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Two years ago in November about 50 Burmese – largely women – celebrated the release of Aung San Suu Kyi at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar by holding placards and raising the cry, “Long live Aung San Suu Kyi”. (Credit: Ninglun Hanghal\WFS)
Two years ago in November about 50 Burmese – largely women – celebrated the release of Aung San Suu Kyi at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar by holding placards and raising the cry, “Long live Aung San Suu Kyi”. (Credit: Ninglun Hanghal\WFS)

Displaced Burmese in India: Life As a Refugee

By Ninglun Hanghal

Delhi (WFS) – Moving images and stories of tired and anxious families, crossing over from Hungary into Austria and Germany, have occupied the front page of newspapers, hogged air time and gone viral online over the last few days.

In fact, according to media reports, the world is facing the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, with a staggering 60 million people forced to leave their homes, four million from Syria alone. But even as world leaders grapple with the ongoing crisis and look for ways to rehabilitate the “unlucky population, around half of whom comprise vulnerable children” there’s a lot that can be learnt from the experiences of the thousands of Burmese refugees, who have been living in Delhi for several years now, having escaped the brutal military rule in their own country.

Mya Mya Aye, 62, was once a devoted home-maker not too concerned with understanding the complexities of politics. Married in 1970, she had made up her mind to focus on bringing up her children while her husband, Dr Tint Swe, a medical doctor by profession, chose to become a politician to serve the people. In fact, he had stood for parliamentary elections from the National League for Democracy (NLD) and won from Paletownship in Monywa division in 1990. He then became the Minister of Information and Public Relations in the then National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma.

However, a massacre in 1988, following a popular pro-democracy uprising led by students which came to be known as the 88 Generation Uprising, drastically changed the lives of everyone in Mya Aye’s close-knit family. She shares,

“My two sons were among the 88 Generation protestors and so things were obviously tough for them.”

Before long, she, too, found herself being drawn into the movement and, later, she joined the NLD party, which is headed by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. With the Military Junta cracking down on the 88 Generation students as well as the NLD party members – many were being imprisoned on charges of “illegally using electronic media” and “forming an illegal organization” – her husband and eldest son fled the country. Thereafter, the family home and clinic were sealed leaving Mya Aye and her four other children on the run.

“From 1992, we couldn’t even get a house on rent because of the constant surveillance and harassment meted out to home owners who offered us accommodation,”

she shares. Finally, in 1995, she came to India and reunited with her husband. The couple has been living in Delhi ever since.

Mya Mya Aye, 62 (second from left) with other Burmese women in Delhi waiting to catch a glimpse of her leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi when she was in India in 2012 to deliver the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture.(Credit: Ninglun Hanghal\WFS)

Mya Mya Aye, 62 (second from left) with other Burmese women in Delhi waiting to catch a glimpse of her leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi when she was in India in 2012 to deliver the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture.(Credit: Ninglun Hanghal\WFS)

Today, fortunately for them all, the winds of change are stronger, as a slow democratic transition has unfolded back home with Thein Sein being sworn into office in March 2011 as the head of the nominally civilian government that replaced almost 50 years of military rule. At least, Mya Aye is able to get in touch with her relatives and friends through the Internet and Skype these days, and some time back, she got to meet with her cousin sister-in-law Kyi Than at Bodh Gaya in Bihar. Kyi Than had a visa to visit Bodh Gaya, but not one for Delhi. It was an emotional reunion.

“We cried a lot – out of happiness, of course. We had so much catching up to do, about our lives, our children, ourselves!”

exclaims Mya Aye.

A 2009 survey by Refugee International puts the number of displaced Burmese in India anywhere between 50,000 and 1,00,000, most of whom are living either in the northeastern states or in Delhi.

As per media reports, the Capital’s 8000-strong Burmese community is faced with several challenges such as “appalling living conditions, lack of treatment for seriously ill and dearth of jobs and safety”.

What makes life tougher for their lot is the fact that India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and so the protection of refugees is at best confined to ad hoc measures taken by the Centre, leaving them with few civil, political or legal rights.

Apart from the daily uncertainties entailed in being refugees there are innumerable cultural and behavioural differences to contend with as well, and women, in particular, have many stories of discrimination and harassment, including sexual harassment, to relate. And the financial insecurities don’t make things any easier. Some like Mya Aye, who assists her husband at his clinic in Vikaspuri, West Delhi, which provides free service and treatment, have managed to build new lives for themselves. Others still feel that they are living in a limbo.

Whereas most of them are keen to get back to their homeland and be united with their relatives, with ethnic strife and human rights violations still rampant in their country that is not an option just yet.

Nonetheless, they fervently hold on to hope, which, incidentally had been fanned to a frenzy when their beloved Daw (madam) Suu Kyi had come to India in 2012 after her long incarceration. It had been her first visit in 40 years to Delhi, a city where she had spent her early college years.

Nothing symbolised the change in Burma more powerfully than the release, in 2010, of Aung Sang Suu Kyi who had to suffer house arrest almost continuously from 1989 for her opposition to the ruling military junta. (Credit: Ninglun HanghalWFS)

Nothing symbolised the change in Burma more powerfully than the release, in 2010, of Aung Sang Suu Kyi who had to suffer house arrest almost continuously from 1989 for her opposition to the ruling military junta. (Credit: Ninglun HanghalWFS)

Women like Mya Aye and Hmaengi Lushai, another Burmese refugee living in Delhi who has been associated with several Burmese women’s groups, had barely been able to contain their excitement at the prospect of meeting her. Mya Aye fondly recalls how she has

“prayed to Buddha to give me a chance to meet Daw Suu Kyi so that I could tell her that everyone here is with her and that we also want to go back home.”

Adds Hmaengi Lushai,

“Many of us, including me, had learnt the Hindi word ‘swagat’ (welcome) that we emblazoned on the posters we had made to welcome Aung Sang Suu Kyi.

After all, we had been looking forward all those years for that one opportunity to greet her personally.”

Of course, even as Daw Suu Kyi continues to be their inspiration, increasingly, the Burmese community is becoming very conscious of the delicate relations that exist between India and the ruling establishment at home and is hopeful that the

“Indian government will review its foreign policy, taking into consideration women refugees seeking asylum in this country”.

During the launch of the latest report on the conditions of Burmese refugees in Delhi, prepared by Burma Centre Delhi and the Pann Nu Foundation, Dr Alana Golmei of the Pann Nu Foundation had urged the authorities and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to facilitate the displaced families in creating the “better life” they had wanted to when they had come into the country all those years ago.

Meanwhile, Mya Aye’s husband, Dr Swe, counsels patience,

“Much will depend on both our countries working towards a mutually beneficial climate of accountability and responsible investment.”

Things may still be uncertain for them at present but Burmese people are certainly counting on the fact that change, as the well known adage goes, is the only constant in life. Will it be for better or for worse, only time can tell.

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