Though Late Government is Making Effort to Distinguish Between Myanmar

Nationals Fleeing Junta and Illegal Immigrants in Giving Shelter in Manipur

After two years of military coup since February 1, 2021 in the neighbouring country, Indian authorities particularly the Government of Manipur have realised to document the Myanmar nationals who fled their country to avoid military persecution and civil unrest, and illegal immigrants.

It is better late than never. At last, Manipur Government is now setting up two temporary shelter homes for Myanmar nationals who fled into Manipur for shelter – one at Hollenphai, a village under Moreh sub-division of Tengnoupal district and another at Gamphajong village in Chandel district.

Manipur’s Cabinet Sub-Committee consisting of Tribal Affairs and Hill Areas Minister Letpao Haokip, Water Resources Minister Awangbow Newmai, and Law Minister Thounaojam Basantakumar to look after the rehabilitation of Myanmar nationals under the supervision of Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren visited the villages in the two disticts bordering Myanmar and studied the area where the shelter homes are to be set up.

On Sunday, March 26, the Cabinet Sub-Committee visited Moreh to inspect the Hollenphai area where the shelter home is expected to come up and also interacted with the immigrants.

The Cabinet Sub-Committee on Wednesday, March 29 visited another site, Gamphajong village in Chandel district for setting up another temporary shelter home for the Myanmar nationals who fled their country and entered into Manipur for shelter.

Earlier, Manipur Government was adamant for two years to the demands of human rights groups and civil society organisations, particularly Human Rights Alert (HRA), Manipur and criticisms from individuals including this writer to distinguish Myanmar nationals who fled their country to avoid military persecution and civil unrest from other illegal immigrants and give shelter to them after proper documentation. The Imphal Review of Arts and Politics also published Displaced Myanmar Nationals Become Refugee Issue in India’s Northeast Particularly Manipur and Mizoram on October 9, 2021

It was very obvious that Manipur Government was not able to act on its own considering complex ground realities and ethnic relations in the State without a green signal from the Government of India as the State’s counterpart Mizoram does.

The order of Manipur Government issued on March 26, 2021 by Special Secretary Home H Gyan Prakash to the deputy commissioners of five districts of Manipur bordering Myanmar, directs officials to not set up any camps for Myanmar nationals crossing the border into India and to “politely turn away” those seeking refuge.

This was following an advisory from India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) written on February 25, 2021 to the chief secretaries of the four states – Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh – and the border guarding forces, including Assam Rifles, to stay alert and take appropriate action to prevent possible influx into Indian territories.

It reiterates that the States have no power to grant refugee status to any foreigner and India is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugee of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol.

The State Government drew sharp criticism from various quarters including human rights groups and civil society organisations due to an order which involves international humanitarian issues and foreign policy of India, and more international media attention including that in The Telegraph, London.

Consequent upon criticisms from various quarters and international media attention, the Special Secretary (Home) Government of Manipur, H. Gyan Prakash on March 29 withdrew the instruction and said the state was taking up all humanitarian steps, including treatment of injured Myanmar nationals. However, there were reports that many Myanmar nationals tried to enter the border on March 27, 2021 but the Indian security stopped them from entering and made them go back to their own country.

Moreover, arrest and detention of Myanmar nationals who entered into Manipur continue till recently.

Manipur Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren on February 24 said that there are a total 393 illegal migrants from Myanmar in Manipur of which 210 entered during 2022-23 while responding to a starred question of Sugnu MLA Kangujam Ranjit during the third session of the 12th Manipur Legislative Assembly. The Chief Minister also said that out of the 393 illegal migrants, one was deported, 107 are in judicial custody, 105 are at detention centres and 180 released on bails.

However, in a new development, Manipur Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren announced that a Cabinet Sub-Committee is constituted to monitor the immigrants who have taken refuge in Manipur. He made an earnest appeal to send the immigrants to the temporary shelter home to be set up.

He said the biometric data of the immigrants at the shelter home will be taken and they will be given proper identification cards. “When the situation improves in Myanmar, they will be sent back,” he added.

Meanwhile, a notification issued by District Magistrate of Tengnoupal District Ranjan Yumnam on March 27 stated that a special drive of verification and checking of illegal immigrants taken up by the state government is going on in the district.

The general public is directed to report to the respective police stations, law enforcing agencies, and security agencies in the district in case any one identified or suspected to be a Myanmar national is detected or found living in their respective villages, it stated..

Facilities for providing temporary accommodation, food, safety and medical help are being developed by the government at Haolenphai village, Moreh subdivision, Tengnoupal district, Manipur, it mentioned.

“Such illegal immigrants will not be arrested or detained. They will be extended all humanitarian assistance temporarily till they are properly being deported or any further decision as regard to them is taken up by the competent Central and state government Authorities,” it mentioned.

It further stated that in the event of any such case found, they should be reported without fail. Anyone or any village authority found harboring/providing accommodation/shelter without the permission of the government, stringent legal action as deemed fit shall be taken up as per law of the land and prosecuted, it added.

Moreover, the Union Minister of State for External Affiars Dr. Rajkumar Ranjan said on Sunday, March 26 asserted that Burmese refugee escaping the Myanmar army’s violent crackdown on People’s Defence Force (Myanmar) along India-Myanmar and seeking asylum in Manipur will be dealt with as per law of the country.

Speaking to media on the sideline of the interaction programme with the Central University Punjab Yuva Sangam team organised under the Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat (EBSB) initiative at Manipur University, the minister stated that the ongoing incident is an internal issue of Myanmar and did not concern India. There is no need for India to interfere in the matter, he added.

“We can only wish and hope Myanmar restores normalcy as soon as possible,” Ranjan said.

He further reiterated that refugees seeking asylum in Manipur will be recorded properly and systematically handled as per regulations.

Now, Manipur Government has deployed additional security forces along the India-Myanmar border in the wake of reports of clashes between the Myanmar Army and the resistance group People’s Defence Force (PDF) on the Myanmar side following Myanmar Army’s aerial attacks on March 23 on resistance forces’ hideout and overrun their camp in the upper Tamu district close to India-Myanmar Border Pillar No. 80 and 81. Villagers in Kwatha Khunou on the Indian side, which is situated just 1,000 metres away from the site, fled to Kwatha Khunjao for their safety.

Twenty four-hour foot patrolling duties are being rendered by the personnel of the law enforcement agencies of India along the Manipur-Myanmar border in the wake of the fluid political situation across the border, said the Chief Minister of Manipur on March 25.

Under the instruction of the Union Home Ministry, the State Government has taken up steps to protect the state from a possible large influx of immigrants from Myanmar.

The Manipur ministerial team led by Tribal Affairs and Hill Areas Minister Letpao Haokip interacted with the Myanmar nationals on March 26 and later told the media that the Myanmar nationals would be deported to their land soon after the war-like situation in Myanmar settles down.

Notably, among the Myanmar nationals who have entered into Manipur for shelter include Myanmar MP Thangsel Haokip who reportedly informed the Manipur ministerial team that they would like to take shelter in the Indian territory till the time violent clashes between the Myanmar military and the People’s Defence Force (PDF) rebels continue in Saingang region of Myanmar that borders with the Indian states of Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram.

Letpao Haokip, on the other hand, said that only identified refugees will be lodged at the temporary shelter home by conforming to all protocols.

During the visit on March 29 to Gamphajong village in Chandel district for setting up another temporary shelter home, Cabinet Sub-Committee Chairman Letpao Haokip made a strong statement that Myanmar nationals not staying in shelter homes and without proper identity will be arrested.

The shelter homes are to be set up to prevent illegal immigrants across the Indo-Myanmar border from naturalization amongst the native population, he added.

“Those who stay in shelter homes will be given protection by the police, the army and the village authority and will be allowed free movement,” said Letpao.

The chairman warned that anyone found giving shelter to Myanmar nationals or found staying illegally will face the law. They are here temporarily and they have to return, he said.

“Not a single person will be allowed to stay back and they should not mingle with locals,” said Cabinet Sub-Committee member, Law Minister Thounaojam Basantakumar.

Identity cards will be issued, and there will be biometrics installed to prevent them from mixing with locals, he said. The Myanmar nationals are advised to follow rules and regulations, he added.

“A special drive for verification and checking of illegal immigrants is being taken up by the government and the same exercise is underway in the district. A detention home is being constructed on humanitarian grounds even though India has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Refugee Protocol,” he said.

However, though late Manipur Government is realised to distinguish between the Myanmar nationals who fled their country to avoid military persecution and civil unrest and the illegal immigrants and give shelter.

(This article was first published in the Imphal Review of Arts and Politics)

(The writer is a Senior Editor: Imphal Review of Arts and Politics)