to be low on the NLD’s list of priority. We decided to visit some bookshops and look for books on Indo-Myanmar relations. I was disappointed and shocked to find not one.
Indians in Myanmar are often called ‘Kala Lumyo’ or ‘Ka Laar’, which are derogatory terms for ugly, dark people (I was told the terms could also refer to people who practice caste). I do not know when or how Indians earned this name, but many Indians in Myanmar admit to facing prejudice and racism. I wanted to know how far such a view of Indians had impacted Indo-Myanmar relations.
A few days later, I met Win Tin, a senior NLD member who had spent 19 years in prison and was now 83, in his small one-storey house. I said I wanted to understand why I felt an imperceptible hostility towards Indians. Win Tin hinted at a historical resentment, saying the Indians should not have left Myanmar during the Second World War, when they fled in the fear that the advancing Japanese would treat them as British agents. Win Tin told me of a ship sent from India to evacuate the Indian community, but said that had the Indians stayed the Burmese would have protected them. He pointed out that the Chinese never left Myanmar despite all the odds, and said that the Indians were cautious and so they ran away. Perhaps he was too polite to say Indians were lacking in courage. Although Win Tin was extremely polite, I could see he was not really interested in India. We left without being offered a cup of tea.
The Indians of Myanmar
Several hundred thousand Indians left Myanmar after their properties were expropriated in 1948 and in 1962, yet many remained. They remained even after Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law deprived them of Burmese citizenship. There are no reliable estimates of how many people of Indian origin live in Myanmar at present. The Indian Embassy estimates there are some 25 lakhs, of which 13 lakhs are Muslims, many of whom are originally from Bangladesh.
Although Indians form merely about two percent of the population, they have certainly left their mark. Before coming to Win Tin’s house, my husband and I had stopped for a quick snack at Shwe Pu Zun, a popular ice-cream place. It was crowded, with children in uniform and their families all enjoying big glasses of ‘Fa-Lu-Da’, the famous sweet, milky cold drink from Mumbai. There was also Ras Malai, Milk Koolfee, Strawberry Koolfee, Durian Koolfee and Chocolate Koolfee. Shwe Pu Zun was owned by a Chinese businessman who had had to close his restaurant down twice in the past due to political difficulties, but had re-opened his business the moment the situation improved. And he sold Indian sweets.
In a way, the Burmese nationalist movement started with the massacre of over two hundred (some say five hundred) Indians, though most history books are silent on this connection or only mention it in passing. On 10 May 1930, 2000 Telugu dock-workers went on strike against the Scindia Steam Navigation Co. demanding a raise in their daily wage from one-and-a-half to two rupees. The wage negotiations were still on when the Company hired 2000 Burmese replacement workers, who came to work on 26 May without being told that the Indian workers had settled for one rupee and seventy-five paise. When the Indian workers saw the Burmese recruits, they abused them. In retaliation, and furious at being abused by Indian coolies in their own country, the Burmese attacked the Indians with swords.
It was against this background that the Dobama Asiayone Movement, or the Thakin Party, was formed to demand a ‘Burma for Burmans’. Still, the party’s manifesto specifically states that Indians in Myanmar should be welcomed, not hated. Maurice Colins, a British civil servant who witnessed the massacre, observed that the underlying cause of the riots was the “subservience of the Burmese in their own country”. “The [colonial] Government’s ill-conceived opinion that [the Burmese] were not as fit as Indians to govern themselves and should get an inferior constitution,” he wrote, “has added vehemence to their onslaught.”
Aung San, the revolutionary, and General Ne Win, who first imposed military rule in Myanmar, were among the party’s leaders. After he became Myanmar’s head-of-state in 1962, General Ne Win imposed military rule on the country, and also expelled over 320,000 Indians between 1962 and 1964. Ne Win nationalised all land, expropriated all buildings belonging to Indians, and nationalised all schools run by Indian-origin Christians. To save it from being taken over, the Indian Embassy moved into the beautiful, multi-story building of the Life Insurance Corporation of India in Yangon. It also saved another building on Merchants Street in downtown Yangon and that is where the Embassy is still housed today.
Despite the exodus, Yangon still has several restaurants run by Indian-origin Burmese, many temples, mosques and churches run by Indian-origin communities, and even four gurdwaras. Many Indians had remained in Myanmar despite the difficulties. When I interviewed Sanjeev Gupta, who runs a new Indian restaurant in Yangon called Coriander Leaf, he recalled that his uncle had faced no difficulties in his business of exporting pulses even during military rule.
It was the Indians who had been forced out by General Ne Win who provided support and succour to the Burmese in exile in India. Amazingly, they seemed to harbour no anger or ill-will towards the Burmese people. Burmese pro-democracy activists found doctors, nurses, teachers, businessmen and traders who welcomed them into their homes. I have met many of them who continue to have an affection for their country of birth: Fali Nariman, the distinguished jurist; Prakash Karat, politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist); and Mrs Bajaj, the wife of my orthopaedist.
In a way, the Burmese nationalist movement started with the massacre of over two hundred (some say five hundred) Indians
Then there were those who had been in Myanmar with the Indian National Army under Subhas Chandra Bose. The most illustrious of them was Captain Lakshmi Sehgal, who was ‘Aunty’ to the Burmese in India. In a way, through her solidarity with the exile community she was repaying a debt of gratitude to the Burmese people who had supported the Indian freedom fighters battling the British in the jungles of Myanmar during the Second World War. As president of the Solidarity Committee for Myanmar’s Freedom Fighters, on which I served with her, she always ended her messages of solidarity with a resounding “Dobama”. In a way, the Dobama movement and the Indian National Army shared a similar ideology, each with an emphasis on one country, one language and one script.
Many people of Indian origin still living in Myanmar, however, do not always have such champions. Thousands of those who remained in Myanmar through the years of military rule were made stateless, stripped of citizenship and civil rights. According to the Indian Embassy in Yangon, there are currently as many as 250,000 stateless Indians living in Myanmar. Soe’s younger brother Sein Win offered to take me to Zayyawadi, where a large number of these stateless people lived. Sein said his mother’s cousins lived there, and they would make the necessary arrangements.
We set off to meet Soe’s uncle in Zayyawadi, barely a two-hour drive from Yangon on the new highway to Nay Pyi Daw, now the capital of Myanmar. As we neared Zayyawadi we saw women in saris with their pullavs to the front like village women in Bihar, sindoor in their partings and red tikas on their foreheads. The bullock carts could have been from any north Indian village. The Burmese signboards on shops were almost the only reminders of where we actually were.
The Burmese woman interpreter accompanying us was amazed to find that I knew the Burmese alphabet (Ka, Kha, Ga) even though I did not know the script or language. She never knew that that alphabet originally came here from India in a time when the two civilisations enjoyed much closer contact. All memory of that shared culture has been wiped out.
The moment we arrived I was surrounded by at least a dozen men, many wearing saffron tikas, who marched me to a large temple with tiled walls, but was an otherwise unsophisticated structure. The gods were housed in separate chambers, their statues all made by Meitei Brahmans in Mandalay. First was the Buddha; I asked whether he was there because he is considered the eighth avatar of Vishnu by the Hindu right, and my hosts nodded with approval at my knowledge. They were impressed that I recognised Vishnu in the next chamber, and then Shiva, with a thin flow of piped water to represent the Ganga, and finally Durga.
My hosts were proud members of the Sanatan Dharma Swayamsevak Sangh (SDSS), the Burmese arm of the RSS. They told me they run more than a hundred schools, where they teach Hindi and Indian culture, for which the Indian Embassy provides books and other reading material. They wanted to take me to ‘Gandhi Bhawan’, where they run classes, and it struck me as odd that the RSS should lay claim to Gandhi’s legacy after having assassinated him and never even apologised.
We walked a little farther and settled down in a small hall. I was offered a tissue scented with cologne, but noticed that no one had even asked my husband to take a seat. They clearly did not approve of him, a Naga man with Mongoloid features. The leaders introduced themselves: several owners of gold and silver shops in Yangon, one veterinarian, many teachers, and many involved in agriculture. They informed me that the efforts of the SDSS had finally resulted in all of them getting citizenship. Now that they were Burmese citizens, they had no more complaints.
They refused to speak about any difficulties they faced during military rule, and were more critical of the NLD than of the military junta. Later, while talking to a Tamil-origin Burmese priest, we learned of how difficult it used to be for Indians to move from one town to another, even for purposes of education. The priest had recently returned from a conference in Thailand, where he met priests from Kerala. I asked him how it felt to meet people from his country of origin. He replied that he and another Burmese priest were angered at the way the Indians dominated everyone and would not let “us Burmese speak”.
While our Indian hosts had not bothered to ask for introductions, I realised that the Burmese sitting on the benches across the hall were waiting for us to introduce ourselves. When we said we were human-rights lawyers who had helped the Burmese in exile in India, we got a spontaneous ‘thank you’. Soe’s brother told his uncle that I was Soe’s lawyer, and had gotten him acquitted of hijacking charges. The uncle looked at us with a twinkle in his eye. The Indians looked on, not at all comfortable with our politics. The former headmaster quickly thanked us on behalf of the 70,000 Indians living in Zeyyawadi, and we left to have lunch with Soe’s uncle and his friend.
The bullock carts could have been from any north Indian village. Burmese signboards were the only reminders of where we actually were
We drove quite a long way along the highway and stopped at a small shack run by a man from Andhra named Mohan. He served us an Andhra thali, but without the famous chillies. Mohan’s Burmese wife cooked watery sambar and potato sabzi. He told us there were no tensions between Hindus and Buddhists; it was the Christians and Muslims who were a problem because “they eat what we worship”. I remarked that I thought Buddhists in Myanmar also ate beef and pork. The Burmese uncles smiled and said that here in Zeyyawadi, they do not.
The Burmese told us that this area was once a communist stronghold, and that one of the SDSS leaders we had met had been a member of the Communist Party of Myanmar. This was also the area where Netaji – Subhas Chandra Bose – had taken shelter, but his men were all now dead, except perhaps for some members of the Children’s Army. At any rate, we didn’t meet any.
Later in Yangon, when I interviewed Hla Tun, co-ordinator of the SDSS and a teacher of Sanskrit at Yangon University, he told me of the Indo-Myanmar Friendship Society, which he had established in the city. Like most Indians, he has a Burmese and an Indian name. His Indian name is Ram Niwas.
I asked Ram Niwas about the recent violence against the Rohingyas in Rakhine State. He informed me he was the only Hindu member of the 27-member committee set up to investigate the violence. There had originally been six Muslim members, but two of them had, for reasons he did not go into, been expelled. He assured me that the Burmese government would settle the Muslim problem, and would not allow the problem to get out of hand. He also said there was no possibility of federalism in the near future, so I should not worry. According to Ram Niwas, the core of the problem was the NLD, which supports the Muslims and Christians too strongly.
The SDSS facilitates Burmese to go on pilgrimage to Bodhgaya and other Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India. The Burmese do not seem to be aware of the RSS’s relationship with Buddhism, or of the antagonism between upper-caste Hindus and Buddhists. Yet if there was no antagonism then why did S N Goenka – the Indian-origin Burmese businessman-turned-Vipassana-guru – feel the need to jointly issue an appeal with the Shankararcharya of Kanchi for all Buddhists and Hindus to forget their past differences and come together? The Indian government has tried to use Buddhism as a bridge to Myanmar. But this attempt to forge a Buddhist-Hindu alliance is likely to make Muslims in both countries yet more insecure.
Buddhism plays a central role in Myanmar, both culturally and politically. Every morning I saw monks in their maroon robes, going around collecting food in their alms-bowls. Each covered his bowl with a fan, and most were barefoot. Some carried tiffin-boxes, perhaps donations from families. The Shwedagon Pagoda dominates the Yangon skyline, though ugly multi-storey buildings are rising dangerously close.
We had gone to the pagoda on our first day in the city. I was relieved to find the stupa equipped with a lift would save us a climb of over a hundred steps. We walked around the base; women are not allowed to go up to the stupa but they can admire it through an ancient telescope set up in a corner. Many historical political meetings had taken place amidst all the glittering gold. For me, it was more a political pilgrimage than a religious one.
The Yangon City Development Committee has a list of 188 structures marked for preservation, which includes many temples, mosques, and even a gurdwara. We went to meet a member of an association of architects and historians advocating for the preservation of ancient buildings. She told us that so far only 16 buildings had received final government approval for preservation, and that all of them were Buddhist temples and pagodas. I asked what her main concerns were. She said that as architects, their concerns were related mainly to the growth of traffic and pollution.
But what about identifying and preserving important historical sites? I had noticed that the red-brick building where General Aung San was assassinated on 19 July 1947 had been allowed to crumble, without even a signboard to indicate its historical importance. I asked whether there had been any attempt to mark the buildings that had seen visits from Indian leaders such as Netaji, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. That, I said, would perhaps be a useful way to bridge past and present. She said she had not thought of this aspect of Yangon’s heritage.
Later, when we went around Yangon to see the sites associated with the 8888 Uprising, I discovered that Soe’s young sister-in-law did not know the gruesome history of the red bridge on University Avenue, where many students had been killed. I asked her how old she had been at the time. Embarrassed, she replied that she had been six. I realised that even the momentous events of 1988 were being wiped out from the country’s memory.
Yangon was a bit like Kolkata, with its pavement bookshops and bustling crowds. We bought books from Bagan bookshop, which during military rule had smuggled in books and secretly sold photostat copies. We bought some neatly bound books in photostat, and chatted with the owner. The big difference between Yangon and Kolkata was the lack of noise. We never heard much honking, and never saw people shouting, except once, when we saw an agitated woman shouting at her companion inside a taxi. Despite the resemblance to Kolkata, I thought the peoples of the Northeast would have felt most at home here. They would have delighted in the pork, beef, prawns, rice and noodles.
Our insurgencies, their insurgencies
Four of the eight states of the Indian Northeast – Arunachal Pradesh, Nagland, Manipur and Mizoram – sit along the 1640 km Indo-Myanmar border, across which there are plans to build two Asian Highways, one Trilateral Highway, and the other the Kaladan Multimodal Transit project, which would link the landlocked Northeast with the Sittwe port in Rakhine State. The stumbling blocks to all the projects are the armed insurgencies in the Northeast. India, like Myanmar, has tried to crush these ethnic movements through brute military force.
In the 1950s, the Nagas took up arms against the Indian State, claiming sovereignty. In response, the first parliament of independent India passed in 1958 the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and effectively imposed military rule on all areas declared ‘disturbed’. This was barely four years before General Ne Win imposed army rule in Myanmar on the grounds that the ethnic minorities posed a danger to the unity and integrity of the Union of Myanmar. In the 1960s, the Mizos rose up to protest the imposition of the Assamese language, the government’s failure to provide their most basic needs even during a terrible famine, and the general callousness towards their suffering. In response, in an attempt to silence the rebellion, India bombed Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram.
I had always heard stories of the Burmese army committing terrible atrocities against the people of Assam and Manipur during invasions in the 19th century, but I was surprised to discover that the people of the Northeast have extended a lot of support to Burmese exiles in India. The shared experience of living under military rule seems to have trumped old animosities. Burmese armies invaded Assam and Manipur three times between 1817 and 1826. In Assam those days are called the ‘Manor Din’ – the Burmese days – and in Manipur they are remembered as the ‘Chahi Taret Khuntakpa’, or the seven years of devastation. Many accounts of the invasions have survived to this day, and they describe in gory detail the torture, destruction and humiliation imposed by the Burmese on the people and the countryside. The Burmese invaders were finally thrown out of the Northeast with the help of the British, who annexed most of the Northeast and Myanmar with the signing of the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826. I had hoped to see the town near Mandalay where the treaty was signed, but ran out of time.
However, these memories have faded in the Northeast, and for the insurgents today, Myanmar has always been a place of refuge. Naga nationalists have lived in the thick Burmese jungles across the border since the late 1950s. It was through these jungles that they marched to Yunnan, China in the 1960s and 1970s to receive training and arms from the Chinese government. Only two years ago, the Indian government arrested a senior Naga leader on charges of smuggling in arms from China.
Despite decades of army operations against the insurgents, more and more men and women from the various tribes and nationalities of the Northeast continue to take up arms. There are currently around a hundred insurgencies spread over seven of the eight Northeast states, and many insurgents continue to shelter in the jungles of Myanmar. In my interviews with senior diplomats, they insisted that India’s policy towards Myanmar is shaped first and foremost by our desire to ensure our security interests, especially in the Northeast. Since 2005, Burmese and Indian authorities have met many times to discuss the problem of insurgents. Of special concern are Naga, Manipuri and Assamese insurgent bases just north of Tamu, a Burmese town just across the border from Moreh in Manipur. In recent years Moreh has seen violent clashes between several ethnic communities backed by various armed groups vying for control over cross-border trade, much of it illegal, between Moreh and Tamu.
India also supports armed groups of Burmese ethnic nationalities such as the Kachin and the Arakan, using them to spy on Indian insurgent groups operating out of Myanmar. I got a ringside view of these murky spy games when I took up the case of some Arakan and Karen insurgents who, after being promised help by the Indian intelligence agencies, were betrayed by an Indian military-intelligence officer. Six of the insurgent leaders were handed over to the Burmese military and subsequently shot dead. Another 36 insurgents were put in an Indian prison on the Andaman Islands, and it took more than twelve years of fierce legal battle to have them released and resettled in Europe. While in Myanmar, I was told that a certain Indian military-intelligence officer owns a bicycle factory in Yangon, and is also involved in the gem business. He often appears on Indian television as an expert on the Northeast.
On my last day in Yangon, I met some Shan women leaders who had recently returned to Myanmar after many years of exile in Thailand. They said it was strange that more than 20 Shan leaders had recently gotten food poisoning and had to be admitted to hospital. They said that Burmese chauvinism still did not allow space for serious discussions of the ethnic question, and that the dream of federalism was still a long way off. I asked what they thought of the newly opened Peace Centre, which is supposed to mediate between the government and the insurgent groups. It is too early to tell for sure, but the battle for federalism could continue for many decades to come.
I was left thinking that it was time for India to also consider a reorganisation of the states within its own borders. Perhaps it was also time to try and find political solutions to the insurgencies, instead of continuing with military brutality and coercing neighbouring countries into killing rebellious Indian citizens, as happened a few years ago when the Royal Bhutan Army overran the camps of Northeastern insurgents inside Bhutan and threw the bodies of the militants back across the border.
The situation on both sides of the Indo-Myanmar border has only gotten more complicated with the emergence of the Islamic militant groups. Fourteen such groups are known to exist today in Assam alone, with five in Manipur. Many of them have links with Pakistani and Bangladeshi intelligence agencies, as well as with pan-Islamic militant groups. In the Northeast, these groups first formed after the infamous Nellie massacre in 1983, when at least 2500 Bangladeshi migrants – men, women and children – were massacred. More recently, after hundreds of websites posted a set of shocking pictures falsely purported to be of Bodo attacks against Bangladeshi immigrants, there were retaliatory attacks by Muslims in several Indian metropolises against people with ‘Northeastern features’, forcing many Northeasterners to flee back home on specially arranged trains. Sadly, in all the resulting coverage, the Indian media largely left out the voices of those most tragically affected: the Bodos, and the Bangladeshi migrants.
I visited the dargah of Bahadur Shah Zafar in Yangon for inspiration. This was again a political pilgrimage, to see the resting place of the last emperor of a united India. His grave now draws dignitaries from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but it is not in his power to unite us again as peoples sharing common histories. That task we must do ourselves.
A family reunion
Before leaving Yangon, we had a meeting with Soe’s parents and family. I had put a lot of thought into choosing a present for his parents. I wanted it to be meaningful. Back home, my husband and I had gone through a carton of old photographs to select a few shots of Soe and his life in Delhi with my family. There was one of him making tea, one of him learning to cook in our kitchen under my husband’s tutelage; another of Soe and other exiled Burmese around our dining table with my father looking on, a thanka of Buddha in the background; and a photograph taken on the tenth anniversary of the hijacking, when I cheekily presented Soe and his partner-in-crime with pink plastic helicopters. My husband and I made a collage of the photographs, and had them laminated and framed. I suppose it was a way of telling Soe’s parents about the years of their son’s life that they had missed, of saying that Soe had moments of joy and celebration in India, and an Indian family that cared deeply for him. But his parents did not seem too interested in the photographs, and we quickly sat down to eat the snacks prepared for us. Soe’s siblings and their spouses, however, were keen to see the photographs, and Soe himself was smiling at seeing that we had preserved those moments for over twenty years.
Is India inching towards a more authoritarian state even as Myanmar becomes more democratic?
I realised then that for Soe’s parents those years must have been very painful to remember. After Soe was acquitted, his mother had come to India on the pretext of going on pilgrimage to Bodhgaya, and he had smuggled her to Delhi. I had met her then. She had looked completely heart-broken, and had cried and cried, her tears a flowing river of pain. Now she looked transformed. Her smile was warm and welcoming, and she and her husband had the quiet dignity I had come to associate with the Burmese. We were offered green tea and Burmese snacks in a lacquered box as the family gathered around to exchange news. Soe’s father was a staunch supporter of the NLD, and even wanted to open an office in the house, but his mother would not have anything to do with politics. Like most other people I met on the trip, the family felt that things would improve, but there was still fear.
And things were not all right. When Soe came back, he could not stay at his parents’ house because he did not have Burmese citizenship. By now he had his citizenship back, but his wife still did not have hers. Myanmar’s restrictive citizenship laws have major political implications. Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be president because the law does not permit anyone with foreign relatives to be head-of-state, and both her sons are foreigners.
There was also further cause for concern. Under the current constitution, 25 percent of parliamentary seats are reserved for the military, and the mandate of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) explicitly states that it supports the policies of the Myanmar Army. The USDP won 882 of the 1154 seats in all three legislative bodies in the recent general elections; the NLD has only 43 seats.
It was no use asking Soe’s parents about their stance on federalism. They wanted peace at any cost. They did not want to lose their children again. They had stood together through the terrible years, and the parents could rightly celebrate that their children were finally out of jail and back from exile. They had come through the pain of separation with their humanity still intact.
But the children knew the difficulties that lie ahead for them and for their country. Their time in exile and exposure to the world had forced them to acknowledge that all of Myanmar’s religious minorities and ethnic nationalities were entitled to political and civil rights. These are sympathies that many Burmese are still uncomfortable with. Many Burmese returnees are now seen as foreigners and accused of being unaware of Myanmar’s realities, but they continue to struggle.
Soe’s struggle now was to help establish an independent media in Myanmar. He wants to raise money and build a sustainable business, and not depend on donors and their agendas. But Mizzima has few resources except the courage and determination of its trustees, and there is the very real possibility that they may yet have to return to life in exile. Soe had already asked me if he could list my house as Mizzima’s address in Delhi after he had closed down his offices there. Mizzima wants to hang on to their presence in India, just in case.
I asked Soe’s brother what he thought of India, and how his time there compared to his exile in Thailand. He said Myanmar had much to learn from India, but little from Thailand. I hoped that India would prove that true. I thought of how I was still looked upon with suspicion by Indian officials, while the people sitting around me were rebels who were now finding acceptance from their government. I had seen Naypyidaw, the new capital, with its ten-lane road leading to Myanmar’s new parliament building. It had been deserted, but I knew it would soon be peopled, and home to members of a parliament that was already proving many of its critics wrong. Then I remembered the sad scenes and pointless shouting in the Indian parliament, and the thought came: Is India inching towards a more authoritarian state even as Myanmar becomes more democratic?
Myanmar and India will both soon be going to the polls. Depending on the results, we could perhaps finally convert our many connections into a relationship based not on our past religious and cultural ties but on a shared political vision for a future of peace and prosperity for the region.
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and activist. She has represented workers, women, adivasis, Burmese activists, and the people of the Indian Northeast and Kashmir.
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