May 18, 2004

Nagalim: Unbearable life in Myanmar and unwelcome in India

An eye-witness report of the human rights situation in the Naga region
Untitled Document Naga International Support Center, Amsterdam
~Press release

· In Myanmar (Burma) grave human rights violations do, to an extent, attract attention. What happens to the Burmese people and the ethnic peoples around the Irrawaddy valley is known and action, more or less successful is taken. However, the northwest corner of Myanmar, bordering India, escapes attention...
Below is a story of a Naga woman who, due to oppression through forced labour experienced in Myanmar, fled to India only to meet with hardships beyond belief.

Unbearable life in Myanmar and unwelcome in India

Knowing the drive of the Myanmar’s/Burmese junta, that rose to power after a bloody coup in 1962 and not deterred by a popular uprising in 1988, it remains steadfast in the Governments seat. After it conceded to an election in 1990, again it was not deterred, it simply did not recognize the overwhelming majority of the people, 88%, and that voted the military Government out in favour of the National League of Democracy. But the military did not honour the result of the election and remained in power to this day, subjugating its people with an iron fist. And, the Nagas in the Naga Hills of Burma form no exception to that rule.

Fled from her village Mau, a Naga girl twenty one years of age from Burma, sits with tears in her eyes. It is years after she dares to reveal what has happened to her. Yet she does not speak of the hardships that befell her. She talks about her homeland and a picture emerges, a picture that paints a world of oppression, of isolation of forced labour by young men taken as porters for the Burmese Army, some of them, never to be seen again, of military soldiers posing as heavily armed Buddhist monks that keep a sharp eye on all who enter and leave the village. Strangers are questioned. In short the Nagas of North West Burma live a life in fear if only that they are forced to adopt an alien religion. Captives they are on their own soil. (Killing of identity)

On a sunny afternoon and miles away from here village on the other side border we sit outside a home in Nagaland in India. Yet near the border that separates Western and Eastern Nagaland. Mao tells her story. Not an easy decision as anyone that would reveal her identity could be held responsible for harbouring a refugee, even though one is from the same tribe.

~~Why would that be, why is giving shelter to people from your own tribe a crime in India?

“The Indian Army or just the police will arrest someone who takes in a Naga from Burma. The reason is that Nagas have not accepted the Indian authority as their own. And sheltering a foreigner is a good pretext for mounting all kinds of accusations. They will receive any kind of punishment: people are dragged from homes, beaten people, put in prison for a long time without being charged and without a fair trial. Many foreigners, Indian in origin, Nepalese even Europeans flee Myanmar and are in India accepted as refugees. Some of them are sheltered with us in Nagaland, Myanmar, before entering India, not just for days but for many weeks or months. The Indians show their sense of being humanitarian with the refugees. But neighbouring Nagas, desperately in need of protection, are treated as criminals. Those from Myanmar side taking shelter are taken by Indian military. Many are not heard of again.”

~~How about the situation on the Burma side itself?

What is the need for those Nagas in Burma to run away from, what is driving them?

“The Naga Hills in Burma is the last area untouched by modern communication, like all weather roads. From 1991 on the Military Regime tried to open up the Naga Hills. The policy is to exploit and make the area more accessible for commerce. They built military airbases from where they forced people to build roads. And, when I say forced labour, I mean forced. There was no way you could refuse! Not only no one is paid, even the food for the workers on the roads had to be supplied by family. Should one dare to refuse one could be shot point blank, there and then. And, when they the person refusing to work forced upon him or her escaped, they would impose on the village elders to catch them and turn them over. When even then they could not be caught, the whole village would be held responsible.

How they do that? Simple, they line villagers up, make them sit for days without food, burn their houses. Their need to recruit labour this became more important when the Burmese decided to built a railway.“

~~Now, what was the impact on the Nagas when confronted with an army that had but one purpose?

“Many people, any able body, tried to escape. Can you imagine what happened to the villagers that had stayed behind? The people fleeing from their homes live in the woods, the culture disrupted. Those in the villages provide for them that were taken by the Military to labour. It can get worse! The villagers had to look after their sons and daughters in the labour camps that were far, they also were required to provide food for the Burmese soldiers (Not exceptional to have to walk for 4 days to reach home, so for the villagers as well). This is the reason why many Nagas flee to over the border to Indian Nagaland

That forced labour was still a more tolerable than being forced into Buddhism. Imagine that you have to give up your religion? Along with being forced to work and being coerced into another religion, children are abducted to work as porters for the Army, or trained as soldiers themselves. Many young boys, 10 to 12 years old, were never heard of again. Those that could send word to their families tell that they are soldiers of the Burmese Army now.
The imposition of Buddhism upon the Naga villagers went like this: The Burmese Army, when occupying a village, will bring a few Buddhist monks along. Those monks, heavily armed under their saffron robes, would stay behind after the military left and would convert our churches into Buddhist monasteries. The villagers were then required to report everything to them, especially when strangers or visitors from another village or tribe would visit.

Those visiting from India were no exception.”

~~How did you come to India?

“I left home with my mother who took me to a place outside the village, but still in Burma, where my uncle was waiting. She told me to go with my uncle to visit another village. I remember I was not very happy about that, but since I was going to see a new place I was excited too. I thought I would return again that day. But, that only happened 6 years later. My uncle took me to Manipur. At the time I did not know that of course. I soon realized that we had to avoid being seen, for we stopped to hide on the way several times. Uncle did not tell me where we went or anything about the reason for the journey. Later I realized that he did not so I would not worry, for the dangers were there. First, until we would reach a safe place, the Burmese Military then the Indian soldiers or police we had to avoid. I was just 10 years old then when I arrived in Manipur. Then only I realized that I could not return home. Mother had sent me away for my safety. And, for a long time I thought I would be going back home soon. That changed when I was told to take on a new name. I had to hide my Naga identity. I was living among fellow Tangkhul Nagas but I had to pass for a Burmese refugee. It was at first not easy to look and behave like a Naga from India. I am Tangkhul but in our village we speak village dialect and so I had to learn the language fast. Of course that is the first thing that would be noticed. I still do not speak Tanghkul fluently because I had to hide here and there many a time. I stayed with my sister and brother in rented rooms. I did not know, but they were taken to Imphal before me. For fear of being discovered and sent to prison we were told time and again not to mix with other people. We lived among Meitei and in school I learned English, Meitei language and with the family that looked after us from a distance, Tanghkul.

I would be proud to tell you where I come from but I cannot, for it would endanger my family and my chance of ever visiting or going back home to see my parents. In Imphal we lived with Nagas but in proximity of the Meitei people. So I speak Meitei more fluently now than Tanghkul. In college we kept mostly to ourselves. Anyone informing the authorities could create great trouble for the family that supported us and big trouble to us personally too.”

~~What kind of trouble could that be?

“Refugees from Burma entering India without papers will be arrested, beaten up, raped, tortured for information and even killed on the mere suspicion of being part of the Naga Army of the Nscn.

“What I am telling you all happened and is happening still. As long as I do not have official papers stating that I am and Indian Naga, I am in danger. The family that looks after us is related to my family in Burma. It is strange for me to say this, for we belong to the same tribe and formerly we were all be able to see each other. My parents and grandparents tell me that it was never like this. I on the other hand have not known anything else but the border. We were one; there was no border that separated us.

Other refugees, non Naga refugees, take advantage of that situation. They are not seen as criminals. This hostile attitude of the Indians turned the Burmese refugees that enter India against the Nagas. They subjugate the people to the point at being at their mercy.

Thanks to a friend and I cannot tell who it is that stood up for me and tried to get me an internship with an NGO I am here now. And so I am the first Naga from the Burma side who speaks openly about the atrocities that are committed upon my people. And, I am glad that I can appeal to you and through you to others with a sense and responsibility for human rights. My people suffer; please help us to make it stop.”

The Naga International Support Center calls strongly on both Indian and Burmese authorities as well as international non governmental organizations, the United Nation sub-commission on Human Rights in fact the International Community at large, to stop violating the human rights of the Naga Peoples in both countries.

Source: Naga International Support Center