MOREH, India -- An Indian court has granted sanctuary to two Burmese journalists, a colleague and some relatives a month after they fled across the border from Myanmar into Manipur state. They had been lying low in Tengnoupal district.
On April 20, the Manipur High Court granted the group safe passage to Imphal, the state capital, and protection from Indian authorities until further notice. They left for Imphal the following day.
At first glance, the two men could easily be mistaken for locals in Moreh, a bustling trading hub on the northeastern state's border with Myanmar. The town is an ethnic melting pot with cross-border familial relations that go back centuries. India has always been a friendly neighbor in peace and an ally in crisis to these people.
'Thin,' 44, is a video journalist and 'Lau,' 38, is a webmaster. Both work for Mizzima News, a Burmese media organization that was among the first to lose its operating license after Senior General Min Aung Hlaing staged his coup on Feb. 1.
Thin told Nikkei Asia that an arrest warrant had been issued against him under Article 505-A of Myanmar's penal code.
Thin immediately hopped on a bus in Yangon along with a 22-year-old female staff member and Lau, Lau's wife and their three kids. The journey to the Indian border took two nights and three days. They slipped across and joined hundreds of other refugees who fled after the junta, the State Administration Council, embarked on a brutal crackdown on the nationwide civil disobedience movement.
Thin and Lau declined to go into detail about their entry route into India. They said they were sheltered for a month by a network of civil society organizations representing local ethnic groups on both sides of the border.
Before fleeing, Thin was covering the street protests in Yangon. He barely slept in February, and witnessed some terrible incidents. "I saw a military armored vehicle crush a group of protesters on bicycles," he said.
With the loss of Mizzima's satellite channel and reduced access to the internet, Thin said it was becoming increasingly hard to report what was happening on the ground -- and also much more dangerous.
"The military junta indiscriminately fired at protesters and jouralists," he said. "I got used to running past dead bodies lying on the ground." According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 759 people had been killed by heavily armed troops and police and 4,537 arrested as of April 30. At least, 71 of those in detention are journalists, according to the United Nations.
The porous India-Myanmar border is 1,624 km long and touches the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur. In March, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi directed that illegal immigrants found in these four northeastern states should be deported. The Manipur state government duly issued an order to the deputy commissioner of five border districts, including Tengnoupal, to "politely turn away" people seeking refuge. This prompted such a severe backlash that the order was retracted on March 30.
Despite the restrictions and border patrols, at least five hundred refugees are believed unofficially to have crossed over into Moreh and other parts of Tengnoupal.
Nikkei reached out to district authorities to confirm this, but they declined and said they were not authorized to speak.
The Manipur court noted that India is not a signatory to the Geneva Refugee Convention of 1951 or the New York Protocol of 1967. It instead based its ruling on India being signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, both declared by the U.N. in 1948 and 1966, respectively.
Thin told Nikkei that there has been no news about six Mizzima colleagues who were arrested, and their whereabouts are not known.
On April 8, Mizzima's co-founder, journalist Thin Thin Aung, was arrested with two colleagues. Soe Myint, Mizzima's editor in chief and co-founder, is still at large. He told Nikkei by email that nothing more has been heard of his colleagues. He confirmed that three of the six Mizzima staffers have been charged under Article 505-A.
"At least one of them, we have confirmed, faced torture," Soe Myint told Nikkei. "The rest, we do not have any contact or trace of them -- we don't know whether they are being tortured or are even alive."
For Thin and Lau there is a strong element of deja vu. Both took refuge in India during a shorter prodemocracy uprising in Myanmar in 2007. Lau was 24 at that time. It took him four days to get from Moreh to Delhi, where he obtained a refugee card from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Some of his brethren from Chin state made the same journey, and ended up taking asylum in the West. Lau returned to Myanmar in 2012 and joined Mizzima.
"I'm not a journalist but with my background in computer studies, I took the webmaster job because I wanted to fight for democracy in my country," he said.
Thin started working at Mizzima in 2008, ten years after Soe Myint and Thin Thin Aung started the news service in Delhi where they were living in exile. They shifted operations to Yangon in 2013 after the government of President Thein Sein, a retired general, allowed private news organizations to operate for the first time in 50 years. Mizzima maintained a good relationship with India throughout, and in 2018 signed a content sharing agreement with Prasar Bharati, India's public service broadcaster.
Thin and Lau want to continue reporting the Myanmar crisis from Delhi, and are seeking permission to go there. News of their presence first appeared on April 15, when the All Manipur Working Journalists' Union issued a statement asking the state government to give them "safe passage" to the UNHCR.
Acording to Soe Myint, 42 Mizzima journalists are in hiding but still working inside Myanmar, with another 34 in Australia, Canada, India. Norway, Singapore, Thailand and the U.S.
"We will be back to where we were in 2011, working in exile, Soe Myint told Nikkei. "We need to work with offices set up in India and our units working underground inside the country."
Although the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw recently announced the parallel National Unity Government, there seems to be little chance of the exiled journalists being able to go home any time soon. Thin and Lau are keeping in touch with their network of sources and citizen journalists, many of whom belong to Generation Z -- born between 1995 and 2012 -- and play vital roles reporting developments on social media platforms.
"We continue to provide news and information," said Thin. "We don't know where all our colleagues are but each one of us is still working."
Soe Myint said that India's support has always been crucial in the fight for democracy and human rights in Myanmar. "We are confident that we will win this battle," he said signing off. "But we need your support and solidarity."
The real names of Thin and Lau could not be used in this article for security reasons.