Chin Exiles, Local Concerns And The Humble Areca Nut
Inside Mizoram, the areca nut--used across India to flavour the ubiquitous paan--has become the heart of a controversy about Myanmarese Chin refugees that flared up when angry local farmers allegedly set fire to trucks carrying smuggled areca nuts from across the border
OFFICIALS IN MIZORAM have collated information about the influx of Chin refugees from neighbouring Myanmar in neatly bound booklets, containing copies of the identity cards, photos and other relevant details of refugees who have crossed into Mizoram and been given shelter in various camps in the states. Every camp inmate is issued a laminated ID card by the district administration in addition to the frayed pink ID slips issued by their own government in Chin State; both are precious and are stored carefully by their owners, who live in hope of one day returning to their own homes.
These compilations include details of what security officials say are 700 former policemen from Myanmar, who have turned against their government and fled the country for fear of reprisals.
Elsewhere in the state is a low-profile group of self-exiled opposition politicians from Myanmar, who now live in private homes, a scruffy government transit house, and other locations in Mizoram. These are, for the most part, members of the now non-functional Chin state legislature back in their homeland and their families, and a few members of the national parliament.
After the army took back power from the National League for Democracy (NLD) in February 2021, pro-democracy leaders of different parties including the NLD, forced into opposition and exile, formed a coalition called the National Unity Government. This now functions as a government-in-exile. Its members are scattered around various parts of the world; it has no fixed headquarters, and is not recognised by any government. Exiled leaders told the author that coordination between its members is improving, and they talk regularly across time zones and geographies.
A community kitchen where rice is cooked for all at a Chin refugee camp in Mizoram. The refugees live a hard life, but say it is better than the violence in neighbouring Myanmar.
India, as we wrote in the first piece of this series, conscious of the high stakes involved and China’s deep involvement in the region, has been taking a cautious middle path on the coup and persecution of Chin refugees, saying that “restoration of democracy in Myanmar remains a priority. India has called for the cessation of violence, upholding rule of law and release of political detainees.” But Delhi has also shied away from calling out the Myanmar army for its excesses. It continues to urge engagement with the junta and votes against sanctions, arguing that a hard-line isolationist policy--as advocated by the United States and its allies--will not work.
New Delhi’s policy, which has faced criticism at home as well as abroad, is born of experience and hard nosed common sense, with a view to the strategic implications for the Indo-Pacific region. In 1988, it took a much tougher stand against an earlier junta, but this has since evolved into a calculated pragmatism, including growing economic and military ties. With Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the Nobel prize winner and primary NLD leader who was State Counsellor and Foreign Minister before she was overthrown, India had sought to expand an array of collaborations including road, river and port infrastructure. New Delhi is careful not to take any steps against the military junta that might put these investments at risk.
A senior Myanmar leader-in-exile, who did not want to be identified, said that he and his colleagues understand and appreciate India’s strategic compulsions, and value the fact that India has extensive economic investments in Myanmar in the sectors of energy, highways, shipping and other infrastructure projects. Key among these is the Kaladan multi-nodal port, river and road project on the river of the same name, that seeks to create a traffic route from the Bay of Bengal to Mizoram state and then to other parts of the region.
While India strives to strike a balance in its public posture, international human rights organisations and the United Nations as well as the Association of SouthEast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, have demanded an end to the violence and the opening of peace talks.
The United States and other countries, including members of the European Council and the United Kingdom, have imposed sanctions against individuals in the Myanmar government as well as against the regime itself, on a range of issues including the sale of arms. Their condemnation of the military junta has been unequivocal and unrelenting.
As recently as November 2022, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken denounced a deadly air attack on civilians who had gathered for an outdoor music event, and said that the US stood “with the people of Burma in the face of the regime’s increasingly brazen attempts to terrorize and intimidate them, while suppressing their aspirations for a democratic, inclusive, and prosperous future”. The US, he added, was determined to “promote justice and accountability for the regime’s human rights abuses and deprive the regime of the revenue and resources it uses to commit atrocities against the people of Burma”.
But in terms of security, the war in Ukraine remains top priority for NATO members, with the US taking the lead in providing the beleaguered country with billions worth of weapon systems and other security assistance.
In contrast, the rebels in Myanmar are fighting with an outdated arsenal, comprising mainly weapons seized from army camps and from soldiers who’ve fled from the battle zone, as also weaponry brought over by deserting troops. Western nations do not appear to be officially supplying weapons to the rebels; their angle of attack appears to be choking financial and arms supplies to the junta with the use of extensive and targeted sanctions.
The Myanmar military regime says that tough martial law was imposed on 37 townships across the country, including in Chin state, and it had "authorized military tribunals to hand down life sentences and the death penalty for a wide range of offenses." The Myanmar opposition refuted this statement, saying that “that all the towns where martial law was declared are actually under control of anti-junta forces”. In the absence of independent assessments of the ground situation and information on which side has greater control of territory, such claims and counterclaims are difficult to confirm. However, rare media coverage of life in the occupied and contested zones paints a chilling picture of constant risk and danger.
The Chin leaders say that they control and collect taxes from not less than 36 townships in Sagaing division, across the borders of Manipur and Nagaland. “The military have the towns, the CDF and PDF hold the countryside,” said one Chin leader, who requested anonymity. “But we are aware that this may not make much difference to the army generals, as they still hold the rich and populated Burma Central lowlands.”
In a bid to stamp their authority on the contested Chin state of Myanmar, opposition leaders are seeking to establish a parallel police system that will crack down on smuggling across the Indo-Myanmar border, where illegal trade includes narcotics, areca nuts and small arms, said exiled leaders from Myanmar who did not want to be identified given the sensitivity of the issue.
Smuggling has become a sensitive issue in North East India, where not a day passes without headlines of large caches of drugs and contraband being seized by police and customs after intercepts of suspects. Those apprehended are of various ethnicities, states and religious persuasions, and political leaders speak of how the drug menace is a national issue that needs to be tackled.
The Myanmarese politicians-in-exile are aware that smuggling at such scale can cause an erosion of the goodwill of their hosts in Mizoram, and that helping to control the contraband trade could improve their uneasy relationship with the Indian, and particularly Mizoram, authorities.
Inside Mizoram, the humble areca nut, used across India to flavour the ubiquitous paan (the lustrous heart-shaped betel leaf) of many hues and flavours, has become the heart of a controversy that has flared up, quite literally, when in December 2022 angry local farmers allegedly set fire to trucks carrying areca nuts.
Depending on how it is consumed, the areca nut gives different levels of a “high”, and can be addictive. It is the fourth most commonly used psychoactive substance after alcohol, tobacco, and caffeinated drinks like coffee and tea.
The issue centres around large scale illegal shipments of the nuts which are transported, researchers and officials say, on condition of anonymity, from as far away as Indonesia and Malaysia, entering India through various points in Mizoram, and then spreading out across the country. The market is huge and spans not just India but also its neighbouring countries and beyond.
One official said that at the peak of the trade, 50 trucks carrying dried areca nuts would ply every night from Champhai, the main commercial town near the Indo-Myanmar border. An official who had led anti-smuggling operations said that, depending on their size, each truck could carry 170-200 bags of nuts. Each bag holds about 1,200 to 1,800 pieces of varying size. Each piece sells in the market for anything between Rs 2.50 to Rs 7, said the official.
“Everyone knew about it but no one thought of it as illegal or as smuggled goods,” the official said, because it had become such a normal way of trade. Local officials and activists allege that a powerful political and bureaucratic nexus protects and profits from the process, which feeds the burgeoning gutka and paan masala factories and businesses nationwide.
What was routine became an issue when three events happened: a lawmaker from Karnataka raised the issue in Parliament, saying imports were hurting the interests and businesses of local plantation and areca nut farmers in his state. Secondly, local farmers and politicians in Mizoram became vocal and increasingly upset over the smuggling as it was damaging their economy. Third, a tough district administrator led a crackdown in Champhai, seizing trucks, sealing storage units, and in one case, burning sacks of the smuggled nuts.
For her pains, the official, Maria C.T. Zuali, found a First Information Report lodged against her, and she was then transferred back to Aizawl. Officials and activists see this as proof of official collusion in the racket, and say that part of the trade is being controlled by ‘syndicates’ from Assam’s Barak Valley. The Young Mizo Association (YMA) has been outspoken on the issue, and is demanding protection for the rights of local farmers.
A key part of the challenge lies in the porous nature of the sprawling 1,643-kilometre-long border that divides it from Myanmar’s Chin State, Sagaing Region, and Kachin State. A local official has been quoted as saying that there are 40 cross-border smuggling routes in Champhai district alone.
News website East Mojo, noted: “According to data available with Central Customs department, as many as 1,108.97 metric ton of areca nuts worth over Rs 35.84 crore ($4.85 million) smuggled from Myanmar has been seized in Mizoram this year till November. Of the 1,108.97 metric ton, 976.37 metric ton of areca nuts were seized by the Customs officials, while 132.60 metric ton was seized by other agencies”.
Another report emphasised that India had allowed the tariff-free import of betel nut from Myanmar beginning in 1994, when the two countries signed a preferential trade agreement. But India reimposed a 40% tariff on the product in 2018, after it grew concerned that importers were rerouting Indonesian areca nut through Myanmar to circumvent import tariffs. Invariably, the move prompted border traders to ship their product through “unofficial” routes on the winding, thickly forested and hilly border terrain that is often marked by streams and rivers, said Indian security officials and activists.
Whether taken raw or with lime or a concoction of anise, tobacco, various paan and gutka mixtures, the humble areca nut is an integral part of everyday life in India, with paan shops in every village and city corner, and red paan stains on buildings and streets as markers of its extensive use.
While referenced in history and literature, celebrated in poems and even Bollywood songs (who does not remember Amitabh Bachchan’s rendition of Khaike Paan Banaras wallah?), there’s now a new flavour to the areca nut mix, with the Mizoram-Myanmar connection, and an occasional political storm.
The exiled politicians in Mizoram hope that the illicit activity and the growing anger does not adversely impact the hospitality Mizoram has extended towards Myanmarese refugees, for they don’t know how much longer it will be before they can even dream of returning to their homeland, and in the meantime they are dependent on the benevolence of their hosts.
They smile wryly when they talk of the 2021 Myanmar elections that failed to give them power despite the fact that they won. Some have not even attended Myanmar’s sprawling Parliament, which lies in the cavernous capital of Naw Pyi Daw with its vast six lane roads, its replica of the sacred gold-topped Shwedagon pagoda of Yangon, and its massive five star hotels.
“I did not get a chance to sit even for one day in Parliament after my elections,” said an exiled member of parliament, who did not want to be identified. “The coup took place and we had to leave ... to scatter and get away.”
In the scruffy guest house that is their current home, they wait, they work, they talk and hope.
(You can read the first part of this series, on the refugee camps and the life of the Chins in Mizoram, here, and the second part, on a rockstar Chin refugee, here.)
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