Leader of Indian state promises food and shelter for families fleeing Myanmar

Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga said that tribes in Mizoram had deep cultural links with those on the Myanmar side. PHOTO: REUTERS

AIZAWL, India (REUTERS) - The chief minister of a small Indian state into which a stream of refugees from Myanmar have entered in recent days said on Monday (March 8) that they should be given temporary shelter, as the federal government decides on whether some will be sent back.

Several low-ranking Myanmar police and their families have crossed into north-eastern Mizoram state, where they have sought refuge to avoid taking orders from a junta that imposed a coup in the Southeast Asian country last month.

But authorities in Myanmar last week asked officials in Mizoram to detain and return eight police officers, raising concerns about their safety if they are sent back by India.

"As common sense dictates, when there is a political problem in one country and when there is a fear for one's life, if they cross over to the neighbouring countries, then normally they were not sent back," Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga said in an interview.

The final call would be taken by the federal government, which has been communicating with Mizoram authorities and still hasn't given clear directions, creating some confusion on how the refugees would be handled, he said.

"From the humanitarian point of view, we have to give them food, we have to give them shelter," said Zoramthanga, who uses only one name.

Myanmar and Mizoram share a 404-km border, with only a shallow river currently dividing the two countries in some parts, making it easy for people to cross.

Although the porous nature of the frontier made it difficult to estimate exactly how many from Myanmar had walked into Mizoram in recent weeks, Zoramthanga said it could be between 20 and 30.

But a senior police official in Mizoram's capital said nearly 100 people from Myanmar, mostly police and their families, had crossed over in five border districts.

Some of the defected Myanmar police have told Indian officials they fled after being ordered to use violence against protesters, who have staged weeks of demonstrations against the coup that deposed the civilian government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

More than 50 people have been killed by security forces, according the United Nations, with some 1,700 people detained, including Suu Kyi.

The situation has put India in a potential diplomatic bind, given New Delhi's close relations with the Myanmar military, which it works with on counter-insurgency operations in the north-eastern region.

Zoramthanga, a 76-year-old rebel leader turned politician, said that tribes in Mizoram had deep cultural links with those on the Myanmar side, but the major concern was risk to lives that was forcing them to cross over.

"We have to have sympathy for them," he said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.