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The Last Frontier: Burma's Chinland In Transition

A Project Maje Update Report, April 2012

Map of Southeast Asia In mid-2012, with reforms taking hold in central Burma, war raging in the north, and a possible peace process in the east, little attention is being paid to Burma's western regions, including the homelands of the indigenous peoples known as the Chins. A group of culturally similar, but linguistically diverse ethnic peoples associated with highland lifestyles (although many live in river valleys), the people who have been called "Chins" in Burma have historically lived in Chin State, Sagaing Division, and far northern Arakan. These areas of residence are known as Chinland, particularly in indigenous-rights contexts. Some of these people prefer to be called Zo, and regional/tribal/linguistic names are often used in addition to "Chin" or instead of "Chin." Some of them who live in other countries use "Burmese" to describe their origins, or are described that way by others. Total population estimates of the "Chin" people of Burma, including residents outside of Burma, come to around 1.5 million.

This update report is composed of interviews with people who identify themselves as Chin or Zo. The interviews took place in March-April 2012 in India: Delhi and Mizoram State (which borders Burma's Chin State). The interviews contain information on the current situation within Chinland and on the conditions for refugees and migrants in India. Of particular interest are Chin opinions on what the benchmarks would be for safe return to their homeland. A range of responses to change in Burma are observable. Some Chin refugees have already returned, some have gone back to visit for the first time in decades, and the majority apparently do not trust Burma's military/government and express a "wait and see" viewpoint.

Reform Dividends

In line with Burma President Thein Sein's government's initiative to hold talks with armed ethnic groups around Burma, the Chin National Front (CNF) held its first ever negotiations with the government in the Chin State capital, Haka, in January 2012. The CNF was founded in 1988 and its Chin National Army has fought a small-scale guerrilla war against Burma military forces occupying Chin State. Although the CNF, unlike some other ethnic armed groups in Burma, does not hold much territory, the peace talks granted it a few safe areas. According to CNF Assistant General Secretary, Paul Sitha, "The CNF territory is in Thantlang township, Tlapi Dawa village tract. And in Tiddim township there is Bukphir village tract. And in Paletwa township, Para, Pathianthlang and Konpyin. And we are to get liaison offices in Thantlang, Tiddim, Matupi." While the new arrangement did not lead to withdrawal of Burma government troops from other Chinland areas, the possibility of a peace dividend of expanding safe areas has begun to appear. While the CNF initially has concentrated on local negotiations, it is a member of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an ethnic alliance which has expressed willingness to negotiate at a national level, with support for establishing a federal system in Burma, perhaps as part of a "21st Century Panglong Agreement."

Chinland in Transition A major aspect of reform in Burma is the unprecedented growth spurt of civil society after decades of extremely repressive military rule. In remote Chinland, civil society organizations and institutions are emerging more slowly than elsewhere, but the many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that have developed among the exiled population may serve as springboards for effective organizing back in the Chin/Zo homeland. Most of those exile-based NGOs conduct active outreach on the Burma side of the border, and some are exploring ways to operate overtly there in the near future.

Chin/Zo women in exile have formed and maintained their own civil society organizations, which reach back into Chinland with training in rights, health, and employment. These groups also provide crucial support to refugee women who have been violently attacked or harassed in Delhi. Women lack representation in the CNF and the CNF peace negotiating team in January was all male, a situation which should be changed for future talks, in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 reaffirming "the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction."

Development Dangers

Civil society organizations and international aid are desperately needed in the Chin regions; Chin State is said to be Burma's poorest state, with severely undeveloped transportation and communications infrastructure. Food insecurity remains a serious problem in Chinland. The lingering effects of the Mautam bamboo/rat famine (see Project Maje's 2008 report, "Rats and Kyats: Bamboo Flowering Causes a Hunger Belt in Chin State, Burma") continue to cause hunger and malnutrition in parts of the region.

Chinland in Transition It is very important to note that if Burma's reforms bring economic development to Chinland, this may open the area up to environmentally disastrous projects for outside profit. Much of the formerly thickly-forested state has already been logged for timber export. This deforestation may be made permanent by the introduction of commercial monoculture plantation crops to replace such natural vegetation as secondary-growth hardwood trees and bamboo. Oil palm plantations (which have already taken over some of Mizoram's deforested hills) are a particular danger, as they obliterate the growth of other plants and deplete the soil, then leave desertification after short-term productivity. It would be a tragedy for Chinland if the curse of oil palm is allowed to happen there, as it has in Borneo and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Deforestation and soil erosion are also potential side effects of road building and other transport infrastructure. The Kaladan Multimodal Transport project is an India-backed trade corridor under construction, stretching from a seaport in Arakan, north along the Kaladan River to Paletwa, and including a new highway to the India border. With the opening up of civil society in Burma, the Kistpanaddi Working Group has been able to raise environmental concerns about the Kaladan project and call for increased transparency about impacts on the environment and local communities. Such impacts include harming the livelihood of river fishing people, and increased deforestation. Another area of concern is the China-backed Lemro [aka Laymro, aka Phunglong] River hydropower project in southern Chin State, which reportedly may damage fish stocks, destroy forest and cause flooding. The large-scale Manipur River multipurpose project, intended mainly to provide hydropower to central Burma, creates a flood risk in northern Chin State and Sagaing Division. In 2009, several villages of the Khumi (aka Khami) Chin-related indigenous people were forcibly relocated for the Sai Dan hydroelectric dam project in far northern Arakan. These projects are not receiving as much international attention as environmental issues elsewhere in Burma, but they are of great importance for their effects on the watersheds and ecosystems of the western lands. Chinland crucially needs its own environmental NGOs and sustainable development projects, including alternative energy such as solar and mini/microhydro.

Identity Politics

Chinland in Transition Even with democratic reforms, an end to Burmese military occupation, and regional autonomy, the people of Chinland will face the need to work towards common goals and forge an inclusive cultural identity. "Chin" as an "umbrella" construct promoted by the CNF for the region's people still meets with opposition, especially by Zo-identifying ethnic people. Language divisions form barriers, and stereotypes about people of various regional townships persist. Even in exile, organizations and projects have broken down into narrow regional classifications, which may date back to the times when tribes were isolated by mountains and raiding. The potential for lack of intra-ethnic cooperation in a free Chinland is very real. The worst case scenario would follow the pattern of severe, chronic ethnic/tribal violence which has plagued Northeast Indian states such as Manipur and Assam.

While the Mizo people of Mizoram and the Chin/Zo people from across the border are strongly related culturally, there are language differences between them. Refugees and migrants from the Chinland side of the border are currently estimated at as much as 10% of Mizoram's 1,091,000 population. Relations have sometimes been very strained between the Mizos and Chin/Zo newcomers. Mizo political groups have in the past blamed the refugees for criminal activity, and called for forced repatriation. In recent years, efforts to improve communication and find common ground appear to be paying off with more tolerance for the Burma-origin residents. Some analysts perceive a new spirit in Northeast India of abandoning ethnic tension and violence in favor of improving regional ties and economic development. If that is the case, and if Burma demilitarizes and continues democratic reform, the frontiers of Chinland and India's Northeast may become important trade corridors.

Chinland in Transition In Mizoram, one can see maps of a "Greater Zoram" which includes Chinland along with Mizoram, as a vision of a pan-Chin/Zo nation, defying the borders of India and Burma. The term "Zomia" as used by academics such as the University of Amsterdam's Willem van Schendel and Yale University's James C. Scott, extends to an entire alternative swath of Asia, sometimes sweeping all the way from the Central Asian "'Stans" to the Montagnard uplands of Vietnam. It is the egalitarian realm of refusenik populations, the "hill tribes" who have for millennia strived to remain independent of nation states and authoritarian, rice paddy, city cultures. This profile certainly fits the Chin/Zo people (even if many of them actually live in valley towns and grow wet rice) as well as it fits the Mizos with their spectacular, isolated ridgetop capital, Aizawl. But at present the vision of a free, autonomous and at least loosely unified Chinland faces many challenges before it even fits into a federal Burma, much less forming a keystone of a vast continental entity.

The Western Slums

For the Chin/Zo refugees, life in kindred-spirit Mizoram tends to be less difficult than subsistence in urban India. They have nonetheless been drawn to Delhi because of the office of the United National High Commissioner for Refugees, (UNHCR) which holds the possibility of registration and therefore legal status in India. In 2004, there were an estimated 1,300 Chin refugees in Delhi (see Project Maje's 2004 report, "Razor's Edge: Survival Crisis for Refugees from Burma in Delhi, India"). As of early 2012, this had increased to as many as 8,000 in Delhi's western slums, although thousands have reportedly gone back to Mizoram since 2010. Employment for Chin/Zo refugees remains extremely difficult in Delhi, and what there is usually pays less than a living wage. Housing in the lowest-rent sections of neighborhoods including Vikaspuri and Janakpuri is substandard and overcrowded, violent attacks are frequent, and the children of the refugee "baby boom" are bullied at school and on the streets. As Christians, the Chin/Zo families are acutely aware of their religious minority status in Hindu, Muslim and Sikh Delhi.

Chinland in Transition India also has thousand of other ethnic refugees from Burma, including Rohingyas and Rakhines from Arakan State. A number of Burmese (Burman) dissidents have been resettled overseas or have chosen to return to Burma in the new climate of reform. Additionally, India is host to refugees from Tibet, Afghanistan, Africa and other regions. In their crowded neighborhoods, the refugees from western Burma often come into conflict with other urban migrants. Some of the slum dwellers in western Delhi come from as far away as Bihar, an impoverished region of eastern India. While some common cause is found with the very politically active Tibetans, or with similar in appearance Northeast Indians, in Delhi the Burma refugees remain largely alienated from most of Indian society and struggle from day to day to feed, house and educate their growing families.

Projects started by exile NGOs, such as preschools, health clinics and women's advocacy have become lifelines for the refugees from Chinland in India. They also provide working models for NGO activity back in Chinland. The future of Chinland will be enhanced by returning exiles, with their awareness of environmental issues, sustainable development, indigenous rights and women's rights, and their experience with international networking, constructive dialogue and ethnic inclusiveness. Until Chinland is safe enough for mass returns, international funders should continue to provide financial backing and other support for NGOs in exile, while also encouraging the emerging growth of civil society inside Chinland.


Chinland in Transition INFORMATION LINKS

Organizations:

Burmese Women Delhi
http://burmesewomendelhi.wordpress.com

Chin Human Rights Organization
www.chro.ca

Chin National Front
www.chinland.org

Chin Refugee Committee, Delhi
http://crcdelhi.wordpress.com/

Chin Students Union
http://chinstudentsunion.blogspot.com/

Women's League of Chinland, website includes pdf link for 2007 report, "Unsafe State: State-sanctioned Sexual Violence Against Chin Women in Burma":
http://www.chinwomen.org/

Chinland in Transition News groups:

Chinland Guardian
chinlandguardian.com

Khonumthung News Group
http://khonumthung.org

Vaphual.net, Zomi news
http://vaphual.net

Zomi International Network
http://www.zomi.org

Articles and Reports:

Arakan Rivers Network
Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project: www.arakanrivers.net/?page_id=135
Laymro Dam: www.arakanrivers.net/?page_id=176

"The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia"
James C. Scott. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009

"Burma's 'Forgotten'' Chin People Suffer Abuse"
BBC, Sam Bagnall, April 19, 2010
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8626008.stm

"Burmese women at risk in Delhi"
Hope Adelaide
http://www.hopeadelaide.org.au/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=45&Itemid=48

"Burmese Women Routinely Harassed in City"
Times of India, Kim Arora, November 15, 2011
http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-1115/delhi/30401216_1_burmese-refugees-unhcr-burmese-women

"Chin National Day Celebrated"
The Irrawaddy, Zarni Mann, February 21, 2012
http://www2.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=23070

Chinland in Transition "The Delhi Dilemma"
The Irrawaddy, Zarni Mann, February 17, 2011
http://www2.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=20778

"Manipur Dam Multipurpose Project" on Hring Dildel Zingnu Kan Lairam blog, May 6, 2010
http://salaitialbawiling.blogspot.com/

"Seeking Refuge: The Chin People in Mizoram State, India"
December 2011 report by Matthew Wilch, Zo Tum Hmung and Jenny Yang
http://chinseekingrefuge.com/

"Shame of the Forgotten Refugees"
The Irrawaddy, Tamara Terziana, April, 2007
http://www2.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=6967&page=1

"These Burmese Women in Delhi Step in as Changemakers"
IANS India, Madhulika Sonkar, June19, 2011
http://in.news.yahoo.com/burmese-women-delhi-step-changemakers-063138604.html

"The Undiscovered Country"
The New York Times, Frank Jacobs, February 14, 2012,
http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/14/the-undiscovered-country/

"What Threatens Peace in India's Northeast?"
New York Times, Samrat, March 15, 2012
http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/15/what-threatens-peace-in-indias-northeast/


Project Maje thanks the interviewees in Mizoram and Delhi, and others who enabled access and information, particularly Sawmi and Victor, as well as M. for the news of the NE, and Bruce for this website.


CHIN VIEWS: TEN INTERVIEWS

With the exception of the CNF representative, names of the interviewees are not provided here, because of remaining security concerns in Burma and India.

1. Chin National Front, Assistant General Secretary 1, Paul Sitha

Q: In the January ceasefire agreement, where is the territory or special area for CNF?
A: We call it a "peace agreement." Not a ceasefire -- that can be broken easily. The CNF territory is in Thantlang township, Tlapi Dawa village tract. And in Tiddim township there is Bukphir village tract. And in Paletwa township, Para, Pathianthlang and Konpyin. And we are to get liaison offices in Thantlang, Tiddim, Matupi.

Q: Who decided on those places?
A: Before our representatives went to Haka [Chin State capital] for the talks, we had a meeting and we decided on those. Because they are our strategic places.

Q: How connected are these areas?
A: They are quite far apart. If we go on foot, it is very far. It's not connected. These are the liberated areas.

Q: Are there other conditions for the agreement?
A: They said we [CNF] can travel, without uniform, throughout Burma. Before we went to Haka for the January meetings, we talked with the Ethnic Nationalities Council, about if we really need peace or not. Say we need peace -- there should be a give and take policy. Now, we are not a winner. The Burma government are also not the winner. From this we will not go directly to Naypyidaw for more talks. We will council with our people, six months to one year, and then after the desire of the people is known, we are going to go there.

Q: Did the idea of meeting with all the ethnic nationalities come up during the CNF negotiations?
A: No. Our current Union issues and Chin issues are not the same. Our Chin issues should be talked at the State level. After that, Union issues should be talked at the UNFC [United Nationalities Federal Council] level in Naypyidaw.

Q: What are the relations of the CNF and Kachin Independence Organization these days?
A: KIO and CNF, we got the basic military training from KIO, and we have some agreements. We are from one descendent. They are quite good to us.

Q: What has been the income source for CNF?
A: From 1991 to 2008, we used to ask like a donation, "home tax" we called it. In 2008 we stopped collecting home tax [because of the Mautam hunger crisis.] Now it comes from donations from refugees in third countries, instead.

Q: What would be required for people from Chinland to be able to go back to their homeland?
A: They are also thinking, wait and see the situation first. If it's safe or not. It's not about the economy. If it's a democratic country, if Thein Sein will be restoring the human rights and democracy, maybe people will start being interested in returning then. The refugees -- I've told them, it's not your country where you are living, Malaysia, US, Canada. You have one responsibility, which is Chinland.

Q: The CNF has always promoted ethnic unity among the people called the Chins, but your people have always had interethnic differences. How do you work on overcoming that?
A: We are not accepting using local terms only. Because we do not have a common language. So CNF policy is that "Chin" can be like a house for all of Chins. If we still use individual names we will not be united. If you put "Chin" at the top, it is the umbrella of all Chins. If we cannot use a common name, we will be always like this. Our population is very little. So it is important.

Q: What are the current goals of CNF in these changing times?
A: It was and is, that we strive for internal self-determination. Not external.
The fortunes of Chins should be decided by Chins.


2. Khonumthung News Group [Chin news agency] staff member

Q: Is civil society increasing in Chinland now?
A: The people inside Chin State, during this transformation starting, people start having the feeling of freedom for all, freedom of expression. From our understanding, it started happening to the people of Chin State too. For the civil society groups, looking at any movement inside Chin State need to have a registration, under the burmese government permit. We are looking to be more free for moving and activity inside Chin State, to be able to register. We are understanding that people are also hoping and feeling freedom.

Q: What about freedom of expression, has that changed in recent months?
A: Not fully freedom for expression, for example the media are still very few and because the internet access is still weak. For us, Khonumthung group, we have our people as correspondents, we are caring about their security and when they are collecting information, they are still careful.

Q: is the NLD running for any seats in Chin State?
A: There is no free constituency in Chin State in the [April 1, 2012] by-election.

Q: Are there ethnic representatives in the Naypyidaw parliament currently?
A: There is one representative from Chin Progressive Party -- CPP who can have a voice in the Parliament at Naypidaw, Pu Lian Lwin.

Q: Are there environmental issues in Chinland that people are concerned about?
A: There are two kind of dam projects -- Manipur dam project, they call it "Manipur" dam, but the project implementation is in Chin State, around the area, even if people started hearing what the impact would be, they are having a weakness for having a voice against it to the government. Another is the Lemro dam project. Compared with other ethnic areas, anti-dam activity in Chin State is at a starting point. Even if it's been started two years back, the people are still silent, maybe because they are not understanding very well how the dam can affect the environment. Meantime, for that Manipur dam starting, the trees are being cut and the lands started to be confiscated.

Q: Are there IDPs [internally displaced persons] in Chinland?
A: They have their own identity cards, national for the whole Burma, the same for Chin State too, Burmese identity cards. If they have it, they can travel around within the territory, and for people who want to come to India side, the bordering situation with Burma and India is not much strict. They have to pass the gate, even in India side, paying some gate fee, 50 rupees, small, while presenting the Burmese ID. But to some extent, the people living in Chin State, they're all having national identity cards before the previous elections, the government is doing that for all citizens who are of age. But the main thing is the Burma people who are already [refugees in Mizoram] don't have an ID. And if they want to go back, they have to apply, for getting the Burmese ID. So for example, in the border village in India side, called Saikhumpai, the majority is from Chin State, Chin people. Some are living in that India border for a long time, more than 10 years, 15 years. Some are coming down and living for 5, 6, 7 years. When they have a problem in that village, the Mizoram State local villagers are complaining, the people are saying that they are not Indians, because they are coming from Chin State. And they got expelled out of the village and at the moment they are living in the jungle, the valley of the riverside in India, they are seeking for that Mizo village to allow them to continue living there. And even if they want to go back [to Chin State] some people don't have an ID and don't have a place to live, their own house in Chin State. And some people don't have Burmese or Indian ID. So it's a difficult situation they're facing.

Q: What would it take for refugees want to go home?
A: The most important one is the country conditions. The main reason for the Chin refugees leaving the country is because it is hard to live in their own state or country. But during this start of transforming the country, many refugees, many people in Malaysia for example, they start having the feeling to go back home. When they hear the sounds of changing in Burma. In the meantime, the most necessary thing for them to come back is their food security, living security for freedom, freedom for life.


3. Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) staff members, Mizoram

Q: Are there still political prisoners in Chin State?
A: I don't know exactly about the prisoners still remaining. When they started releasing them as a group since last year, as far as we understand there were only two.

Q: Has there been any change in people being taken for forced labor?
A: It's a bit more OK compared with earlier periods. Especially about forced labor, any kind of human rights violations, any checkpoints existing, at more places between Kalemyo [Sagaing Division] and India/Burma border, the gates are being reduced for checkpoints. For the travelers, it shows that the situation is being a bit improved. Also hearing from the peoples' voice, they feel free, and also less fearfulness. In the meantime, looking at their military posts, camps, it's not being reduced, they've been increasing creating the posts -- so we don't know exactly what it means, what it's for.

Q: How long ago did you notice changes?
A: Since six months after Thein Sein reforming government, when they completed forming the government. September [2011].

Q: Is this everywhere in Chinland, that things are changing?
A: In the city, township level, there are changes -- not in the villages around the border.

Q: Are there still reports of confiscation by the Tatmadaw?
A: They are taking from the people, the animals, chickens, rice, and also charging the travelers. And also the land confiscation will be happening in the Kaladan Project implementation. The CHRO is working on monitoring the land confiscation. We believe that they will not compensate the proper amount. The area around the project introducing area, it starts in that area.

Q: Does current food insecurity go back to the Mautam?
A: When the Mautam occurred, it came along from the north to the south. During 2006, 2005, it started in Manipur, Mizoram, and goes around to that southern part. The area [now affected] is the end part. What we can say is, when the Mautam happened, the impact can last for at least 3 to 5 years. For recovering their food security. [They lost] seed rice, corn, all kinds of food cultivation. From here we are assisting them. They are relying on a kind of root from the forest, banana stems, pumpkin, bitter melon. Banana stem, they pound it and mix it with a little bit of rice. In 2010 to 2011 you could still see the bamboo flowering there.

Q: Are people leaving that area?
A: For them it's easiest to go to Rakhine [Division]. It's quite far to come [to Mizoram.] A Chin Public Affairs Committee (CPAC) relief team went to them from Paletwa.

Q: Are any outside agencies sending aid to that area?
A: Not sure. FAO and UNDP made a survey, but not sure if they did [relief] or not.

Q: If people from there [internal food refugees] go to Rakhine Division, is it difficult for them?
A: It wouldn't be easy, because Rakhines have their own language and that language barrier makes a kind of discrimination. The language is so important. If they have money, it might not be a big problem, but empty-handed, how can they survive there?

Q: Do you have a number of how many from Chinland are in Mizoram now?
A: We couldn't get numbers until now, even the local groups, YMA [Young Mizo Association] couldn't get a survey. They used to say an average number something like 75,000 to 100,000.

Q: What about in the rest of NE India -- Manipur?
A: More difficult. In Manipur, there is a [refugee] population not so big as Mizoram, from the Burmese students' group and also from [Chin State]. Tiddim, they are neighboring, and also from that Kalay-Kabaw Valley.

Q: In Bangladesh?
A: Maybe a hundred people.

Q: Do you know how many people from Chinland are overseas, as refugees or migrant workers?
A: By estimating around 200,000 to 300,000. Here in Mizoram, 100,000 and in Malaysia, 50,000 and the rest would be everywhere, Europe, US, Canada and Australia. 200,000 to 250,000 [altogether].

Q: In the past year, are more coming to Mizoram, same level, or dropping?
A: Normal. Not decreasing. In Delhi it's not increasing since the end of last year [2011]. But compared with earlier times, the population in Delhi is quite big now.

Q: The people coming now, why are they coming?
A: Food security, poverty, for their livelihood, that is the main problem.

Q: What are the benchmarks for people being able to go back to their homeland?
A: When there is real political change. Full freedom, regarding the human rights. That level of respecting the human rights. And also another point is if there is a good food stability. Food security. If livelihood conditions are better.

Q: Is land ownership part of the problem?
A: There is no property rights. [Farmers] don't have the full rights to protect their own property. When they [military/government] want the farmers to plant, they can force them, to plant these tree plantations, jatropha. They force them to plant and they have to give most of their working days in the week, and people don't have much time [to feed] themselves.

Q: When people from there come to Mizoram, what kind of occupations do they do?
A: They are doing the jobs, like forest work, construction, labor jobs. And for ladies, they can be housemaids, and also for skilled work they are doing the weaving. Some can do a small business. They are weaving for small shops and employers.

Q: When people arrive in Mizoram, how do they get started?
A: For most of the people, they join their relatives who come from their [home] village. They join and start to find their survival with the help of the family. And also friends. What [CHRO] can do is, suggesting employment and also through our local agents, try helping for their legal assistance when they have a problem.

Q: What are the current concerns of CHRO?
A: We are wishing to work on [opposing] that Kaladan River Multimodal Project and Lemro River dam. If there is a possible way to have a project, it would be building capacity for the people as much as possible inside Chin State, it's very important. One of our opportunities can be, from the office on this border, it is easy for having activities inside Chin State. If there's a possibility, for providing training or educating people.


4. A former refugee NLD member who has returned to Chin State

Q: Were you living in Mizoram for a long time?
A: After living here in Mizoram for 8 years, I went back [to Chin State] this January, when they opened for all to go back. And now I'm [in Mizoram] for visiting.

Q: Why did you come to Mizoram back then?
A: As an NLD party member, I was on their [regime] wanted list.

Q: Were you ever arrested?
A: In 2006, I organized for freeing Aung San Suu Kyi and political prisoners, in my area, for petition signing. And the authorities came to know me and they called me to their office two times. So according to my friends' suggestions, "If you are not running away, you will be in jail." So with that suggestion, I came to Mizoram.

Q: Did any of your family members have trouble at that time?
A: When I went to Mizoram, they used to ask the family, including my children, "where is your father?" The children couldn't go to school. Because of all of those threats against my family, my daughter and son also came to Mizoram.

Q: When you came to Mizoram, how did you support yourself?
A: In Chin State, I was farming, and as well as being involved in politics, NLD party. The month of my arriving to Mizoram was November 2006, and I started working in 2007 with Khonumthung News Group as a reporter.

Q: Have you noticed any changes in press freedom in Chin State?
A: Yes, compared with before, especially internet access, there are free [access] internet places. There is no specific media in Chin State for Chins, what the people read and hear is from the center, Burmese. But people seem more free, for gathering, discussing some issues. With a small group, they have free speech. Having a discussion program.

Q: What about public gatherings?
A: From my point of view, it is allowed to have a public speech, but people never organize such kind of programs.

Q: Has the freedom of religion situation changed?
A: They can preach, they can worship. But building the churches is not yet allowed. As they don't include it in the Constitution by law, yet, no freedom [of religion.]

Q: Where do you think the current changes come from?
A: The main place should be likely from Naypyidaw.

Q: What was your experience like, going back after a long time?
A: I was using my old identity card. When I reached the town, I reported to Special Police, to show them that I was coming home. He questioned me, "Is it because the Burmese government advised you to report to us?" and I said, "No, no one's asked me to give a report to you, but just for fulfilling my duty." And that policeman said, "You don't need to report." Then again, he invited me to come to his office and asked me to sign 10 written points, and I had to be recommended with signatures by USDP's [Union Solidarity and Development Party] party member. The USDP township party general secretary recommended me, after they visited to my house, saying that I am in the house, I'm coming back, and with signature.

Q: So you went back to your old house?
A: Nobody was there. We were crying, with my wife, seeing the house empty. I needed to fix the roof, but I didn't have money to fix the roof.

Q: What were the 10 points they asked you to sign?
A: Asking 10 questions about my parents' name, grandparents' name, and also what I was doing, when I was out of the state, outside. And "are you continuing to be involved in the politics?"

Q: What did you say to that, yes or no?
A: "Of course I will be continuing!" And they complained to me, "you should come out of NLD and join the USDP." I don't like that.

Q: Does USDP have many people supporting them there?
A: They don't like it. People don't support USDP.

Q: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi mentioned supporting a Panglong Conference for the 21st Century -- what do you think that would be like?
A: To my belief and point of view, she would definitely do it, because she is the one who everyone believes, she keeps her promises. Since her speech is the same about the Panglong Agreement, until now. I cannot say if it would be better or worse [than the original Panglong Agreement] but I believe, according to Thein Sein's leadership, it would be good and meaningful.

Q: If Daw Aung San Suu Kyi gets a cabinet position in the government, what should she be minister of?
A: External Foreign Minister.

Q: What have you observed about the current situation in [your town in Chin State]?
A: The first point is the economic hardship in the township. And the second point is, even if they are having two members of the legislative assembly, they don't have power. For the township level, and the different department levels, the people are complaining, that they elect for [legislative assembly], but they cannot have power. Those departments concern the township. Two were elected in the 2010 election, but they are powerless. The township leaders, existing officers of departments are still having more power, they make trouble to the people. Even the government hospital, there is around 200 beds in the hospital, but only around 14 patients actually in the hospital, because medication cost is expensive, so people cannot affort to go to the hospital.

Q: If Chin State is the poorest state in Burma, what do you think is the cause of this poverty?
A: The main thing is because the government is not taking care and not supporting. Even if they give out loans, the government interest is quite high, and people are afraid to take a loan. And lack of knowledge for agriculture, farming, poultry farming.

Q: If development comes, there can also be problems. Are there any groups in [your township] that are working on environmental issues now?
A: No such groups yet. UNDP is employing local people. I am trying to do such a group now.


5. Rights activist, visited homeland for first time since 1988, met with Lushei ethnic people, in Kale/Kalmyo Tamu township in Feb.-March 2012

Q: Did you notice a change in civil society when you visited?
A: Democracy is helpful for civil society. But the military are still strong. Law and order are still under the military. Village leaders hope for change of any kind, for democracy rather than military rule. So they expect eagerly an end to military rule. The USDP have almost all government service people as members. NLD party is more and more and their office has a big sign out front. Many houses have posters of Aung San Suu Kyi, along with their Jesus posters. The NLD is stronger and stronger. The people love her. She is still charismatic among all Burmese people. She always presses her campaign.
The media is not free -- the Burmese tv station censored her prerecorded speech. Farmers and businessmen have more freedom now. No complaints, no checking, no asking for money on the road. The Chin State Affairs Minister Hung Ngai abolished checkpoints more than one year ago. It's 3,000 kyat at the border for an immigration pass. A lot of people would like to visit, but temporarily, because security cannot and should not be trusted.

Burmanization is happening -- Sagaing Division is 50/50, Lushei/Chin and Burman. Schools are all Burmese medium. There was only Burmese news media. It's relaxing now, there are some ethnic newspapers, but they only print 1,000 copies.

Q: What are the effects of the CNF talks?
A: CNF, they are trying and trying again, for unity, self-determination, federalism -- so they have a public consultation for two years. Sovereignity. The Zo have a conflict about CNF because of lack of consultation. They are almost the same. There was no time to consult. There are many Zo in CNF.
CNF thinks about the state development, the agreement allowed [a special] economic zone for business. Under Chin soil there are material resources like oil. Some Japanese said that "Chinland floats on oil."

The word "federal" is hated by the [Burma] government. During [CNF] talks they said, "use 'Union affairs.'"

Q: Are there any environmental groups in the area you visited?
A: No. It is a problem -- they took it all in the Kalay valley area, the trees they logged. The teak in the plains area, for exporting. Destroying a lot of trees between Kalamyo and Tamu, piled up timber, logs. China companies took them, teak, pyinkado, padauk, hardwoods. Then they plant jatropha, oil palm.

Q: What is the economy like there?
A: There is a lot of debt. No government electrical current. For three hours [a day] only. [The people] buy electrical generators and use wells for water. Rice is abundant but very expensive. They could solve that if they own their own land. Fish, ngapi, vegetables are cheap, they are growing their own cooking oil seeds. They use firewood.

Military headquarters is at Kalemyo near Tamu, they are all around, it is still a heavy military presence. When they widen the road, there is no compensation. There is no complaining, no fighting back. Because it's a huge military, and compared to hill [areas of] Chin State, very different politically. They need training to come up. A lot of refugees are coming out, and passing knowledge back a lot. So more local parties [might appear]. The people there ask about politics, democracy, federalism, indigenous rights, human rights.

More than 80,000 have gone somewhere else, especially Mizoram, because Lushei language [is similar]. A majority [of refugees in Mizoram] are Lushei.


6. Women's League of Chinland members

Q: When was the Women's League founded and what does it do?
A: This women's group is like an umbrella organization, with 10 member organizations. Since December 2004, this organization was formed at that time. Chin women were formed into different groups in the earlier time. So all all of the member organizations send their representatives to be on the president board. And they elect the secretarial board for the office staff. The League is rotating the President's terms, six months terms. Taking the President positions. Later on, other board members will be holding the position again. But some organizations' representatives cannot come and do the President position. So they have a talk together -- "would you continue on our behalf for 6 months because I cannot come and stay in Aizawl." This women's organization members, some are from Delhi, some are from the villages, not all of them are from Aizawl.

Q: Are you hearing about change in Chinland from your contacts?
A: The present situation in Chin State hasn't had much change. But the Women's League, if we can have a project and a budget, running the office inside Chin State, that is our vision. But they have to have a conference here to make a decision as a group. For organizing a conference, they have a problem for funding.

Q: Does the CNF peace agreement have any effect on the Women's League?
A: We think it's starting to now.

Q: Were there any women in the CNF peace negotiation delegation?
A: No, it was only men. Working in the women's group is not easy, for the members who strongly raise the women's issues. In the culture, the men are higher, more powerful than the women. Also to work together with them, we have to be below their power, that's the culture. If the woman is saying, "I know what you know, I have the same knowledge," they don't like that. What they like is those who come and work just quietly, patiently. It needs time for convincing the men.

Q: What are the League's types of programs or projects?
A: This is for helping out and empowering the Chin women in education and their rights. And also for skills training, for them to be able to support themselves. We have four departments. Education, health, the women's safe house, and income generation. Most of the projects are being focused inside Chin State. Some of the education projects, we have trainings, depending on the budgets. Using that for empowering each of the members. And the education program, when we have the budget to have an activity inside Chin State, we used to support the children's [school supplies], like books, pencils, through all of the area.

Q: Where are the programs operating?
A: These women's organizations are based from their tribe, their township, including that Kalay-Kabaw Valley, the Lushei Women's has become one of the organizations. So their cover area is quite big. Not only in Chin State, also part of Sagaing Division -- Kalay-Kabaw Valley. When we have a project, they divide it into the township level, and the tribe level. The member organizations, they take responsibility for reaching out to their areas. Also in a few selected villages where the village school needs a teacher, they hire a teacher for the school. One teacher for one school in one village. Because they have very few teachers, often one teacher taking care of a huge amount of children. So we could hire for one year into six villages, six schools with six teachers.

Q: If the League is able to fund or hire teachers, are they already trained in Burma?
A: Yes, we contact the village leaders, and also in some places we continue to hire the teacher who is hired by the village committee. Because they have the problem for the teachers' salaries. The teachers are from their own villages. For them it's easy. The schoolteachers are insufficient in all of the schools.

Q: Does the government send Burmese [Burman] teachers to Chin State?
A: Yes. The government, their employees, they're posting from the cities. Those teachers are lazy. They don't do their job well. So the children suffer, the students. It's not enough education, the lessons they learn are not enough from school. To get a pass mark in the examinations, they have to hire a tutor for extra money. Also, the salary the government provides to the teachers is not enough to be able to support their families, so they are trying to find other ways for getting more money, providing tuitions and also sometimes because of that, they collect money from the students for making some excuses. For the parents who cannot pay extra money for the children, they send them to the Buddhist monastery school. We don't like that because it is a kind of Burmanization, teaching them Buddhism.

Q: If children are in Mizoram, are they allowed to go to Indian public schools?
A: Depending on the school. But most people send their children to [Indian] public schools -- it's almost free. Depending on the area; some are having problems because of the parents' language barriers.

Q: What does the health project involve?
A: With that health project, these organizations recruit and assisting their training in health. They send them to the Mae Tao Clinic at Mae Sot [Thailand/Burma border], and also send them for some training here. So the health trainees reach out and implement the health education project. They bring some basic medicines. Especially they are concerned with the women. They are also giving awareness like hygiene, HIV/AIDS. They organize awareness programs.

Q: About health care, when they come out and get trained, do they go back and train other people?
A: They go back and take care of the village health, by giving awareness, and also basic healthcare, like as a backpack medic.

Q: What kind of medical care is available on the other side of the border?
A: It's not good. Like in Sagaing Division, Kalay-Kabaw Valley, at the hospital, they are careless using the needles. HIV became common in that area, because the workers are careless and the government are careless about taking care of the patients in their hospital. To go to the hospital costs quite high, people who cannot afford to go to the hospital are suffering. Because sometimes in some places, they have to pay a bribe to the nurses and doctors. Without that, no treatment. Poorer people cannot afford them.

Q: Is there a medication program there if people have HIV/AIDS?
A: Not in practice. Some villages have education about HIV/AIDS, but no assitance, no medical provisions. No [medicine] -- only in the city. NLD party in Rangoon is working on that. There is no test. Here in Aizawl, the government introduced a center for checking the blood; but nothing over there.

Q: How long is the income generating internship lasting?
A: Six months. Those village women, we invite from inside. We invite according to the member organizatios, each has a quota, one member for interns. But some member organizations do not have a member to send for the internship. So some have one or more. Through the income generation, they could have internships since 2004, three times. Just now, the latest internship program is complete this week. They taught the basic spoken English class, and basic computer learning, and tailoring. And the women's human rights. Through the tailoring, they designed and made bags for the organization's income generation. On the graduation day, when the internship was finished, one of the interns made a speech about "I never thought or dreamed to touch this computer! To see this computer. And now I know from this internship how to send an email. I learned about tailoring for clothes, bags, so I can start my own income, by training in this internship." She had a great speech about how useful the program is.

Q: Are they younger or older women who are trained?
A: Younger women. Who are able to be involved in the future in their communities, and also to come and be involved in this Women's League, the office here.

Q: Is it hard for them to come all the way to Mizoram for this?
A: No. The India/Burma border is not very difficult. But the problem is, from the southern area, if they want to come, they have to walk too far. Almost a week by foot. Because of the [lack of] transportation.

Q: What level of school do they have at home?
A: As far as I know, one young lady is a graduate from Burma. But it's a surprise, for a graduate lady, she does not really know about basic English. Of course, she should be good in mathematics and some calculations. Most are class 10, class 8. Some are class 4.

Q: Are most of the interns from farming families? Or towns?
A: Some from towns, some from villages. But most of them are farmer families.

Q: When did the safe house program start?
A: Since, I think, 2008. Until now, we could have a safe house program with a small budget, this is out of town. In a safer place, for especially for women who face domestic violence, having a problem within their family, their husband. Particularly for Chin women living here. [Domestic violence] goes up and down. With WLB, they can organize the women's exchange every monday, so through that program, they do education and awareness about domestic violence, sexual violence. Discussing together, sharing information, updating each other.

Q: Have women from Chinland had problems with the local men?
A: Compared with Delhi, since two years back, I think it's worse in Delhi, because they are completely different than the locals. And not only the refugees, all the Northeasterners. The Delhi guys are looking the same at the Northeast people. Last year they had a gang rape of a Northeast lady. It happens so much in Delhi, not only to refugees. But the difficulty is for refugees who are facing that kind of problems, they cannot take care of themselves. Along with the Delhi local NGOs, we don't know what to do exactly, because the victims don't want to [pursue] a case. So we went group-wise to the police posts to raise awareness about the refugees, for them to respect the rights. And also the Northeasterners. Because we look quite similar to Nagas, Manipuri, Mizos. We visited four police stations, we knocked on their doors and they were listening. At least they have to work on the security issues in the nighttime around those refugee areas. Also, the refugees, when they have problems, they don't know how to file a case with writing. Some police officers are nice, saying, "Even if they don't know how to write in English or Hindi, let them write in their own language, and we will contact the group to translate for them." Through the media awareness, compared with previously, they are a little bit improved, the security police. Because every newspaper, they have written down, "Delhi police are nothing, they are not doing their job." Because rape happened a lot two years back. It's happened in Mizoram too, during this year. Every day, there is bad news. In Champhai district [Mizoram] also one Burmese guy raped a local woman. Our people are also doing some crimes, many crimes. The [largest] number of police records they have here is [people] from Burma. Who are famous for most of the crime in the community. Stealing things, drugs, arms, rape. So the Mizo people used to say, "all these bad things, we learned from these Burmese people. They came and started doing all the bad things." It's easier to learn the bad things than the good. We cannot blame these Mizo people, because they are the ones who welcomed us. Even if they did not say "welcome, welcome!" They are kind to the Chin people. Compared with Thailand, when we look at Thailand, the police, the locals. This Mizoram is the best, compared with other borders -- Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia. And it is easy to come here, too. So that makes a problem for our community, [because of] one or two bad guys. Whenever we met the authorities or the [local] NGOs, we are used to hearing, "try to control, to behave."


7. Burmese Women Delhi, staff members

Q: When did your organization start?
A: We were founded in 2006. Now we have three full time workers. A volunteer advisor in every block. We conduct trainings, and have discussion meetings once a month with leaders, talking about issues like women's rights, human rights, education. We got Australian funding, University of New South Wales, for that.

Q: Do you work with other groups?
A: We have a networking program, sharing information with Indian women. We work with CRC (Chin Refugee Committee), and Women's Rights/Affairs of Burma. With the Tibetans, we go together to demonstrations, but not other networking.

Q: How is your organization funded?
A: EuroBurma paid for two staff and room rent, but stopped last year. Hope - Adelaide, took over funding just until this June [2012].

Q: What are the problems faced by refugee women in Delhi?
A: Violence against women cases -- [we] give money for [victims] to approach the police office; in physical assault cases, we pay for hospital, police report expenses. We do home visits, counseling. Police -- most people refuse to go to the police station. The women's group plus SLIC [Socio-Legal Information Centre] will accompany them. The police give up easily [on these cases.] There is no special police station for women.

Q: Do you think changes in Burma are real?
A: I don't believe in the changes in the country, especially for the ethnic nationalities.


8. Chin Refugee Committee staff, Delhi

Q: How many refugees are in Delhi now?
A: 8,000 Chin refugees in Delhi; last year there were12,000 but many went back to Mizoram.

Q: Where are they staying in Delhi?
A: The refugees are on Delhi's west side because it is the cheapest. People are still arriving. Many children are being born here.

Q: How are the children educated?
A: UNHCR says to go to government schools, but there is discrimination, the children are abused, bullied; forced to learn the Hindu religion. Even in English medium schools. The Chins started some preschools, nursery, community schools in Chin and English.

Q: What is life like for the refugees these days?
A: There are many health problems -- malnutrition, anemia. There is no access to the [official] refugee clinic. UNHCR makes only a few hospital payments. From Delhi they have registered, sent only about 400 to third countries. The refugees are still scavenging for food discards after the markets close. For employment, there is UNHCR placement, but the income is very low, not a living wage, 2,500-3,000 rupess [per month] in factories. Dishwashers, painters, ironing, cleaning. Sometimes they are not paid at all. They are considered "illegal" workers, even if thye are educated people. They can't pay the rent and buy food. Some women working in factories are seduced by the boss's offer of money.

Q: How are relations with other slumdwellers?
A: Indian neighbors sometimes fight with them. Boys are beaten up often. If the refugees report it to the police, even if they got the criminals, the police support the local people. Women have difficulties, harassed at work, raped by local men.

Q: Do you think changes in Burma mean that people will be able to return?
A: If the government announces officially to go back, we will go back definitely. But we don't trust it yet. Until the constitution has changed. Some have lost homes, property, jobs -- it will be like we will be refugees again if we go back.
A: It's not regime change yet. Some political people are arrested, even now. They are questioned at police stations and come back to Mizoram. So still now we have doubts to go back.
A: We trust Aung San Suu Kyi, but she is still Burman. In the NLD, there are no ethnics, no Christians.
A: It depends on changing the Constitution, the percentage for the army. That's for all ethnic people. They can do that in 2015.
A: It's hard to go back. Some are deserters, some have pending cases against them. They need an amnesty.


9. Chin Human Rights Organization staff, Delhi

Q: How are the refugees in Delhi surviving these days?
A: Don Bosco [NGO] provides placement for jobs. Small shop factories: garment factories, repairing mobile phones, tv parts, electronics. Many children 13-15 years old are helpers in teashops, restaurants. Deliverymen carry 50 litre water bottles. About ten refugees are [bicycle] rickshaw pullers. Not domestic helpers except for working for some expatriates, for example Korean or Japanese. There have been problems with Korean men exploiting the refugee women. Close to where the refugees live is a [facility] for weddings, they work catering the weddings. Some people died on bicycles getting there.

Q: What is the security situation like now?
A: There are more security problems, about a case per day. Just today, a young boy was slapped in the face by someone in the park. Women are harassed. Big groups of Indians -- "mobocracy" -- cause trouble for the refugees. Some of the migrants who came here from Bihar cause trouble.
Signs say "No Burmese" on rentals, because many refugees couldn't pay the rent.


10. Chin Student Union, two students, at Delhi University, one doing a Master's degree in Business; the other majoring in Economics; they came out in 2007 and 2009.

Q: For the refugees who are able to get higher education, what are they studying?
A: 98% are in bible study -- in Chennai, Pune, Bangalor, as well as here. Some study, besides religion, Political Science, Computers and Information Technology, English, Management, Sociology. Some study at at Delhi College, also National Open University, Delhi University.

Q: Do you think that the changes in Burma might mean that you can return to Chinland?
A: There is change inside Burma, yes. Like the media. It's dramatic. Parliamentary. But not irreversable. And not inside Chinland. We will wait and watch.
A: We would like to go back. But we don't have a house. What is the opportunity for refugees? How can we get employment without ID cards? We will need NGO village projects.


April 29, 2012

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