Myanmar instability hampers India’s bid to send home refugees

By Thomson Reuters Apr 18, 2024 | 3:01 AM

By Tora Agarwala

IMPHAL, India (Reuters) – Fighting between Myanmar’s rebel forces and the ruling junta has delayed India’s effort to send home undocumented refugees from its neighbour who entered the northeastern border state of Manipur, Indian security officials said.

Thousands of civilians and hundreds of troops from Myanmar have fled to India after the February 2021 military coup against Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected civilian government, drawn across the border by shared ethnic and family ties.

Last month, authorities in Manipur said they would deport at least 77 refugees who had entered without documents through the Indian border town of Moreh after the coup.

“Thirty-eight were taken (from Imphal, the state capital) to Moreh but we are waiting for communication from Myanmar authorities to take them back,” a senior police official said on condition of anonymity as the matter is a sensitive one.

A junta spokesperson did not immediately respond to a telephone call from Reuters to seek comment.

India’s foreign ministry and Manipur state authorities also did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has blamed the refugee influx as one reason for violence that has roiled Manipur, killing at least 220 people since ethnic clashes broke out in May last year.

India has vowed to end a decades-old policy of visa-free movement for those living along the porous 1,650-km (1,000-mile)border, which it aims to fence.

A group of 77 refugees was to be sent back to Myanmar in batches between March 8 and 11, according to a Manipur state government document dated March 5 and independently verified by Reuters.

Although 38 of them made it to Moreh by March 10, they have been stuck there since in Indian custody.

“This is because the Myanmar government is not stable, especially at the Tamu area,” said another senior police official, referring to a region in Myanmar.

The refugees might be forcibly returned if Myanmar did not take them back, he added.

Simmering anger against the junta over its 2021 coup turned into a nationwide armed resistance movement now increasingly operating in co-ordination with established ethnic rebel groups to challenge the military across large parts of Myanmar.

As the junta has battled the insurgencies, it has lost control of tracts bordering Bangladesh, China and India after a series of defeats in frontier areas since last October.

(Additional reporting by Krishn Kaushik in New Delhi; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly and Clarence Fernandez)