Burma’s military government should end human rights abuses against the ethnic Chin population in Burma’s western Chin state, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch also called on the Indian government and newly elected Mizoram state government to extend protection to Chin who have fled to neighboring India to escape ongoing abuses and severe repression in Burma.
In the 93-page report, “‘We Are Like Forgotten People’: Unsafe in Burma, Unprotected in India,” Human Rights Watch documents a wide range of human rights abuses carried out by the Burmese army and government officials. The abuses include forced labor, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, religious repression and other restrictions on fundamental freedoms. In Mizoram state, India, Chin people remain at risk of discrimination and abuse by local Mizo groups and local authorities, and of being forced back across the border into Burma.
“For too long, ethnic groups like the Chin have borne the brunt of abusive military rule in Burma,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It is time for this brutal treatment to stop and for the army to be held to account for its actions. India should step forward to protect those desperately seeking sanctuary.”
This detailed report is based on extensive research carried out from 2005 to 2008. Human Rights Watch conducted about 140 interviews, some with Chin currently living in Chin state, but who cross the border to Mizoram for trade. Others interviewed have fled the country permanently, most in recent years. It provides a rare glimpse into the plight of Burma’s “forgotten people.”
Burma’s military government regularly arrests and imprisons ethnic Chin to stifle political dissent and intimidate them. The army places restrictions on many aspects of life for the Chin, including: curtailing their freedom of movement; regularly confiscating and extorting money, food, and property; exacting forced labor, and coercing them to plant certain crops. One Chin man told Human Rights Watch, “We are like slaves, we have to do everything [the army] tells us to do.”
“We Are Like Forgotten People” also documents abuses committed by the opposition Chin National Front and its armed branch, the Chin National Army, such as harassment, beatings and extortion from Chin villagers. One Chin church leader now living in Mizoram said, “These underground groups, rather than being a help, make life even more difficult for us.” Human Rights Watch called on both the Burmese army and armed groups to end abuses, and for Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to allow humanitarian agencies unfettered access to Chin State.
Chin farmers and their families regularly are forced to leave their fields to porter goods for the Burmese army, build roads, and construct army barracks, sentry posts, and other military buildings. This undermines the ability of Chin people to survive in one of Burma’s poorest states, particularly in areas suffering food shortages and famine caused by a massive rat infestation. The Burmese government’s aid restrictions hamper humanitarian agencies trying to provide relief to populations at risk.
“The famine in Chin state is a natural disaster, and aid restrictions and demands for forced labor are only making the situation worse,” said Pearson.
Abuses have led tens of thousands of Chin to flee Burma, with many crossing the border to neighboring Mizoram state in India without documents. But local voluntary organizations and government officials in Mizoram have at times forcibly evicted Chin and returned them to Burma.
This violates India’s obligations under international law not to return people to a country where their lives or freedoms could be threatened, or where they could be at risk of persecution. Although many of the Chin who flee Burma would qualify as refugees, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is barred from accessing the Chin population living along the border, so only those who make the 2,460 kilometer trek to UNHCR’s office in Delhi can file their claims. India is not a party to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees but it has signed the Convention Against Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment.
Chin who manage to remain in Mizoram also face religious repression and severe discrimination in access to housing and education.
Human Rights Watch called on the Indian government to protect Chin asylum-seekers and refugees, and to give UNHCR access to Mizoram state to register them. On December 2, 2008, Mizoram state elections resulted in a sweeping victory for the Indian National Congress, the country’s governing party, which has not been in power there for a decade. In the past, members of Mizoram’s Indian National Congress have called for action against Chin migrants and have been even less sympathetic than the previous state government to the plight of those fleeing human rights abuses in Burma.
“Instead of ignoring the plight of the Chin, the Indian government should protect them and prevent any actions or initiatives to forcibly return them to Burma,” said Pearson, “It will be a test for the new state government of Mizoram to address ongoing discrimination against the Chin.”
The report also calls on members of the international community such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the United States and the European Union to increase humanitarian assistance to Chin state, provided it can be delivered without unnecessary interference from Burma’s military government, and to strengthen targeted sanctions if Burma does not meet specific human rights conditions.
“The Chin are unsafe in Burma, and unprotected in India, but just because these abuses happen far from Delhi and Rangoon does not mean the Chin should remain ‘forgotten people’,” said Pearson. “ASEAN, the EU and the US should tell Burma and India that it long past time for these abuses to end.”
Selected accounts from ethnic Chin interviewed for the report
“The army has called me many times to porter, more than 10 times. When I cannot carry their bags, they beat me. [The soldiers] get angry and slap us and kick us. They tell us to go faster. Normally, I’d have to porter for two to three days. It’s not possible to refuse. One time I tried to refuse to go because I was so tired and the things we are made to carry are very heavy. When I tried to refuse, they beat me. They said: ‘You are living under our authority. You have no choice. You must do what we say’.”
– Chin woman from Thantlang township, Chin state, Burma
“[The police] beat me with a stick and they used the butt of their guns. They hit me in my mouth and broke my front teeth. They split my head open and I was bleeding badly. Repeatedly, they hit me in my back with their guns. Because of this, my back is still injured and I have trouble lifting heavy objects. They also shocked me with electricity. They had a battery and they attached some clips to my chest. They would turn the electricity on and when I couldn’t control my body any longer, they switched the battery off. They kept doing this for several hours. They did the same thing to the pastor’s son. They told me they would only stop beating us when we told them information about the CNA [Chin National Army]. We kept telling them we didn’t know anything.”
– A Chin man from Sagaing division, Burma, describing how the police arrested, tortured, and detained him for three days after being accused of having affiliations with the Chin National Army
“Many times the SPDC force us to give them our chicken or rice. They come and ask for these things. If we don’t give it freely to them, they just take it. They will kill our chickens in front of us and take it all.”
– An 18-year-old girl from Matupi township, Chin state, who left Burma in 2008
“[Some Mizo residents] take advantage of our position and demand money, threatening that if we don’t pay up they’ll inform the police or the YMA [Young Mizo Association]. There are some Mizos who simply just hate the sight of us and challenge us or threaten to beat us up. Life is hell for us. We cannot protect ourselves, as this will cause further furor. We have to just make ourselves seem small and avoid these dangers. To be Burmese is to face discrimination.”
– Chin woman living in Mizoram, India