DELHI — Moving images and stories of tired, anxious refugees crossing into Europe have occupied the home pages of news sites, dominated air time and gone viral online over the last months. The world is facing the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, media reports say, with a staggering 60 million people forced to leave their homes, millions of them coming from Syria alone. But even as world leaders grapple with the crisis and look for ways to rehabilitate the desperate population, around half of whom are children, there is much to be learned from the experiences of the thousands of Burmese refugees who have been living in Delhi for several years now, having escaped the brutal military rule in their own country.
Mya Mya Aye, 62, was once a homemaker not too concerned with understanding the complexities of politics. Married in 1970, she had made up her mind to focus on bringing up her children while her husband, Dr. Tint Swe, a medical doctor by profession who chose to become a politician to serve the people. In fact, he had stood for parliamentary elections from the National League for Democracy and won in the Monywa division in 1990. He then became the Minister of Information and Public Relations in the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma at the time.
But a massacre in 1988, after a popular pro-democracy movement led by students that became known as the 88 Generation Uprising, drastically changed the lives of everyone in May Aye’s close-knit family.
“My two sons were among the 88 Generation protestors, and so things were obviously tough for them,” she said. Before long, she, too, found herself being drawn into the movement and later joined the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which is headed by the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
With the military junta cracking down on the 88 Generation students as well as NLD party members — many imprisoned on charges of “illegally using electronic media” and “forming an illegal organization” — her husband and eldest son fled the country. Thereafter, the family home and clinic were sealed, leaving Mya Aye and her four other children on the run.
“From 1992, we couldn’t even get a house on rent because of the constant surveillance and harassment meted out to homeowners who offered us accommodation,” she said. Finally, in 1995, she came to India and reunited with her husband. The couple have been living in Delhi ever since.
Today, fortunately for them all, the winds of change are stronger, as a slow democratic transition has unfolded back home with Thein Sein being sworn into the presidency in March 2011 as the head of the nominally civilian government that replaced almost 50 years of military rule. Mya Aye can now get in touch with her relatives and friends through the Internet and Skype these days, and some time back, she got to meet with a relative in Bihar, a state in India.
It was an emotional reunion. “We cried a lot — out of happiness, of course. We had so much catching up to do, about our lives, our children, ourselves,” May Aye said.
A 2009 survey by Refugees International puts the number of displaced Burmese in India between 50,000 to 1,00,000, most of whom live in northeast India or in Delhi, the capital. As the media has reported, Delhi’s 8,000-strong Burmese community is faced with several challenges, like appalling living conditions, lack of treatment for seriously ill and dearth of jobs and safety. What makes life tougher for them is that India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, so the protection of refugees is at best confined to ad hoc measures taken by the central government, leaving them with few civil, political or legal rights.
Apart from the daily uncertainties entailed in being refugees, they face innumerable cultural and behavioural differences, and women in particular have many stories to relate of discrimination and harassment, including sexual harassment. In addition, financial insecurities do not make things any easier. People like Mya Aye, who assists her husband at his clinic in West Delhi, which provides free service and treatment, have built new lives for themselves. Others still feel that they are living in limbo.
Whereas most of the refugees are keen to return to their homeland and to be united with their relatives, the ethnic strife and human-rights violations that are still rampant in Burma, or Myanmar, leave out that option. Nonetheless, the refugees fervently hold on to hope, which incidentally had been fanned to a frenzy when their beloved Daw (or, Madam) Suu Kyi had come to India in 2012 after her long house arrest. It had been her first visit in 40 years to Delhi, a city where she had spent her early college years.
Women like Mya Aye and Hmaengi Lushai, another Burmese refugee living in Delhi who has been associated with several Burmese women’s groups, had barely contained their excitement at the prospect of meeting her. Mya Aye recalls how she “prayed to Buddha to give me a chance to meet Daw Suu Kyi so that I could tell her that everyone here is with her and that we also want to go back home.”
Hmaengi Lushai noted: “Many of us, including me, had learnt the Hindi word “swagat” [or “welcome”] that we emblazoned on the posters we had made to welcome Aung Sang Suu Kyi. After all, we had been looking forward all those years for that one opportunity to greet her personally.”
Even as Daw Suu Kyi continues to be their inspiration, the Burmese community in Delhi is becoming more conscious of the delicate relations between India and the ruling establishment back home and is hopeful that the Indian government will review its foreign policy, taking into consideration women refugees seeking asylum in this country.
During the release of the latest report on the conditions of Burmese refugees in Delhi, prepared by Burma Centre Delhi and the Pann Nu Foundation, Dr. Alana Golmei of the Pann Nu Foundation had urged the authorities and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help the displaced families to create the “better life” they had wanted when they had come to India all those years ago.
May Aye’s husband, Dr. Swe, counsels patience, saying, “Much will depend on both our countries working towards a mutually beneficial climate of accountability and responsible investment.” Things may still be uncertain for the refugees at present, but Burmese people are counting on the fact that change, as the adage goes, is the only constant in life. Will it be for better or for worse, only time can tell.
(© Women’s Feature Service)