Yu Gan Paing (pseudonym) explains the trauma, struggles, and the vicious cycles in the life of a refugee since the 2021 coup.
I had never imagined in my life that I would become a refugee, nor did I have the slightest idea that central Myanmar, my native region, would become a battlefield either. Moreover, I had never dreamed that a misfortune worse in scope than the British colonial era or the fascist Japanese era would befall the whole country. But all those situations indeed occurred and still continue. We cannot predict how long it will continue.
Between 2015 and 2020, Myanmar debuted its path to democracy with its democratically elected government. The budding democratic society made some headway to becoming an established one. Those 5 years were a moment when we had the chance to experience the taste of democracy. But all these prospects and hopes have been knocked down and broken into pieces by a single military coup. A country striving to develop has been dragged down to rock bottom.
I am a private high school teacher by profession and journalism is my passion. Since 1st February, 2021, I became unemployed when my teaching job and journalism came to a halt. I participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) by not teaching at the private schools run by pro-military groups. My print platform also disappeared when private local media was forced to close under harsh military oppression.
Because of the inhumane arrests, torture, and killing of freelance journalists and CDMers, I became an unexpected fugitive. In the past I would only read in journals terms such as internally displaced people (IDP) or refugees, but now I, myself, have become a refugee and an IDP.
I took part in the peaceful mass protests on the streets after the military unlawfully took power. Together with like-minded people, I supported CDMers and employees from the private sector. Because the military council sought out people like me to arrest, torture, and kill, I had to hide to avoid being captured by the junta forces and I escaped by running to the other side of the country. When I thought of a safe place, I first thought of the neighbouring countries—China, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh, and India. I asked myself which country I should choose, and I decided between Thailand and India after pondering the background situation of these two countries. As far as I know, Thailand is a country with a high probability of arrest before someone is granted political asylum. Therefore, I dropped the idea of running to Thailand and chose India as the better option.
But the question remained: how should I go to India? Towards Manipur or Mizoram? According to the information I gathered, Manipur posed a high risk for arrest, so I chose to head to Mizoram. I learnt through the news that Mizoram State administration accepted Myanmar IDPs and provided necessary supports. Moreover, among the weavers living in Mizoram’s capital city, Aizawl, were friends I knew from my native town. Thus I made contact with them and left for Mizoram.
It took two days by bus to Kalay from Yangon where I lived. Fortunately, I was able to pass through the tough military checkpoints on the way. Soldiers targeted our identity cards and mobile phones as the main objects for inspection. It was almost certain that one would be arrested, tortured, or killed if there were images connected with the NLD posted on Facebook, any evidence of connection to the PDF (People Defence Forces), or photos of a mass demonstration in the phone. Youths were targeted and examined as suspected PDF members. Passengers were also checked to see if they were CDMers or not.
I had to enquire about the situation of the road to the Indian border once I arrived Kalay. I was stranded in Kalay for four days as recent skirmishes occurred at certain places along the way. As soon as the road was clear, I set off to a border stream (Ti-O stream) in Rikhawdar around 1 p.m. I blended in with other passengers on the bus transporting the weavers. Problems were solved by answering that I was one of the weavers going to Aizawl when we passed through two military check points.
After spending a night at Lytwee village in Tedim township, I continued my journey to Rikhawdar the next morning. We met the Chin National Defence Force (CNDF) at the entrance gate to the town. They told us to go back the way we came due to the danger from the military forces. However, we were allowed to pass when our bus driver explained that he would not pass across the border gates but was going upstream where the IDPs were. The PDFs told us that they could not take responsibility for us if we faced danger and warned us to drive carefully due to the land mines on the sides of the road. Soon after we entered India by crossing the border stream, skirmishes occurred for a few minutes between the military forces and the CNDF forces. We could hear the shooting sounds of small arms. All passengers, including myself, had to run to a safe place and hide.
It was the first time I was this close to a battleground. Only when the situation calmed down did we leave the stream and head to the gate to take the bus to Aizawl. We reached Aizawl after taking a ten hour bus drive, from Zokhawthar village of Mizoram State. First, I stayed at a friend’s house in Zuangtui quarters of Aizawl but later, I rented a house. The person in charge of the living quarters was notified of our presence, and we were listed as fugitives/refugees. Mosquito nets, blankets, and some pots and plates were given by a Mizoram NGO supporting the refugees. We had to take care of our everyday essentials ourselves.
Zuangtui was an industrial zone where mostly migrant refugee workers such as weavers lived. Men and women dressed in longyi could be seen in the area, and women wore thanakha on their cheeks just like in Myanmar. Dhamma sermons by Kyarnikan Sayadaw would be aired through the sound box in the mornings, and traditional Myanmar songs could be heard in the afternoons. Sometimes I felt like I was back in Myanmar. Shopping was not a problem since the local Mizoram vendors in the community could more or less speak Myanmar language.
While living in the Zuangtui quarters, I had the chance to study the daily life of Myanmar migrant weavers. I asked about their business, their living conditions, the relations between the employer and the employee, and their social activities. Their income was not that bad when compared to the conditions in Myanmar. Working days were from Monday to Friday and they would meet their quotas only when they worked steadfastly from 5 or 6 a.m. until 6-7 p.m. They would have a break only for lunch. They lived in the work sheds with only bare necessities. Most of the sheds were built with a zinc roof and zinc walls. There was barely a partition for a bedroom or kitchen. Only a single toilet was provided for a shed. On average, there would be about 10 workers in a work shed. While it was convenient to eat Myanmar food since most of the food items came from Myanmar, consumers still had to pay high prices.
A supervisor, fluent in Mizo language and a long-time resident, was the liaison between the employer and the employee. The employer paid him a salary. He was also responsible for beaming the warp and showing the design, for which he would get wages. The workers had to go grocery shopping on Saturdays for the next week. They would visit friends’ houses on Sundays and birthday celebrations would be also held on Sundays. Myanmar workers would meet each other weekly at the place of the birthday host.
I heard that there was a Myanmar Social Support Organization for the society. Aizawl city has 93.63% Christians, 4.12% Hindus, 1.52% Muslims and 0.45% Buddhists according to the 2011 demographic statistics. Although the churches, Hindu temples, and mosques were seen in Aizawl, there weren’t any Buddhist temples, pagodas or monasteries. It is my opinion that a pagoda, a monastery, and some Buddhist monks should exist for the Myanmar migrant workers who are Buddhists to observe social and religious rites together with the local Buddhists.
In 2022 August, after applying for a scholarship from the Institute of Chin Affairs (ICA) for continuing education for Myanmar fugitives/refugees, I was selected as a research fellow since I had some experience in research. I submitted a statement of motivation on why I wanted to attend this program, and a brief outline of the proposed research project. The project timeline stretched from 2022 October to 2023 October. Professors from MZU (Mizoram University) gave lectures on research methodologies, and the ICA and IDRC (International Development Research Centre) provided the required assistance. 5 Research fellows were selected and assigned with research projects on displaced persons or refugees.
I have two research areas of interest. First, I’m interested in studying the Myanmar IDPs and refugee affairs. I would like to work on a research project that identifies the advantages and weaknesses of camp and non-camp life of IDPs who took refuge in Aizawl, Mizoram State, from the genocidal crimes committed by the military forces after the February 2021 coup. Second, I would like to study and analyse the advantages and disadvantages of the social life, living conditions, and the business circumstances of migrant Myanmar weavers.
The abovementioned Research Fellowship Program has been a blessing in disguise for me. Fortunately, I was given an opportunity to study at a foreign university with a scholarship and undertake research as a refugee. I will endeavour to carry out this project to a qualified and successful level. My utmost wish is to make good use of the knowledge I have gained from this research for the betterment of society and to continue more research later. In the future, when my country’s political situation gains stability, I would like to contribute my capacity towards rebuilding the nation from the education or research sectors. It would not be too far-fetched to say that I miss my country more than I miss my native village and my family.
Therefore, I would like to be free from being a fugitive-cum-refugee and go back home when the time comes. There is a saying, “East or West, home (my native land) is always the best.” Isn’t it?
Yu-Gan-Paing (pseudonym) is a journalist, a writer and a social science research fellow.