Newsletter Sep – Dec 2008

For the past 46 years Burma has been under a military regime, known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), recorded as one of the most repressive regimes in the world. There is continued forced relocation, forced labor (construction of roads, railway lines, military buildings, etc.), forced conscription, arbitrary arrest, torture and other human rights abuses against members of the country’s ethnic groups and pro-democracy activists. As a result, over the years, hundreds of thousands of Burmese have fled their home country, seeking asylum.

India is home to more than 100,000 Burmese refugees, especially in the border states: Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. Initially, about 80,000 refugees settled in Mizoram and earned their livelihood from working as weavers, woodcutters, servants and small time traders. This led to a rise of threat amongst the locals of Mizoram, leading to mass deportation back to Burma time and again. Still, people kept returning to Mizoram and other states for refuge.

A sizeable population of Burmese women, men and children has also moved to Delhi to get protection under the UNHCR and have registered themselves legally as refugees. However, since India is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention and its 1967 Protocol related to the status of refugees, this puts the refugees under the Registration of Foreigners Act 1946 and the Citizenship Act 1955, which are mainly meant to apply to foreigners who voluntarily leave their homeland under normal circumstances. As a result, the Government of India (GOI) deals with refugees and asylum seekers in an ad hoc manner. But it has to be noted that not all refugee communities lack proper legislation. The two largest groups of refugees, the Sri Lankan Tamils and Tibetans are protected directly by the GOI, because of which they enjoy many more benefits than refugees from other countries. This is largely due to the fact that India's foreign policy vis-a-vis these countries has been unambiguous, though this does not hold as true for the Tibetans, particularly during the last year when their protests against the Chinese government surrounding the Olympic Games gained ground worldwide.

 Meanwhile, the Burmese community's conspicuous physical difference from the local population and their inability to speak local languages make them prime targets for harassment, hostility and exploitation by the local house owners, shopkeepers, employers and neighbours, not to mention the indifference of government institutions and NGO’s that have been identified to provide them with basic facilities like employment, health care, education and legal protection. There have been many cases of violence and other forms of harassment against Burmese women in Delhi, from the Indian community and from within the Burmese community itself.

The grave political situation in Burma and the difficulties and problems faced by the Burmese refugees, especially women, in India led many of these women to feel the need to forge linkages with Indian women's groups and civil society groups. To take this cause forward, various groups of Burmese women refugees across ethnic identities came together under the banner of Burmese Women from Delhi (BWD) on 28th March 2006. This coalition was aimed at promoting general awareness and consciousness regarding the situation in Burma, the plight of women in Burma and India, India's policy on Burma and to create linkages and connections with different women's organizations for support and campaign. More than 40 women participated, including 18 representatives of various Indian women's organizations and 20 Burmese women representing the different Burmese women's organizations. Saheli was also one of the participants and since then has developed close ties with the BWD, the result of which was the participation of ten Burmese women of the BWD in the 7th National Conference of Autonomous Women's Movements held at Calcutta in September 2006, at the conference, they held a workshop on the political situation in their homeland and the issues confronting them as refugees. At the conference, women's movements from all over India also stood in solidarity with their demand for the release of Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi and the restoration of democracy in Burma.

Consequently, early this year BWD took the initiative to discuss how we could help take the relationship between the Indian women’s movements and them further. A series of interactions helped usunderstand the issues and challenges that they face. We felt that the best way to help take the struggle forward would be for us to facilitate exchanges and connections between the BWD and other Delhi-based Indian women’s groups. As part of this effort, on 1st May 2008, the BWD and Saheli jointly organised a one-day workshop at ISI with other women's groups in Delhi.

The morning was to be a sharing of the Burmese situation with the Indian activist groups present. Friends from BWD talked about the historical situation in Burma and the living conditions of refugees in Delhi mainly with respect to health, education and issues of violence faced by women refugees from within the community.


 Limited health care and education of children were put forth as key issues by the women. Gynecological problems, blood pressure and anaemia are conditions often seen in the women, while the children suffer from malnutrition, vitamin deficiency, diarrhea, respiratory problems, and pneumonia. Siama Niang, a nurse working with WRWAB (Women’s Rights and Welfare Association of Burma), said, "Most of us live in small single rooms with many people in it, so a lot of infections spread." She said that it is difficult to keep babies healthy because of this and also because the mothers do not get enough nutritionbefore or after child-birth, mostly owing to the lack of adequate resources. What makes the situation worse is the discrimination that they face when they go to government facilities like the Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital for treatment, the institution which has been given the primary responsibility to provide subsidized health care for these refugees.


Siama pointed out that the women also face a lot of domestic violence. “Initially we did not look into violence against women (VAW), but women started approaching us and we began taking on these cases."


“If we face abuse from our husbands we have no one to talk to and no homes to move into," said Aye May of BWD. Siama talked about how women get mentally and physically tortured and taking action on such cases becomes very complicated - both in terms of the legal and judicial process as well as in terms of expenses. Also, the women themselves do not like the community to know that they are facing trouble.


Sahana Basavapatna, a lawyer who works with The Other Media, sketched out the legal position of refugees in India. A refugee can neither be refused entry into the country under Article 21, Protection of Life and Liberty, nor can they be sent back unless their status is decided. Under the 1951 convention, refugees are defined as economic migrants - race, sex, nationality and political threat are the criteria used. Though several refugees have come to Delhi to attain refugee status, there is no proper mechanism or determination procedure to grant or deny refugee status. When one applies for refugee status, their personal details are taken down in the ‘under consideration certificate’. It takes 3-6 months to be called for an interview and during this period no support of any kind is provided, be it financial or even access to government services. The existing procedures are slow and no reasons are given for refusing refugee status. One is written off as either ‘Incoherent inconsistent claim’ or ‘Do not fall under the definition of refugee’. There is a possibility of appealing against the refusal but if one loses the appeal then the only recourse is to either re-apply for the refugee status or to leave the country. Besides this, the refugee certificate needs to be renewed every 18 months. Sahana spoke of the challenges of negotiating all this for the Burmese refugees, many of whose lives are economically very fragile.


“Locals do not treat the Burmese as ‘co-residents’, so there is no chance of accepting them even as refugees. It is nearly impossible to take action against the violence inflicted upon them since it is difficult to file FIRs and there is also the fear of Indians taking revenge,” Sahana explained. “The whole attitude towards them by their employers and people around them is ‘Why are they here? They are just trouble makers. Why should one help them?’ Hence it becomes really difficult for them to build somewhat secure lives here in Delhi," said Sahana.


Shrimoyee Nandini, an independent lawyer, gave a rich and valuable overview of the legal rights that the Burmese, even as refugees, can access, such as Article 21 (Right to Life and Liberty), Article 22 (Right against Illegal Detention), Article 14 (Right to Equality) and Article 32 (Right to Approach the Supreme Court if any Fundamental Rights Are Violated). There is, however, a difference in where they can reside, work, etc., under the Foreigners Act, and Article 19 (Right to Reside Anywhere) is not applicable on them. The women refugees do have access to the judicial system in cases of rape (Section375/376), sexual harassment (Section 354 & 509) and domestic violence (Section 498 A). However, women more often do not file cases of domestic violence for fear of deportation of the perpetrator (who in many cases is a family member) if their refugee status has not come through.


The second half of the workshop was designed to introduce the activities of some autonomous women's groups in Delhi, to discuss the nature of support and solidarity they could extend to BWD and possible strategies we could evolve for the future. We started with a presentation by Shweta of Saheli providing a general overview on how we have worked to visibilise violence against women and break the silence on it — be it through our earliest campaigns against dowry murders to domestic violence and marital rape, to sexual harassment at the workplace and state sponsored violence in its many forms.


This was followed by other women’s groups talking about their line of work and offers to the Burmese women refugees to access their health, shelter and advocacy facilities. Sudha Tiwari from Shakti Shalini talked about the shelter in town that they run and offered to provide all the assistance possible with regard to shelter and legal aid. Next to speak was Elizabeth Vatsyayana from Aids Awareness Group (AAG), a group that continues to offer legal support to women in crisis and also works with the police in sensitizing them and facilitating the women’s cause. In an amusing yet caustic talk, Elizabethshared the frustrations of dealing with the police and its mechanisms on an everyday basis. Then Nandini Rao from Jagori spoke at length about their work related to counseling and providing support in case work. She also shared that the organization is in the process of preparing booklets outlining the basic laws in a simple, easy-to-understand language that women in general can use. She said that they could be translated and produced in Burmese as well. The presentations were followed by a discussion on various strategies that have been and can be implemented to deal with the issues presented.

One such strategy was to provide internships for Burmese women in women's groups to help deal with the issue of unemployment. Jagori offered to implement this proposal.


Coming back to the issue of health, the participants shared at greater length the challenges facing a clinic that the refugees have been trying to run in Janak Puri since 1996, which had Burmese doctors who used to sit there three days a week. But with the rent increase and the yearly funds of Rs 50,000 from NHEC (National Health & Education Committee) being insufficient, they have almost had to shut down. Consequently, it was suggested at this meeting that people and organisations that work with community health and social medicine come together to identify areas and do follow-up meetings. A list of required drugs and food material to ensure nutrition for children and pregnant women can be made and circulated to people and organisations who want to extend their support.


We also discussed the larger political context in which we must situate the struggles of the Burmese women. As Achan Mungleng of the Euro-Burma Office recapped, the position of the Indian state vis-a-vis Burmese refugees is double edged, because even though India offers political and economic refuge to some Burmese people, it continues to sustain militaristic and economic relations with the military junta in Burma, primarily to consolidate its power in the region against of the threat of China. The two governments also work closely together in counter-insurgency operations. At the global level, many countries continue to play this double-edged game with Burma, mouthing platitudes about the restoration of democracy but continuing to legitimise the military Junta by doing business with them. The growing perception that ethnic differences will not allow democracy to sustain itself in the country has been successfully challenged by initiatives like Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENSEC).


One realises by the end of such sharing with the Burmese women, that there is so much more to share, to understand, and to do together, to respond to the issues of the Burmese women and other refugee communities as progressive movements. More effective and focused follow up and solidarity is a critical need for all marginalised communities. Clearly, celebrating international Women's Day together, meeting to understand each other and joining each other’s events through the year are just the beginning.