As the sun was going down with a blaze of yellowish display over the distant hills, a bus slowly grudges and tackles its way up the unkempt, pot-holed and dusty Teddim Road, while small children of the area, grim and dirty, dressed in rags, waved and smiled to the passengers inside the bus. Nearby was a pile of recently burnt wood for charcoal and stacks of wooden sticks for firewood, chopped and arranged in neat order.
A little further down were a group of men engaging in the hardest of physical labour – cutting a huge trunk of a tree with their bare hands using giant manual saws. And as a Shaktiman truck roared by spewing dust and fumes, Mr Hausuan, a Timber Contractor from Muallum village commented with a shrug, “Since we have already depleted our forests of trees, we have no choice, but to go further beyond into the deeper forest. And across the border if we are to survive.”
Never did he realize then, that he himself would be one of the 20 plus odd people arrested by the Myanmarese Army, spending months in jail on charges of illegal border crossing and illegal logging of timber, sentenced and convicted to 12 years by the military junta, and be a character in a drama where efforts to secure their release, unbeknownst to many, have been played out at the highest level of international diplomacy, co-operation and collaboration from local organizations.
This is not just an attempt to sensationalize a story about breaking laws, international if you will, or securing the unimaginable feat of the release of a group of desperately poor villagers from a punishment handed cruelly to them for a crime they purportedly committed by a cruel and reclusive Military junta that the world has not confronted yet. A crime they were accused of committing. A crime, if that is – they had to commit. To survive!
This is, but and more so, a cry for awareness of the common interests of the Zomi entity, recognition of the bonds and the similarities – for oneness and the need for a unified stand among the Zomis.
This story will try to unfold and recount, regardless of petty differences, tribalism or clan induced one-upmanship, how things, which may seem impossible, can be made possible when people and organizations work together selfless, in unison, can achieve a happy ending to what could otherwise be not only a life scaring traumatic ordeal, but a life changing experience for the 20 plus odd people and the families they have to provide for – in this part of a forgotten world.
And this is just the beginning. We still have along way to go.
I. The Background
For decades, the inhabitants of Singngat and Behiang, south of Manipur, and predominantly of the Zo tribe, were dependent on the produce of the forest across the river Guun, particularly timbers, for their survival. Needless to add, it’s inside Myanmar and a very dangerous livelihood due to the bad and hostile terrains, the hard physical labour involved and to be endured; and it does not pay much either. But they have to feed mouths. Even though there are many life-threatening risks involved in life inside deep jungles, including occasional confrontations with the armed Myanmarese army.
However, a deal was often reached that the Timber Contractor from this side of the border, paid a sum of Rs.20,000 – Rs.40,000 for a certain period to a local Village Chief inside Myanmar, for his labourers to cut the trees from a certain patch of forest under the Chief’s jurisdiction, who in turn greased the army so as not to interfere, or look the other way. But there were also others involved in the business – who paid nothing. Freelancers, you may say.
“We pay around Rs.60 for every cubic metre of wood beam, and sell it for Rs.90, and we occasionally pay Rs.500 to the labourers,” says one Timber Dealer in Singngat.
II. The Confrontation
As usual, in early May of 2006, a convoy of trucks with around 100 labourers set out towards Aisih, a village across the border, to log trees in the prime forest. But this time, luck didn’t seem to hold out too well. And as they crossed into a foreign land, they suddenly found themselves surrounded by the Myanmarese Army. Most of them managed to escape, while 3 trucks with 21people, including a 9-year-old child were arrested. The date was the 6th of May.
They were immediately taken to Cikha, a nearby town and after about a week, were taken further down to Tonzang where they were locked-up as prisoners in a 20-square feet area. Fortunately, the prisoners were not abused except for minor instances where certain individuals loose their tempers or were at odds with the Myanmarese authorities.
During their arrest at Cikha and Tonzang, food was provided for and arranged through the locals by the contractors and not by the Myanmarese authorities.
III. The Judgement
During their detention in Tonzang, the prisoners were made to appear 13 times before a local court without any legal representation – where the prosecution laid out their cases and the judge, on the basis of the charges, passed the sentences, without the accused ever being represented.
The Tonzang Township Court ruled on the 25th August 2006, for the minor Pauminthang to be released while a certain Manglianlam from Tangpijol village was sentenced to 19 years for poaching. The rest were convicted to 12 years each, for illegal entry into Myanmar and illegal logging. Deep inside a foreign country, all hopes now gradually faded as they were again transferred to serve their sentence at Inndainggy prison-cum-labour camp in Kalemyo, a town in Sagaing Division.
However, it took sometime for the 9 year old Pauminthang to be released due to the absence of relatives or people to take care of him. With no one to take care of him, he was forced to endure a long period in a strange land with people he’d never seen or knew. Somehow he was escorted to Champhai during September 2006. His journey from the south of Mizoram to the comforts of his home in Manipur is another sad story.
Describing his ordeal after he was released – and the adults were sent to Kalemyo, he said to Hausuan on their re-union and who had been looking after him as a guardian since he was a small child, “You know Pa Suan, after you all were sent to Kalemyo , I was alone and so afraid. I knew no one, and there was no way I can get home by myself. I wanted to go home so much. All I could do was cry.”
IV. The Destination
Inndainggy prison-cum-labour camp housed around 1,300 including 270 female inmates. Their daily routine starts at 3:am in the morning and tea at 6:am. After that, it’s minor work inside the jail premises and breakfast is served at 10:am. At 11:am, inmates are locked up again till 1:pm in the afternoon. Then back to work till dinner at 3:pm. Light out is at 5:pm!
Besides the appalling conditions at the jail, the food given to inmates, according to one of the prisoner ‘ was not even fit for pigs’. One can only imagine when the typical food they eat at home is rice and vegetables and the occasional ‘dal’ or potato. And if any of the inmates got sick, with a headache, stomachache, dysentery, fever etc., they were given the same medicine – Paracetamol, if available.
The days turned to weeks and weeks to a month.
V. The Release:
Then early one morning, at 5:am came the news of their release. It was the 30th October, 2006. They were taken to Namphalong, and further escorted to Moreh, the border town on the Indian side. Since all their personal belongings were confiscated when they were arrested, they were given a shirt and a ‘lungee’ each on release. The three trucks in which they went still remain at Cikha.
During all their ordeal of arrest, the conviction and their experience inside a much feared Myanmarese penal system, these simple villagers never lost hope. “We were never worried, because we knew that we worship a living God. And I had come to know about the actions taken by the ZHRF in Delhi and that our MP was already involved with our case”, said a grateful Hausuan.
Behind The Story
I. The Mobilization
As the news came to light that as many as 21 persons have been arrested by the Myanmarese authorities, people were shocked. The topic became a hot issue for discussion in the SSPP (Siamsinpawlpi) Yahoo Group, which has members all over the world. As far as it is known, the news of this incident was first brought to light by H. Khamkhansuan from Varanasi, India, and was posted in the SSPPNet. Nobody seemed to be aware of the incident, as there seemed to be no report of it in the local or state media in Manipur.
However, after 18 days into captivity, and with no complaints or queries whatsoever forthcoming from the public or the families concerned, Mr. Kamzathang, Officer-in-Charge, Singngat Police Station filed a FIR on the 24th May 2006. In the meantime, families of those arrested were reported to approach the local sitting MLA, Mr. Thangso Baite for help.
Due to the intense discussion among the members in the SSPP Yahoo Group, the ZHRF (Zomi Human Rights Foundation), Delhi Cell gathered the details and facts on the ground, and then approached Mr. Charenamei, Member of Parliament, Manipur on the 24th of June, 2006 to do anything he can in order to secure the release of the prisoners.
Mr. Charenamei, deeply appalled by this incident, immediately set out to work on it by personally contacting the concerned divisions in the Ministry of Home Affairs as well as the Ministry of External Affairs. He also assured the ZHRF Delhi Cell that he would be intimately looking at the case.
II. The Bureaucratic & Diplomatic Efforts
At the same time, a high ranking Zomi Diplomat currently posted as an Indian Ambassador to DPR Korea, Mr. NT Khankhup, IFS, concerned at the plight of his fellow Zomis and knowing too well the hardships and the inhuman conditions inside Myanmar, not to speak of their prisons, contacted his colleague and friend, Mr. Manoj Kumar Bharti, DCM at the Indian Embassy in Yangon, and apprised him of the matter.
However no official communications in this regard had been received by the Indian Embassy in Yangon at that time.
On August 3, 2006, Mr. Charenamei, MP tabled in the Parliament in New Delhi about the plight of these unfortunate prisoners and explained the local, historical and ethnic composition and situation of the people, geography and how it was a normal practice that people from both sides of the border interact and travel freely since many have families and relatives on each side of the border and urged the Myanmar government to release the detainees immediately.
After a month, E. Ahamed, MOS (External Affairs) informed Mr. Charenamei, MP, that the Indian Embassy in Yangon had been instructed to take the matter up with the Myanmarese authorities. The Myanmar Foreign Office, in a bid to justify the arrests also came out with a statement that the 21 persons were arrested for illegally crossing the border and logging timber from their forest.
(And while the case dragged on, it was learnt on the 25th August, 2006 that 20 of the 21 arrested persons were convicted to prison terms of up to 12 and in the case of one person – 19 years).
By late August, Mr. NT Khankhup, in response to his concerned query was assured by his counterpart in Yangon, Mr. Bhaskar Mitra that he would immediately look into the case as and when all the necessary information are made available to him. However, at a meeting with Mr. Mitra in Delhi in early September for the SE Asian Ambassadors Conference, he learned that the necessary information still had not been received by the Indian Embassy in Yangon.
In order to fast track this bureaucratic delays, Mr. NT Khankhup personally met and spoke to Mr. Mohan Kumar, Joint Secretary (BSM) at the MEA Headquarters in Delhi on the 5th September 2006. The Joint Secretary acknowledged Mr. NT Khankhup’s concern and immediately took action to inform the Indian Embassy in Yangon to take necessary action the same day.
In the meantime, Mr. Charenamei also put pressure on the Embassy of Myanmar in New Delhi as well as the Ministry of External Affairs relentlessly, and needless to add, Zomi government employees in the Lok Sabha/Rajya Sabha in New Delhi did whatever they could to contribute to the solution of this case.
Alarmed at the outcome of events and while closely monitoring the developments the case discussed in the SSPP Yahoo Group, a fellow Zomi, Mr. Lealyan Thomte, presently residing in Copenhagen, Denmark offered to donate Rs.20,000 for any expenses that maybe incurred in pursuing the case further and to secure the release of the detainees.
On September 13, 2006, during the 12th Indo-Myanmar Home Secretary Level Talks, the Indian delegation apprised the Myanmarese Deputy Minister for Home Affairs, of the incident and requested the Myanmarese government to immediately consider the case and release the prisoners.
Again, during the New Delhi Siamsinpawlpi, Joint Headquarters conference in October 14, 2006, and in collaboration with the ZHRF, Delhi Cell, a request was again made to Mr. Oscar Fernandez, MOS (Labour) who had graced the conference as Chief Guest for his office to look into the case.
Though the exact dates are not available, it is learnt that as soon as the Indian Embassy in Yangon received directions from the MEA Hqs. in New Delhi, Mr. Raj Srivastava, First Secretary immediately requested the Myanmarese authorities for consular access of the prisoners and had a meeting with them.
Diplomatic talks continued. And the prisoners were eventually released on the 30th October, 2006.
III. The Sigh of Relief
After their released, Ambassador Mitra expressed his relief at the safe release of the prisoners, especially after being convicted, since he was well aware of incidents where people arrested by the Myanmarese Army on similar charges being shot.
And it maybe worth mentioning that while the Myanmar authorities arrested these poor villagers for violating their laws, which they have every right to – the Government of India did not just forsake – their (law breaking) citizens – to rot high and dry in a foreign jail – but did everything to secure their freedom and moved things at the highest level.
With years of experience as a diplomat spanning the globe, from Canada to Cyprus to North Korea, Mr. NT Khankhup chose to only modestly advise – “If you have or face any problems in a foreign country, you should immediately contact the nearest Indian Embassy or the Ministry of External Affairs.”
Mr. Charenamei suggested that if the leaders of the area, and the Zomis in particular were to come up with a concrete proposal for a policy that can be applied effectively along those areas, where either side of the border is inhabited by the same ethnic Zo people, he would be only too willing to take up the proposal earnestly with the concerned authorities.
Now, that’s a point worth heeding.