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‘Can’t go back to Myanmar, Army won’t let us live,’ say refugees

Lawngtlai:Around 300 refugees, mostly Arakan (Rakhine) Buddhists, who fled Myanmar in November last year following the military crackdown on the Arakan rebels, have refused to go back despite the Mizoram government having stopped supplies of essential food items to them in February.
“The Myanmar Army will not let us live and earn if we go back,” said Khima-U, who hails from the border village of Varang in Myanmar’s Chin State.
The 46-year-old was one of the nearly 1,400 refugees who had originally taken shelter in four border villages in Mizoram’s Lawngtlai district — Laitlang, Hmawngbuchhua, Zochachhua, and Dumzautlang. More than 900 refugees have since returned to their homes, according to officials.
While the Hmangbuchhua village council claims there are 343 refugees still living there, an official of Assam Rifles said there are only 298 refugees left.
Khima-U, among the many refugees who constructed bamboo houses since moving into this village 4km away from the border in Lawngtlai district, about 300km south of Aizawl, says “life is better here”.
He works as a daily wager by helping villagers in jhum (shifting) cultivation, earning Rs 150 a day.
Some others have joined the work as daily wagers on the 87km road connecting Lawngtlai town and Zorinpui, a proposed border crossing points with Myanmar part of the ambitious Kaladan multi-modal transport project.
“They (the refugees) came in speed boats,” said Chemgsa-U, president of the Hmangbuchhua village council, pointing to the Sekulh Lui river which flows along the village.
“They are of the same tribe as us. They are Rakhine people like us,” he said, while narrating how the villagers could hear gunshots from the fighting across the border.
The fighting has since stopped but the refugees are refusing to go, something the local Lais, the dominant community of the Lai Autonomous District Council, have become wary of.
“We do not want them to live here forever. They should go back,” said J Sangahangpuia, president of Central Young Lai Association, an NGO.
“Moreover, they follow a different religion, which could lead to conflicts in the future.”
Most Lais follow Christianity and speak Mizo or the Lai dialect while the group of refugees speak Rakhine.
“We gave them hospitality for we don’t want bad relations with the Arakan people. The success of the Kaladan project depends on the cooperation from the Arakan people,” he says.
Chemgsa-U admitted to the villagers’ reluctance, saying that arranging food for the refugees has become a problem.
Some are also suspicious. “Many of them could be Arakan Army fighters,” said J Sangahangpuia. A Lai leader showed HT a WhatsApp conversation with someone who identified himself as a central committee member of the Arakan Army.
The conversation, whose authenticity couldn’t verify, shows an Arakan Army leader urging to stop the district administration from sending back the refugees.