Arup Jyoti Das
Almost 15 years back, I was associated with an organization that worked with Civil Society Organizations across India. I was their new recruit and was assigned to look after the Northeast India Civil Society Desk, which specially focused on demilitarization. When I visited my Delhi office, I met one Burmese gentleman, who introduced himself to me on the day of my arrival. The organization also had a Delhi based Refugee Desk, mostly to address various issues and challenges of Burmese refugees in India, particularly in New Delhi. The Burmese gentleman, whom I met was very happy to meet someone from Assam (Me) and when he was shaking hands with me his happiness was reflecting on his face. “When I saw you I immediately figured out that you are an Assamese. I know Assamese People”, he told me very delightfully. People of my ethnicity, which is Koch, most of the time, have the perfect Assamese oriental look, of course, which doesn’t have any logical foundation.
On the next day, I traveled to Bengaluru with the Burmese gentleman on Rajdhani Express as both of us were attending the same workshop. We also shared the same room during our stay which resulted in an engaging discussion on Burma, militancy and Northeast India. He unfolded many interesting stories about Northeast insurgency groups that had camps in Myanmar. His reason for knowing Assamese people was actually ULFA, which had its base in Myanmar for many years.
I never had much curiosity about why indigenous Burmese became refugees in their own country. With so many issues in my home state and Northeast India, why should I bother about Burmese refugees in India? Moreover, in Assam, we grew up with a different historical narrative of Burmese people from our childhood and know them for the famous Burmese invasion on Assam that took place in the early 19th century. This narrative included various brutal stories of Maan Xena or the Burmese army and their commander Mingi Maha Bandula. Many from my generation (or earlier) developed a kind of cultural resistance towards Burma, rather than cultural understanding despite various cultural and historical ties among people of both areas. This Burmese gentleman’s simplicity was enough to break any stereotype about Burmese people that we grew with.
While seeing their plight in Delhi and the work of the refugee Desk at our office made me realize their struggle, not only at the political level but also at a personal level. They were not ordinary refugees, but a nation in exile. Despite their personal day-to-day difficulties, they always wanted a better Burma, a democratic Burma. In Delhi, they also started a print media outlet called Mizzima news. I still remember the peacock feather logo of Mizzima news vividly. Mizzima news was founded by Soe Myint and Thin Thin Aung (Husband and wife), in 1998 in Delhi.
As my interest grew in the Burmese issue, I tried to connect it with our (Northeast India’s) issues. In 2007, Thin Thin Aung, who already earned her name as a woman activist in India visited Shillong. Most probably for something related to Look East Policy (talk of that time). During that time, I organized a Media interaction programme in Guwahati and invited Aung so that journalists here get some ideas about Burmese issues and struggle. Her insight and knowledge was an eye opener for many of us on that day. Despite being in exile she was so dignified and confident that one had to respect her.
A few years later (2009-10) I had a chance to invite Soe Myint to a South Asian Editor’s Retreat programme that we organized in Kolkata on behalf of Panos South Asia. “Editor’s Retreat” was a programme where editors from South Asia and Northeast India would meet and interact, debate, dialogue with each other for a better understanding of issues and build a partnership. We used to have editors or journalists from our neighbouring countries (Bangladesh, Nepal, etc) and Northeastern states, but Burma was always missing. Soe did come for the retreat and participated. Unlike editors from Northeast, who was critical about Indian government’s role in Northeast India, Soe maintained a positive attitude towards India, which seems to be resulted from his own experience.
When the earlier phase of Military rule ended after decades, Thin Thin and Soe Myint left for Myanmar. In course of time, Mizzima became a big Media house and we heard and read that Soe Myint has become a media tycoon there. Mizzima which used to be a small tabloid (if am not wrong) developed into a huge media platform that included digital newspaper, a weekly business magazine, websites in English and Burmese and programmes on Myanmar Radio and TV. Later it launched its own free to air TV channel. I kept a tab on Mizzima by following both Mizzima and Soe on social media. Through social media only I came to know that he was not well health wise and was going through treatment. His last post on Facebook was on March 29.
Myanmar is burning again with the Military Junta rejecting the elected Government in the country since February. The recent crisis is affecting thousands of lives. Hundreds of people are already killed, including children. Northeastern states like Manipur and Mizoram are already feeling burnt as refugees from Myanmar are entering to these states for shelter. A big humanitarian crisis has already begun. Willingly or not willingly, Northeast is going to be part of this.
Mizzima is not sparred either by the Military. Thin Thin Aung has disappeared since April 8. As per media reports she is held at the notorious Yay Kyi Eaing interrogation centre. It is also reported that her apartment and belongings were ransacked, her computer seized, her bank account and the Mizzima funds that she managed, emptied.
It is easy to demand for peace restoration in Myanmar. But very difficult to understand ethnic complexities and conflict within the country. Myanmar or Burma was part of British India and it was also partitioned during the independence of the Indian sub-continent. Unlike other parts of previous British India i.e. present India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Myanmar is not divided on the representation of religious identity, but on strong ethnicity. In Northeast we have many trans-border ethnic groups who live in both Myanmar and Northeast India. Observers opine that the present crisis may lead to more crises as ethnic groups in Myanmar may use it as a tool to establish ethnic states in the region.
As well-wishers, friends or neighbours, whether as individuals or regions (Northeast), we can only hope for the safety of the people and peace of the region.