Terrified and uncertain, these families crossed mountains to escape Myanmar’s deadly junta

They traveled at night to hide from military patrols, and took unpopulated routes during the day. They managed to avoid detection for almost 110 miles (177 kilometers) — until the third day, as they were nearing the India-Myanmar border.

“They were searching for us in our town,” said the woman, 36, who CNN is not naming for her safety. “When we were about to cross over, the Myanmar police chased after us.”

The family ran — and just managed to cross into India’s northeastern state of Mizoram, and into safety.

They are among at least 400 Burmese nationals, including police officers, government officials, and civilians, who have fled to Mizoram since the military coup in Myanmar last month, according to Mizoram Chief Minister PU Zoramthanga.

Since seizing power on February 1, the military junta has cracked down on opposition voices with increasing brutality. At least 275 protesters have been killed, including dozens of teenagers and young people, according to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. And up to 2,400 people have been detained, according to the United Nations.

Though Mizoram and Myanmar share a porous 510-kilometer (about 317-mile) border, the main crossing point has been closed for months due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The remote, jagged terrain is difficult to navigate, and those fleeing Myanmar have been reliant on activists to help cross safely into India. Many are now being sheltered by relatives and locals in Mizoram, with whom they share close cultural links.

“We (the state government) are not sending them back as a humanitarian point of view,” said Zoramthanga. “When somebody enters the land, the country’s border, for fear of their lives, we cannot simply send them back.

“They are not criminals.”

The Indian federal government has not publicly announced what it will do with the new arrivals, and whether to comply with requests from Myanmar authorities to deport police officers who fled — leaving families like the woman’s hanging in the balance.

CNN has reached out to India’s Ministry of Home Affairs for comment, but has not yet received a response.

“We cannot say or do anything freely, we will be living in danger,” said the woman as she held her daughter in her lap. “If our country is peaceful, we are willing to go back. If not, there is no way we can go back.”

Violent crackdown in Myanmar

After seizing power in Myanmar, coup leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing detained democratically elected lawmakers including civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, ousted her administration, and established a ruling junta. The commander-in-chief declared a state of emergency for one year, after which he said an election would be held.
The coup sparked a peaceful civil disobedience movement across the Southeast Asian country, with daily protests and labor strikes that have been ongoing for nearly two months, despite the threat of deadly violence. Millions of people of all ages and social backgrounds have come out onto the streets, demanding the military hand back power to civilian control and calling for the release of those detained. The country only began allowing democratic elections after a series of reforms in 2011, following half a century of brutal military rule — and protesters are unwilling to lose their hard-won democracy and freedoms.

Security forces, made up of police and military personnel, have responded by shooting peaceful protesters and pulling people from their homes in nighttime raids. Images and footage from the ground show security forces opening fire on crowds, bloodied bodies lying on the street, and police beating protesters and medical workers.

With mobile networks and internet often shut down on orders of the military, little information is coming out, making it difficult for news organizations and human rights groups to assess and verify the situation.

Many police officers fleeing to Mizoram said they couldn’t comply with the brutal orders to kill.

“When more than five protesters gather and we can’t break the crowd, we have orders to shoot,” one now-former officer told CNN. “I don’t want to serve under the military dictators, so I escaped from the police force … I don’t want the bloodshed of the civilians.”

Another police sergeant who fled said he had served in the force for 28 years, including under the previous military government, before the 2011 reforms.

“After I served under the democratic government, I couldn’t convince myself to serve a dictator again,” he said. “I was ordered to kill protesters by my seniors. I can’t kill my innocent countrymen. Even the police rulebook prohibits that — so I disobeyed, joined the protests and finally fled to Mizoram.”

CNN cannot independently verify the allegations of the former officers, or of the woman. CNN has reached out to Myanmar’s embassy for comment, but has not yet received a response.

Indo-Myanmar trade bridge on Tiau river at Zokhawthar village the in eastern Mizoram district of Champhai, bordering Myanmar.

The Myanmar-India border isn’t typically heavily fortified, though security has now stepped up. The Tiau River, nearly 100 miles (160 kilometers) long, provides a natural border, and the two countries are connected by a bridge in the eastern Mizoram district of Champhai.

The narrow bridge, about 10 feet wide with steel and wire gates on either end, is the official international trade crossing — but is by no means the only access point. The river is little more than a stream at some points; when it runs shallow, people can simply walk or drive across. Locals say many families have relatives living on both sides, meaning people come and go across the border frequently.

But the journey to Mizoram isn’t easy. Western Myanmar is rugged and mountainous, and unpaved dirt roads can be treacherous at night, when protesters feel safest traveling. Those fleeing with families or children face additional challenges; they can’t bring much food or supplies, and have little time for rest.

A strong network of activists and relatives on both sides of the border help facilitate their escape. One activist from the ethnic Chin community says they have helped about 270 people enter Mizoram since the coup.

A local activist from the Indian state of Mizoram, who helps people cross over to India.

The trip typically takes days, though its length depends on where in Myanmar people are fleeing from. They also need to take extra time to evade military patrols and their posts, sometimes by taking much longer roundabout routes, said the activist.

“The most dangerous thing is to be spotted by the police or military patrols,” the activist said. “We transport them at night, we hide if it is needed.”

CNN is not naming the activist or the former officers for their safety.

After crossing the border, arrivals who have relatives on the Indian side stay with them. Those who don’t are sheltered by the network, and their location is kept secret. Those who spoke with CNN declined to give details about their route through Myanmar, hoping the discretion will allow others to follow undetected.

But not everyone makes it. The activist said they know of four people who tried to flee to Mizoram, and were caught before they reached the border.

“We don’t know what became of them,” the activist said.

An uncertain future

The 36-year-old (identity withheld) with her daughter at a temporary shelter in Mizoram.

The pregnant woman who fled with her husband and child said she felt her fears dissipate when they reached Mizoram.

The family is now living in a single room in a temporary shelter. There is no bed; they sleep on cloths laid over a tarp on the floor, with a few pillows and blankets to share. The room is bare, save for a small table covered with their meager belongings: a backpack, water bottles, a motorbike helmet.

It’s not much, but “I feel safe and in peace,” said the woman. Her second child is due in a few months, and she feels safer giving birth in India since many doctors in Myanmar are on strike, she said.

But it’s not clear where they will be in a few months, as the two countries and their leaders discuss what happens next.

The daughter of the 36-year-old woman at a temporary shelter after fleeing Myanmar.

In 2019, India passed a controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill that allows fast-tracked citizenship for non-Muslim religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. But Myanmar isn’t on the list, and Burmese ethnic minorities who fled to India have faced deportations in recent years — most notably the Rohingya Muslim population, who were forced to flee Myanmar to escape deadly violence described by various United Nations agencies as genocide.

Since 2017, Indian authorities have been working to deport Rohingya in the country. This month, they detained 150 Rohingya refugees and began deportation processes, despite outcry from activists and human rights organizations.

It remains to be seen whether the same approach will be used on those fleeing the crackdown in Myanmar. In early March, the deputy commissioner in Myanmar’s Falam District sent a letter to his Indian counterpart across the border, formally requesting the detention and return of eight Burmese police personnel who fled to Mizoram. The officers should be handed back “in order to uphold friendly relations,” said the letter, obtained by CNN.

Soon after, a spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs told reporters the government was still “ascertaining the facts,” and is “in talks with our partner countries on this.” The status of the eight officers is unclear.

On March 10, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs asked several northeastern states, including Mizoram, to “initiate deportation proceedings expeditiously and without delay,” according to a copy of the advisory obtained by CNN.

Myanmar's military is killing peaceful protesters. Here's what you need to know

In the advisory, the ministry referred to those who fled as “illegal migrants,” and reiterated that states and union territories do not have the power to grant refugee status to any foreign national. India is not a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, nor the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. A total of 148 countries are signatories to one of these two legal agreements, which outline the rights of refugees and are meant to protect them.

Zoramthanga, the Mizoram chief minister, wrote a letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 18, criticizing the advisory as “not acceptable to Mizoram.”

“Every day terrified Myanmar citizens are struggling to cross over to Mizoram in search of shelter and protection,” he wrote, urging Modi to give asylum and provide food and shelter to the new arrivals. “Mizoram cannot just remain indifferent to their sufferings today.”

The Home Ministry has not publicly commented on the advisory, and the federal government has not publicly taken a stance on the issue or announced any plan of action.

Human rights groups have also taken a strong stance against deportation. “The Myanmar military’s increasingly brutal repression following the coup puts any returnees at serious risk of abuse,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, on March 10. “Instead of putting more lives in harm’s way, India should join other governments in pressing the military junta to restore democratic rule.”
All the while, more people are coming across the border, with the number increasing “exponentially” every day, said Zoramthanga. There’s no end in sight to the crackdown and civil disobedience movement, and violence continues to escalate in Myanmar, with 38 killed last Monday in the deadliest day so far.
Most of the people who spoke to CNN — including Zoramthanga, the activist, and several of those who fled — were certain more people would flow across the border, raising questions about how India will accommodate a potentially large-scale influx.
Indo-Myanmar trade bridge at Zokhawthar village, Mizoram, India.

For those who have made it across, all they can do is hide, wait and pray.

Families in Mizoram say their lives depend on the government’s decision. Both the sergeant and former officer said they feared returning to Myanmar while the military is in power — they could be jailed for years, if not killed, for disobeying orders and escaping, they said.

“Although their body may reach Mizoram, their mind is still in Myanmar, they are not completely at ease,” said the activist. “They still think of their properties, pets, parents and families. They may reach India, but their heart is in Myanmar, so they cannot feel peaceful.”

The woman said she has been in contact with her parents and siblings, who stayed in Myanmar, but fears for their safety. “The police may question them,” she said. “I don’t know what they will do to them.”

“I’m missing my parents, my family. I want to be with them,” she added. “We don’t want to be refugees. We want to go home.”

Helen Regan, Chanchinmawia, Sai Singson and Jacob Lalnunhlima contributed to this report.

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