For over 60 years, a military regime has ruled over Burma (Myanmar). Its people know intimately what it means to be discriminated against, religiously persecuted, and beaten for one's ethnicity. But yesterday Sunday, April 1, the Burmese people voted for more than 40 vacant parliamentary seats. It's the first election in over 20 years in which the National League of Democracy (NLD) participated, and it won the majority of the available seats. NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi won her race for a seat in the lower house of parliament. She was placed under house arrest for 15 years for her strong, peaceful leadership in Burma. As the Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi has led the Burmese people in resisting military rule in her country. She has fallen ill recently after weeks of hard campaigning, but she still embodies her people's great hope for a democratic, free, and resilient Burma.
Sunday's election seems to indicate that Burma's government is willing to reform in order to be accepted by the international community. But while these elections and the recent release of political prisoners are signs of progress, many have had longstanding concerns that there has been no peace between the military regime and the ethnic minority areas of Burma. In the past couple decades, the Karen, Kachin, Shan, Chin, Rohingya, and other ethnic minorities have fled en masse to neighboring Thailand, Malaysia, and India.
In fact, the presence of so many refugees in surrounding countries is a telltale sign that a decent, functioning government is absent from the countries from which they fled. Over bamboo stilts and tiny 4×6 houses, these refugees have lived, in some cases for over two decades, in areas with limited running water, in overcrowded, insecure refugee camps, and at the mercy of the host community.
Last year, I visited Mizoram State, India, now home to over 100,000 refugees who have fled Chin State, Burma, over two decades. This rugged, remote area of India is the country's largest Christian state, with 95 percent of its 1 million citizens identifying as Christians. In fact, the church is the state's strongest institution, providing much-needed social services through hospitals, orphanages, and schools. However, the Indian government had restricted access to this area for years. I had heard about these refugees' plight for years through the Chin community who were resettled to the United States and still had friends and relatives living in India. When India's government lifted travel restrictions to the area, I went and met with the local community hosting the refugees and the refugees themselves.
I met one woman who had been a teacher in Burma. One of her 14-year-old students was raped by Burmese soldiers. When she reported this abuse to the authorities, they came to her house looking for her, and she fled to India for safety. I met an 18-year-old who was forced to porter for the Burmese military over 20 times in his young life, often for weeks at a time, carrying military equipment and supplies with no pay away from his family. In fact, a report from Physicians for Human Rights states that in Chin State alone, 91 percent of those surveyed were victims of crimes against humanity, which included forced labor, rape, and being used as mine clearers.
These and other refugees have found some safety in India. But their persistent fear in India is palpable. Without any form of proper protection in the form of documentation, many fear being deported back to Burma where they could be persecuted again. For many Chin refugees, they hope for the day when they can return to a safe, democratic, free Chin state in Burma.
I believe the elections in Burma were a critical opportunity for the people of Burma to determine their future with the world watching. While the elections are just one step in a long process of reforms in the country, with free and fair elections, the ground is further tilled for a democracy that will allow many to one day return to Burma and contribute to the development of their beloved homelands.
In the meantime, the Chin people in Mizoram yearn to be integrated into their host country of India. My hope is that through the local church, the international community can come alongside the church in Mizoram to welcome the Chins to Mizoram through protection and humanitarian assistance efforts, Moreover, I hope that the U.S. government will continue to raise with the Indian government the need to provide protection to this group of vulnerable refugees. But above all, I hope that the Chin know the love of Christ through Mizoram's Christians as they fulfill the biblical command to embrace the strangers among us.
Jenny Yang is the director of advocacy and policy at World Relief. More information with a full report and photos can be found on ChinSeekingRefuge.com. Jenny is coauthor of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate
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