Story and photos by Mark Belinsky and Emily Jacobi
Mark Belinsky and Emily Jacobi are co-directors of Democracy 2.0, a project to create a virtual platform for civil society in Burma, a country ruled by military dictatorship for over 40 years. Belinsky and Jacobi (Jacobi is a graduate of Lawrence Central High School) recently came to Indy to work with the Burmese community, after spending time with Burmese refugees in Thailand, India and Bangladesh. Today, there are about 1,200 Chin living in Perry Township and people from Eastern Burma are moving into the Northside’s Washington Township.
Giant rats appeared to be on the loose in Mizoram state, and Emily was growing worried about heading to the obscure province in northeast India.
Mark wasn’t so sure. “Rodents of Unusual Size? I don’t think they exist.”
Emily pointed to the headline.
“Look at this: ‘Gigantic Rats attack paddy farms and stock.’ They’ve sighted some rats as big as 15 kg [30 pounds]. What are we getting ourselves into?”
We were headed to northeast India, a forgotten corner of the world. We’d traveled halfway across the subcontinent to get there, flying from Kolkata to Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram state.
It’s a place few Westerners have visited; most Indians don’t know much about it, either. Since India’s independence in 1948, decades of insurrection have isolated the region. And the reason for these rebellions was what was making Emily nervous: rats.
Mizoram’s rich soil makes the land so lush that the bamboo forests there blossom every 50 years. These flowers are extremely nutritious — to rats. When the bamboo blossoms, the rat population soars. But after a few seasons the bamboo dies, and the rats are left hungry.
They turn to human crops, causing widespread famine. The last time this happened, the central Indian government failed to respond with aid, leading to an armed uprising and independence movement by the Mizo people that lasted until the mid-1980s.
Mark turned to Emily. “When is the last time the bamboo blossomed?”
“So, if it’s a cycle that repeats every 50 years, that means it’s happening now?”
“Welcome to 2008, the year of the rat.”
Heading to a remote place infested with famine-inducing rodents gave us pause. But after learning about the plight of Burmese refugees in Thailand and Bangladesh, we knew that understanding the situation in Mizoram was essential if we were to develop a comprehensive vision of what faced the Burmese living in exile around the country’s borders.
The rat problem wasn’t unique to Mizoram — it extended across the border to western Burma’s Chin State as well. We were already familiar with the human rights abuses caused by Burma’s military dictatorship. But we also needed to get a better sense of whether the looming rat overpopulation crisis would increase the flow of refugees and migrant workers from Burma into India.
Operating with exiled dissidents struggling for democracy in their homeland means facing obstacles ranging from deadly diseases to security concerns for our contacts, who often operate underground. If caught doing this work inside Burma, it can mean a death sentence, or years in political prison. In India, the stakes are also high. Exiles face discrimination from employers and police, raids on their homes and offices and, worst of all, deportation back to Burma.
Despite these risks, the passion and determination of our contacts and interviewees is inspiring. In Mizoram, for instance, we would meet activists who risked their lives to conduct trainings inside Burma, who did forced labor at the hands of the military while documenting human rights abuses in Chin State and who had left behind families, homes and villages to work for democracy.
We landed at the Mizoram capital’s small airport and greeted our guide, Railae (name changed to protect identity), who said a shy hello and led us to a taxi to take us into town.
“Where are we headed?”
“First we have to sign in,” Railae said, “then I will drop you off at Hotel Hill Orchid.”
“Signing in” meant going to register at the Tourist Office, which keeps track of all foreign visitors, making sure that people like us are here for tourist purposes rather than political ones.
A plump and over-eager driver ushered us into his tiny hatchback cab. After stuffing our large bags in the back, the driver squeezed into his seat and we puttered off. The car displayed his personality — his dashboard was filled with tchotchkes displaying a decidedly kitschy American aesthetic. The centerpiece was a large sticker that read “See you again” in white cursive with red shadowing. Above it was the plastic figure of a chocolate lab with a sign hanging out of its mouth reading “Welcome” in English.
The 30-kilometer drive from airport to city ran along the bamboo forests and beside small villages of huts. Countless road signs with Christian parables warned of the consequences of hastiness. Mizoram (and neighboring Chin State) is almost entirely Christian. Baptist missionaries brought religion here in the late 1800s, and it stuck. A century later, Mizoram has an estimated 90 percent church attendance rate, making it one of the most Christian places in the world.
The scenery outside the taxi was breathtaking, but even our guide was feeling carsick from the countless switchbacks that carried us over the many hills. Mizoram means “land of the hill people.” Aizawl, the elevated capital, sprawls along the mountaintops. We passed old women carrying enormous loads on their heads as they walked up steep inclines. These were short, stocky, thick-calved women — not a single one of whom looked stereotypically Indian. Aside from practicing a different religion from most Indians, the people in Mizoram are of an entirely different ethnic group, having inherited more east Asian features than south Asian.
Historically, culturally and ethnically, Mizoram has more in common with Burma’s Chin State than with India. People from Mizoram, Chin State and part of the Bangladeshi hill tracts are united by common culture, religion and similar language groups.
The city of Aizawl suddenly appeared as we emerged around a bend. The geography of the city sets it apart. Accustomed to living on hilltops, the Mizo people built their city the same way. Even the buildings seemed to aspire to height, reaching up the mountainside in multiple stories. Steep stairwell alleys connect them vertically for foot traffic, while roads make circuitous S-curves through town.
Soon, we found ourselves staring down a bureaucrat, whose assigned duty was to ensure we were tourists who posed no threat to the central Indian government. We were told Mizoram was the “songbird of the east,” but weren’t able to get a fuller picture of a state that had only recently managed to quell the Mizo independence movement.
But if Mizo-Indian tensions have decreased, Mizo-Chin tensions have grown. The state authorities are wary of the troubles in Burma, and the negative impact this might bring to them. The permit office was not the place to learn the ins and outs of a state grappling with the pressures of having thousands of migrants seeking refuge from across its border.
Officially registered as tourists, we drove back through the city, past homes and offices, schools and churches, admiring the new landscape and stylish clothing of the youth. We noticed haircuts, many dresses and shirts with skulls on them. Mark exclaimed, “Is that kid wearing a Slayer shirt?”
This Slayer sighting was just the beginning. Korn, Limp Biscuit, Metallica, Iron Maiden — everywhere we looked we found evidence of heavy metal fandom. Beyond a mere fad, this was love. It appeared to be pervasive, even in our hotel, where the head-banging bellhops wore black and donned large plugs in their ears.
Railae woke us in time for our first meeting. “You’re in luck,” she said. “You arrived right in time for our first public meeting between Mizo and Chin groups.”
We entered the meeting hall, a tall building under a rainbow sign that read “Department of Co-operation. Love all, serve all.” It was a gathering of local Mizos and Chin from neighboring Burma, in what was billed as the first “Public Meeting for Restoration of Democracy and Human Rights in Burma.”
Traditionally, Mizo groups have been too focused on their own problems with the Indian government to be of much aid or support to their brethren in Burma. But as the Mizo insurgency waned and the Burmese junta’s attacks on Chin State grew (particularly after a nationwide democratic uprising in 1988), more and more Chin have sought refuge in Mizoram. The public meeting on this day was made possible by the highly publicized monk-led protests in Burma of September 2007, which inspired sympathy among average citizens of Mizoram for the Chin’s plight.
The goal of the forum, explained the convener, a prominent Mizo journalist, was to turn public attention on the positive relationship between Chin and Mizo groups, and their shared commitment to achieving democracy in Burma. This was an accomplishment. Previously, Mizoram’s attention was focused on the social and economic problems caused by the migrant population.
Attending gave us an opportunity to meet political leaders from both Chin and Mizo groups, but also made it important for us to try and keep a low profile. Though our tourist permits did not explicitly prohibit such a meeting, Railae’s group and other Burmese activists work mostly underground, and the authorities could make a lot of trouble for them if they knew our interest extended beyond the merely cultural.
Things came to a head when we were asked to speak. In our work, letting Burmese populations know that we are there to support them, creating a link to the outside world, is critical. Here was an opportunity for us to share our intention of raising global awareness about the situation for the Chin. But we had to balance that with our desire to protect the safety of our contacts, who had taken risks to get us there.
Though we asked TV crews present not to record us or display our faces, we ended up on the local news. That afternoon, Railae received a phone call from the authorities. We explained our interest in local culture, but we knew that our subsequent activities would be monitored by watchful eyes.
We left the meeting to play our other role of tourists. Walking around town, we noticed that almost everything appeared to be written in what looked to us like gibberish. The words were legible but the meanings were nonsense. “Lalpa chu kai,” “Bajaj,” “Thangruma,” “Hriattmiamna.” We learned that unlike much of the rest of India, people in Mizoram didn’t have a written script until the missionaries came at the end of the 19th century. At the same time that the inhabitants were baptized as Christians, they were taught the Roman alphabet. This meant we could read everything phonetically, but very little made sense. It was almost like a dream.
Amidst the indecipherable signs, a few gems stuck out in English, including the Dazzlechips Cyber Café, Happy Restaurant, Imperial Hotel, Best Lucky Store and Prisons Dept. Canteen cum Restaurant. But this use of English — and Latin — was almost more disorienting. As we ventured farther, we looked over our shoulders for possible followers.
The market area above our hotel was called “Zion front,” complete with an “Israel store” and “Shalom Telephone Hotline Counselling Centre for HIV/AIDS (Phone #1097).” As for the Jewish references, we learned that many Mizo people believe themselves to be directly descended from the Israelites, insisting they are from the lost tribe of Maneshe.
We passed Goldfinger Tattoo Parlour, where an old man in a leather jacket inked traditional tattoos under an Iron Maiden poster.
Over the next few days we maintained a delicate balance as researchers conducting serious interviews with Chin organizations and tourists exploring a fascinating city. As we learned about the hardships that cause people to leave Chin State and the ways they are working for democracy in their homeland, we remained apprehensive about the security situation. A few days after the public forum, we were waiting outside before a meeting, attempting to look inconspicuous by taking photos. A young man walked by us, then turned back to say hello. We returned the greeting and he introduced himself as Charlie. We made small talk until he looked both ways and whispered, “Are you here for Burma?”
It felt like a shot to the heart. We evaded the question. He seemed friendly, but the safety of our contacts was at stake. If he worked for the Mizoram government, admitting that our real reason for being there was not just tourism but to learn about Burma could ruin our ability to finish our research and possibly endanger our Burmese friends.
Luckily, a couple of Burmese activists we knew walked by, waving big hellos to all three of us. We were able to take our cue from them, loosened up and talked more openly. The incident made us anxious. We thought we were being cautious, but it seemed that even when we were doing usual tourist activities, some of the people were able to guess why we were there.
On our fourth day, we donned our best clothes and headed to “Bethel Baptist Inkhawm Hun” for the “Sunday Zing.” It was a service conducted in Hakha language, and all the congregants were refugees from Burma.
We parked near the Salvation Army and walked down steep steps to a nondescript building that seemed to be sheltered between the larger buildings surrounding it.
We greeted people in the small room of the church with its brightly painted turquoise walls. The attendees were loosely segregated by gender, with the kids in their patent leather shoes occupying the first few rows of the women’s pews. As guests, we were taken to the front, stage right of the pastor. One of our contacts, a young med student visiting her family from mainland India, introduced us to her younger brother on the keyboard. We shared a hymn book, and she laughed as we struggled to sing along.
The church service was a combination of new and old. Traditional drums were used alongside the keyboard, and the guitars were acoustic, although the youth who were playing later told us they would prefer electric. When it came to the hymns, many members of the congregation are illiterate, so young people took turns with a microphone, reciting lines aloud before the congregation sang them, lending a crowded, chaotic feel to the songs. Otherwise, it was much like any church service: a combination of song and prayer, with a lengthy sermon. We took a group picture of the congregation, their faces beaming.
Before everyone left, we went to a small back room with a half-dozen young people, representing the church’s youth group. They told us about the difficulties they face as migrants and as unrecognized refugees. This included discrimination from locals and difficulty finding work. But they were affected in other ways as well. The Chin youth in particular felt judged by their Mizo counterparts. For example, because they were unable to afford electric guitars and amps, they played acoustic instruments to accompany the Sunday hymns. “What young people will want to come join our youth group when we do not have electric guitars and a good PA system?” they lamented.
It’s not just an aesthetic question. For the Chin in Mizoram, church is a social net that protects the migrants. When young migrants, especially men, are removed from this network, they are more likely to fall into drugs and alcohol, both problems that are partially linked to migration from Burma. Moreover, Burma is a major source of the world’s supply of heroin and it, along with HIV/AIDS, has been a growing problem along the Burma-India border. These teens and 20-somethings wanted to make their church more appealing to fellow Chin youth to help provide alternatives to the drug trade.
We left church for a meeting with a human rights educator and some journalists who shared information on the worsening famine situation caused by the rats. Then we set off on our own, determined to discover more of the city. We were invited for tea by a couple of families, but we were also stared at as the oddities we were. As we photographed our way round to the “backside” of Aizawl, we marveled at how the anomaly of the city continued, as the same peak-hugging architecture greeted us down the back slope of the mountain and continued on, to further peaks.
Only two pages of Lonely Planet’s 1,200 page tourist guide to India are devoted to the entirety of Mizoram State. The frustratingly short passage has some worthy suggestions, though, including one restaurant listing and one tourist site we couldn’t miss: KV Paradise, referred to by many locals as the “Baby Taj Mahal.”
Open till 9 p.m., even on Sundays, it lies 8 kilometers from the central market. The guide intrigued us with this description: “V is for Varte who died in a 2001 motor accident. K is for her husband Khawlhring who has since lavished his entire savings and energy creating a three-story mausoleum complex to her memory.”
Railae recruited three friends with motorbikes, and the six of us set out for the edge of Aizawl, where KV Paradise sits as a beacon on a hill. We had seen the original Taj Mahal in Agra, and it truly is an impressive sight. Although it dwarfs KV Paradise, something stirred each of our souls seeing the gleaming white palace on the edge of the cliffs, with its bright crosses glowing on each of the turrets.
We paid a sleepy guard 30 rupees (70 cents) for the six of us to enter. He then rushed to turn on the fountains, which displayed a multicolored light show. We entered the mausoleum, with space for the family’s graves on the first floor, a collection of Varte’s clothing, shoes and handbags on the second and a prayer and meditation room on the third.
Stepping outside, we saw the city twinkling in the night. Not far away was Burma, the country that brought us together, a place of extreme hardship and pain.
Our final day in the city was to be spent wrapping things up, finishing meetings and preparing to say goodbye to the people we had grown close to. We planned a morning interview, but it was interrupted by two unfamiliar men.
Given the language barrier, there was nothing we could do but sit in a corner. We were in the dark about what was transpiring between our contacts and these unexpected visitors, clueless aside from our attempts to read body language, which varies drastically in different cultures. The five stages of grief, from denial through anger to bargaining, depression and acceptance, flushed through us almost simultaneously. We could only guess at what was actually happening.
The guilt set in. What else could we feel, as it was obvious our actions had brought unwanted attention to our interviews and it seemed there was little we could do to correct the transgression. This feeling was compounded by the fact that we were leaving in a matter of hours — while our contacts had to face any and all consequences.
The men left and everyone assured us that what had just taken place was not a problem. While not exactly a regular occurrence, they were confident that the authorities were just making a routine visit and wouldn’t cause any commotion. We were not reassured. Our friends had risked so much to have us there; we owed it to them to spread awareness of what we had seen and learned.
We got in the cab to make the 30-kilometer return journey to the airport. “See you again” read the cheerful sign on the dashboard.
What: Democracy 2.0’s World Refugee Day Celebration
Where: Harrison Center for the Arts, 1505 N. Delaware, Indianapolis
When: Friday, June 20, 6-10 p.m.
Join Democracy 2.0 and Provocate.org in a celebration of World Refugee Day on Friday, June 20 at the Harrison Center for the Arts. Several other organizations will also be present, including Citizens for Global Solutions, Refugee Resources and Exodus International. Enjoy music, art and fashion while you learn more about the plight of refugees in Indiana and abroad at this free event.
For more info: 317-402-8655
If this event sounds fun, be sure to also attend Exodus International’s World Refugee Day pitch-in lunch on Saturday, June 21 at Southport Christian church. For more info, visit provocate.org.
Mark Belinsky has been working on interactive media projects for the past five years and freelancing in the nonprofit sector. While making films in the Caucasus he helped to found and develop Bem, a youth progressive action center serving as a platform for Armenian youth to build an active civil society through art, media and free-expression. Since January 2007 he has been researching and developing media and online strategies for a globally displaced coalition of Burma-related groups. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University.
Emily Jacobi has been working internationally on media, youth development and social justice issues since 1996, when she traveled on a reporting trip to Cuba with the Indianapolis-based youth journalism program Y-Press. Since then she has worked on media and research projects in Latin America, West Africa and Southeast Asia, as well as “En Los Campos,” a multimedia exhibit highlighting the lives of teenage migrant farm workers in the U.S. Her work experience includes Internews Network, AllAfrica.com and Y-Press assistant bureau director. Since January 2007 her work has focused on supporting Burmese populations, producing multi-media projects, reports and programming to support these underrepresented populations.