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Home > 2021 > Mizzima And The Story Of Indo-Myanmar Relations | Nandita Haksar

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 18, New Delhi, April 17, 2021

Mizzima And The Story Of Indo-Myanmar Relations | Nandita Haksar

Friday 16 April 2021, by Nandita Haksar

The story of Mizzima media group is a good way to understand the Indo-Myanmar relationship with all its complexities. It is important to understand this relationship to have an informed debate on the issue of whether India should or should not help the Myanmar refugees trying to come across our borders to seek asylum from the brutalities of the Myanmar military regime which staged a coup on February 1, 2021.

Indian Origin Burmese

The position of Indians in Burma has always been precarious. During the Second World War the Japanese occupied Rangoon and thousands of Indians fled and their harrowing stories have been recorded by Amitav Ghosh, the author of the Glass Palace, and can be found here:

In 1962 Gen Ne Win staged a coup in Burma , as it was then (the name was changed to Myanmar in 1989) and overthrew the Government headed by U Nu, the first Prime Minister of Burma in 1962. At the time Ne Win threw out thousands of Indians who once again fled to the country of their origin, India. However over two lakh Indian origin Burmese remained but their citizenship was taken away and they were virtually stateless.

In India those Indians who were thrown out of Burma in 1962 were the ones who provided a support structure to the Burmese refugees who came in 1988; they spoke Burmese and remembered their days in Burma with nostalgia.

National Uprising of 1988

On August 8, 1988, considered auspicious by many Burmese people, there was a national uprising and from this uprising emerged Aung San Suu Kyi and her party the National League for Democracy. She lead her party to a massive electoral victory in the 1990 elections but instead of handing over power the Burmese Army took over power and put Aung Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years.

Aung San Suu Kyi had links with India, including the fact that she was a student of Lady Sri Ram when her mother, Khin Kyi, was the Burmese Ambassador to India in the 1960s. It must have been a disappointment for her that India chose to officially back the Burmese military junta and not the pro-democracy movement.

India gave Aung San Suu Kyi its highest award the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1993 even though India had official relations with the military junta. In 2013 when Aung San Suu Kyi came to India to personally receive the award the media, including senior journalists who knew Suu Kyi personally were apologetic about India’s stand.

However, even while India and Myanmar had official ties and had ambassadors in each other’s countries this had never stopped India from supporting the pro-democracy movement in substantial ways. While the leaders of the two countries engaged with each other the Government of India allowed the National League for Democracy to have an office in Delhi run by Dr Tint Swe, a medical doctor by profession and an elected MP of the NLD.

India also allowed the Burmese students organization to function and they had their office in the official residence of George Fernandez the Defence Minister. The room next to the Minister’s office was occupied by Burmese refugees, who lived there and cooked their meals in the open in his garden. A Burmese artist from Mandalay had taken over the servants quarters and turned them into his studio and also painted posters fror George Fernandez’s election campaign.

Burmese Refugees In Northeast India

After the uprising thousands of refugees had poured into India, mainly through the northeast borders, particularly Manipur and Mizoram – as they are doing now. I happened to be in Manipur at the time and many of the Burmese students told me that the Indian Ambassador in Rangoon had encouraged the students to take refuge in India and on his assurance they had come.

Manipur and Mizoram had set up camps for the refugees and for a time in Manipur they were issued identity cards. But the conditions in the camps were terrible and when the students tried to leave the camp they were arrested and put into jail.

However, nobody wanted to put the Burmese into jail. The problem is that India does not have a law to protect refugees and it is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, 1951. So a refugee under the law is treated as a foreigner; and any foreigner coming into the country without legal travel documents can be arrested, tried and jailed. After the prison sentence he or she is subject to deportation.

So even though India was willing to allow the refugees to take shelter there was no arrangement for their stay. Unlike the case of the Tibetans where the Government in exile was well off and they had been given land by India and they have some thirty places where the Tibetans have settled and thrived, including in Dharmasala, Karnataka and in Arunahcal.

Some Burmese refugees have been given recognition by the UNHCR but the bulk of refugees are just allowed to stay in India and live a precarious existence in the gray zone between legal and illegal existence. There was a settlement in Jankapuri in Delhi and there were many in Mizoram.


In November 1990 two Burmese students hijacked a Thai Airlines plane from Bangkok and forced it to land in Calcutta. They demanded to have a press conference so they could tell the world about the plight of their people and the arrest of their leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The two hijackers had taken the risk of spending the rest of their lives in jail just to have a press conference.

India did not deport the two hijackers despite requests from Myanmar. The deportation would have meant they would have been tortured and then executed. They were lodged in a jail but only for a few months. They were released on bail after more than thirty MPs cutting across party lines signed for their release. The Petition was initiated by the daughter of U Nu, the former Prime Minister of Burma who worked in the Burmese section of All India Radio. Despite the Government of India’s official stand of engagement with the military junta the Burmese section of the AIR had continued to support the pro-democracy movement for many months before pressure from Maynamar forced Government of India to replace Than Than Nu.

The hijackers were released and allowed to live in Delhi. One of them chose to leave the country while Soe Myint started Mizzima a media company which broadcast news on Burma. This was in 1998. He then applied for protection of the UNHCR and was recognized as a refugee under its mandate. He remained as a UNHCR refugee living in exile in India for 15 years.

From time to time the military junta put pressure on the Indian Government to put the hijacker on trial and in 2002 Soe Myint was arrested from his office in Delhi and taken to Calcutta. At the time I was involved in the campaign for his release and we got the support of a wide range of Indians cutting across the party lines including George Fernandez who was a part of the NDA and and Jyoti Basu of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)– normally arch rivals politically but on the issue of support for the Burmese they had come together.

The Thai Airways never filed an official complaint and Soe Myint was acquitted in 2003.
From 2003 to 2011 Soe Myint and his Mizzima team continued working and Mizzima got international recognition for its excellence in reporting. He and the co-founder of Mizzima and wife of Soe Myint, Thin Thin Aung, were able to travel all over the world attending conferences while living in exile. They had a flat as well as an office employing more than 10 to 15 Burmese in exile.

Mizzima in Myanmar

By the time democracy was restored in Myanmar most of the men and women of the 1988 generation who had lived in exile in India had been resettled with the help of the UNHCR in countries as far as Australia, Canada, Norway and the USA. Soe Myint and Thin Thin Aung chose to stay on and they returned to their country and Mizzima was the first media company which had been based in exile to get incorporated in Myanmar.

Mizzima was one the top five independent media houses and it expanded to have print magazines in English and Burmese, a TV channel and even had started various projects as a part of their corporate social responsibility. The work of Mizzima was impressive and in 2018 Prasar Bharati signed a contract with Mizzima for content sharing. In other words Mizzima was given access to Hindi films and subtitle them for broadcasting on Mizzima television and Mizzima was to broadcast one hour programme on India every day.

Indo-Myanmar Friendship

Mizzima sponsored an Indian street magician, Ishamuddin Khan to visit Yangon in 2013. The magician performed in various places including in a monastery where more than a hundred children enjoyed the show.

Ishammudin also adopted many of the traditional magic tricks to promote friendship between India and Myanmar such as the Burmese script magically appearing in his magic blank book; the flags of Myanmar and India appearing in his magic umbrella and producing jalebis and samosas for the delightful Mizzima reporters recording the show in the Mizzima studio.

There were some eight episodes produced and broadcast on Mizzima TV of the Indian street magician in Yangon. Ishamuddin also went on a tour of Yangon to see the connections between India and Myanmar and to his delight he found shops selling food items which owed their origins to India such as biryani, dosas, samosas and falooda. In addition he visited the memorial to Bahadurshah Zafar the last Emperor of India exiled to Burma.

The next programme Mizzima undertook was a musical journey in which musicians from all over North East India sang and played and celebrated their links with Myanmar. Many of the musicians belonged to communities which were spread across the international border especially in Manipur and Mizoram.

The show was sponsored by Manipur Government and Manipur’s famous rockstar Guru Rewben inaugurated the festival.

The music festival was designed to promote friendship among the people of the Northeast India and Myanmar based on shared cultural traditions and histories.
The third series of programme Mizzima did was in February 2020, a month before the pandemic. The Mizzima team came to Goa on my invitation and here we found many connections, old and new between Myanmar and India. The Mizzima team, many who were Buddhists were amazed to find Buddhist caves in Goa and eagerly visited them.

Then there was a visit to a famous bookshop in Candolim, the Literatti, where the Mizzima team found was often visited by Amitav Ghosh and they had read his Glass Palace in Burmese. The team drove down to Ratnagiri where they did a programme on the palace built by the last Burmese King Thibaw (1858-1916) after he was exiled by the British to Ratnagiri.

The Mizzima team was also able to meet the descendants of the Royal family and interview them. And then they went to see the home of Lokmanya Tilak the Indian freedom fighter who had spent some six years in jail in Mandalay.

Back in Goa the Mizzima team had a good Goan feast at the Godinho Bar and restaurant where they interviewed the owner who told them that they have been running the place providing authentic Goan food but they were faced with the shortage of fish. This shortage of fish was dur in part to climate change and in part due to the tourism industry. There were lessons for the Mizzima team to learn from the interactions.
The Mizzima team also visited the National Institute of Oceanography where they interacted with the top scientists and got a tour of the museum.

The entire tour was facilitated by the Doordarshan who fixed their appointments and interviews. In fact earlier the Government had given some training to the Mizzima team on election reporting in Delhi.

On the last day the team enjoyed themselves on the beach with cold beer and fish. One of the team members was Mr Pau Khan Thawn, the cameraman. He was delighted by the visit – and he said he would definitely like to return to India.

Military Coup in Myanmar

Soe Myint had been in touch with me. We were planning another series on street food of Yangon and India. But then came the pandemic, the lockdowns and closure of possibilities of international travel.

Soe Myint was busy covering the election in Myanmar where Aung San Suu Kyi won by an overwhelming majority and Mizzima like the rest of the country celebrated not only her victory but also the very real possibility of Myanmar returning to real democracy. Till then 25 per cent of the seats in Parliament were still reserved for the military.

Aung San Suu Kyi had played along with the military, even to the extent of not condemning the genocide on Rohingyas in rakhine state in the hope she could win and change the constitution democratically. She had been public humiliated and there were calls for the Nobel prize to be recalled. But she just wanted to restore democratic rule to her country.

In November 2020 Aung San Suu Kyi won by an overwhelming majority and the political parties backed by the military lost. Instead of handing over power the Myanmar military staged a coup and arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and put her under house arrest.

Then they unleashed a vicious reign of terror. The military went around shooting at random, they kicked vendors, broke into homes of the 1988 activists and arrested them, and more than 500 people protesting peacefully have been shot.

As the protests spread from one end of the country to another so did the extent of brutalities. The social media is full of the scenes of the brutalities which look more like scenes in a film than real for those of us who have not lived under military rule. In Bago township 23 protestors were arrested and executed within four hours of arrest.

On March 9, 2021 the Myanmar raided Mizzima office as they did other four media houses. Mizzima journalists had already gone into hiding and were broadcasting from their hideouts. But three journalists of Mizzima were arrested. There is no exact figure but some 40 journalists have been arrested across the country.

Then on April 8th the military arrested Thin Thin Aung and took her to an interrogation centre notorious for torture. There were desperate calls for her immediate release but the next day came the news that the military had confiscated her apartment, taken away the computers which had Mizzima history, tok her car and froze her and Mizzima accounts in Yangon.

Refuge In India

In the midst of the coup many escaped to the Myanmar-Thai border while others came to India’s border. Among them were policemen who had refused to shoot on peaceful protestors, and in Manipur came four Mizzima journalists sure that Government of India would give them refuge. Among them Pau Khan Thawn and his three small children; his wife and two others – all working in Mizzima are with him. They have been in Moreh for more than a month. He had dreamt of coming back to India – but now he was experiencing a nightmare.

The Myanmar refugees are not being allowed to go further than Moreh. In Moreh people have welcomed the Myanmar refugees and held candle light vigils praying that the Government of India would change its mind and allow the refugees into India.

Refugee Versus Migrant

The Government of India has sent a circular to the Northeast States having a border with Myanmar – Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Mizoram – to not allow the “illegal migrants” into the country. The Government of India Ministry of Home Affairs (North East Division) Memo No 19/2/2020-NE II dated March 10, 2021 asks the Northeast States to ensure “illegal migrants” do not enter into the country.

Why is the Government of India deliberately confusing the issue? There is a clear cut difference between a migrant and a refugee, whether India has signed the Refugee Convention or not.

Refugees are persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution. There situation is often so perilous and intolerable that they cross national borders to seek safety in nearby countries, and thus become internationally recognized as "refugees" with access to assistance from States, UNHCR, and other organizations. They are so recognized precisely because it is too dangerous for them to return home, and they need sanctuary elsewhere. For these people a denial of asylum has potentially deadly consequences.

A migrant is one who leaves his or her country voluntarily in order to find a better livelihood and by pushing them back to their home country holds no danger, other than dire poverty. A migrant has no fear of persecution and seeks to settle in another country which offers better opportunity.

The act of giving refuge to such a person is not considered a hostile act but a humanitarian one. That is why so many Burmese refugees stayed in India even while India engaged with the military junta.

Northeast India And Myanmar Refugees

The Governments of Northeast State especially Mizoram and Manipur are well aware of the national security situation but the twin issues of insurgency and drug trafficking which require co-operation with the Myanmar military cannot be confused with the humanitarian issue of refugee protection.

The Northeast States also know the distinction between migrants (whom they have opposed) and refugees whom they have welcomed. The people and communities in the Northeast have provided food and shelter to the refugees even while they opposed the entry of illegal migrants. They know refugees will return while migrant pose long term problems of settlement.

The refugees who have entered into India have two valuable rights guaranteed under the Indian Constitution, Article 14 and Article 21 are available for foreigners (which includes refugees).

In 1989-90 I filed several cases on behalf of Burmese who were jailed in Imphal and argued that since they have the right under Article 14 and 21 the only way to protect those rights would be to allow the Burmese to go to Delhi to seek the help of the UNHCR. The courts allowed my prayer and so many Burmese refugees got the protection of the UNHCR.

This time I am hoping the Mizzima journalists waiting at the border are allowed to go to Delhi to seek the protection of UNHCR and they do not have to go to jail before the courts give them permission to seek UNHCR help.

The irony is that Pau Khan Thawn and his wife are children of Burmese refugees who came to India in 1988-89; they were born in India and went back to Myanmar. Now they are back in India as adults wanting asylum and they cannot understand why the Centre Government who organized their tour just a while ago is now calling them migrants.

Soe Myint too is asking the same question from his hideout. He asks how the Government can sign a contract with Mizzima and then allow Mizzima journalists to be stranded in Moreh without basic necessities.


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