A dawn visit to Moreh, Manipur, could yield many surprises. The majority of the local population in this border town are from the Kuki tribe, and most of them are Presbyterian Christians. There are also a few Hindus—mostly Tamilians, Nepalis and Marwaris. Just like the Christians in Moreh, the Hindus, too, have marked Sunday as their preferred day of worship.
Around 5km from the Myanmar border—closed since March 2020, because of the pandemic and the growing tensions in Myanmar—there is a tunnel, which looks like a huge manhole with concrete steps leading inside. A large number of people could be seen stepping out of the tunnel in a single file. All of them were from Myanmar. Some have come to India to buy and sell goods, some just wanted to pray in peace, while a few made the cross-border trip to visit their loved ones.
Maw Maw, a young girl from Tamu, a border town in Myanmar, said she had come to India to meet a friend and also to pray. “I am a Christian and I find this place safer,” said Maw, as she disappeared into the tunnel. She was carrying a basketful of stuff purchased from Moreh.
In Maw’s country, there seems to be no end to the turmoil, and it has worsened after the junta overthrew the democratically elected government last February. Myanmar Air Force has bombed targets that are not too far from the Moreh border. Cities are burning and people are dying. Stray bullets sometimes hit houses on the Indian side as well. Most tribes in Moreh, such as the Kukis, Nagas, and the Meiteis have relatives in Myanmar, and therein lies the challenge for the Indian Army and its oldest paramilitary force, the Assam Rifles, which guards the Myanmar border. Most people on the border consider Indian forces as occupiers and let their kinsmen from Myanmar come and go as they please.
“We can fix the problem in seven days if we get help from the locals. But unlike in Jammu and Kashmir, where border villagers help the Army, here we get no help. At the same time, we cannot be harsh with them as they are Indians,” said a colonel serving with the Assam Rifles. “They even bring arms, drugs, and ammunition. We need to punish them, but the state government wants to be lenient with them.”
Local people in Moreh believe that the refugees from Myanmar are worried more about the growing violence in their country than about other concerns such as religious persecution. Ali Hussein, another Tamu resident who came to Moreh through the tunnel, said that neither the Myanmar army nor the People’s Defence Force (PDF, the resistance fighters) stopped him from visiting the mosque. “But we are afraid to go because many have died inside the mosque or while on their way, often caught in the crossfire between the two groups,” he said.
Hussein’s friend Thonnai Sheikh was killed a few weeks ago while cycling to the mosque. “The security forces asked him to stop. He panicked and refused to stop. The soldiers shot him dead,” said Hussein.
The incident sparked huge outrage. PDF activists clashed with the security forces, who retaliated by raiding houses, during which many innocent people were arrested and tortured. The high-handed response persuaded more people to join the PDF. So far, according to Indian estimates, around 10,000 people have died in Myanmar clashes.
Hussein fears that the Indian Army might force him back one day, although the Army said it had no such plans as of now. “At the same time, we would not allow them to stay here for long. They would be convinced to go back. We are in touch with the Myanmar army at different levels,” said an officer of the Army’s Eastern Command.
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