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Burmese Caught between Poverty in India, Oppression at Home

Ranjit Devraj
Mizzima News (www.mizzima.com)

NEW DELHI, Jul 29 (IPS) - 'Burma Town' at the far west end of India's sprawling national capital holds no ethnic exotica beyond a few hundred, sarong-clad men and women huddled into hopelessly cramped, one-room tenements that have sprung up in the urban village of Budhela.

'Burma Town' at the far west end of India's sprawling national capital holds no ethnic exotica beyond a few hundred, sarong-clad men and women huddled into hopelessly cramped, one-room tenements that have sprung up in the urban village of Budhela.
In the narrow alleys of Budhela, placid buffaloes compete for space with Burmese children playing with their Indian friends and seemingly oblivious to the predicament of their parents - torn between oppression in their home country and the depressing squalor of a New Delhi slum.

Some 800 of the 1,500 odd Burmese who live in Budhela and nearby areas are lucky to have been accorded 'refugee status' and benefit from a 45 U.S. dollar subsistence allowance paid out to the head of each family by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Dependents get another 15 dollars each. But since June, the UNHCR has begun implementing a policy of cutting back on the doleouts to encourage the refugees, especially those who have been in India for around 10 years, to stand on their own feet.

Suddenly, even the tenements of Budhela look like luxury. Htin Kyaw, who was unpleasantly surprised by a 30 percent cut in his allowance and expects it to cease by June next year, thinks that his family will just about survive.

That is because one of his two daughters, 10-year-old Ohmmar Kyaw, has just won a scholarship at the nearby, privately-owned Oxford Senior Secondary School.

'The scholarship might have helped my family make both ends meet but I am now worried by a sudden doubling of the rent (to 45 U.S. dollars) for this,'' he says, gesturing toward his single-room tenement, which has two grass mats on the floor for furniture.

Htin Kyaw, who comes from a family that once ran a Chinese restaurant in Rangoon, fled the 1988 military crackdown on pro-democracy activists to a refugee camp in the north-eastern Indian state of Mizoram, just north of Burma. He shifted to New Delhi in 1994, where he managed to register as a refugee with the UNHCR.

''It is hard for my family without any real income -- the rents are too high, the summers too hot, the winters too cold and my wife and I have problems just making ourselves understood,'' Htin Kyaw said in halting English.

He does not see himself finding a suitable job in this city -- and has not had held one in the last 10 years.

One option for Htin Kyaw is to move back to Mizoram, where the cost of living is cheaper and the climate similar to Burma's as also is the language, culture and people. But local Mizo hostility is building up against the estimated 50,000 refugees already living in that border state.

Then, there is the question of an education for his daughters, both of whom enjoy concessions at Oxford Senior on account of the school having been founded by C P Prabhakar, an educationist who was born in Burma but left along some 200,000 other Indians dispossessed by the 1962 'nationalisation' of their properties, businesses and schools.

Many of those early Indian Burmese refugees settled around the bustling twin commercial centres of Janakpuri and Vikaspuri, of which Budhella is an extension. They formed the nucleus for 'Burma Town' that has since been attracting a steady trickle of refugees from Burma. The later arrivals are ethnic Burmese rather than Indian.

Prabhakar (also known by his Burmese name of Mawthiri), in fact, founded an organisation called Friends of Democracy in Burma to support people fleeing repression, forced labour, and compulsory conscription into the army.

When Prabhakar died on Jul. 7, aged 70, many of the hundreds of people who turned up for his funeral were refugees from Burma settled in the Janakpuri-Vikaspuri area -- some ethnically Indian and the others Burmese.

But an event like Prabhakar's funeral is rare and defines the limits of integration of Burmese refugees and exiles and the local Indian population. Even after being in this city for more than a decade, most Burmese refugees speak little English and even less Hindi - languages essential for anyone serious about making a living in New Delhi without doleouts from the UNHCR.

Deprived of funds, Burmese refugees can be seen scrounging around the Vikaspuri vegetable markets.

''We pick out the better leftovers ones to make a curry,'' said Salai Mang (name changed on request), who said he passed high school in Kalemyo town before fleeing to India in 1983.

Disputes are now increasingly common between Burmese refugees and their Indian landlords, who sense the growing incapacity of their tenants to pay rent and are less tolerant of what to them are their strange ways.

Yet political activists, students, pastors, and volunteers with non-government organisations (NGOs) who have fallen afoul of the Rangoon regime keep streaming in.

Between May and June 2002, over 500 refugees, mostly ethnic Chins and Kachins, arrived in New Delhi and applied for refugee status. The fact that only 20 out of these have been accorded the coveted refugee status is an indicator of the new tough mood at the UNHCR office.

''We do not find enough reasons to recognise all the people who come out of Burma as refugees,'' said an official.

Some relief has come from the Norwegian Burma Committee, which since March has been providing the new refugees monthly rations of rice, pulses and cooking oil rations. Still, many Burmese find it difficult to cope in an alien land.

Loom Nan fled across the border into Manipur, another north-eastern state, in May last year when she heard that she was wanted for being a member of World Concern, an NGO. ''I have not since contacted my parents who live in Kachin state because I fear they would be harassed by the army,'' she said dejectedly.

Although Loom Nan has a degree from the Myitkyina College in Kachin state, she has not been able to find employment in India. ''I am learning Hindi now but the work environment in this city is very competitive and even Indians have difficulty finding jobs,'' she said.

About the only visible activity in which the Burmese engage in are the frequent demonstrations outside the Burmese embassy and the U.N. offices, at the risk of being arrested or deported.

So far, the Indian government has been lenient toward these protests. On Jul. 2, a court in eastern Kolkata city acquitted Soe Myint, among the most visible of the refugees, of police framed against him for hijacking a Thai Airways airline bound for Rangoon from Bangkok to India in February 1991.

Soe Myint thinks that if attitudes at the UNHCR have hardened toward the Burmese refugees, it is not only because of budgeting problems but because the Indian government thinks that allowances would only encourage more refugees to pour in over the Burmese border.

''They don't want to work. They prefer to play cards, drink and chat. They have a dependency syndrome,'' Wei Meng Lim, deputy chief of the UNHCR mission in India, told IPS.

She said the UNHCR has tried its best to get the refugees enrolled for courses in computer technology, electronics and airconditioning that might give them the skills to be self-reliant but failed. ''India is a big country and they can always find small jobs if they seriously wanted to,'' she said.

But Soe Myint, who now edits the web-based 'Mizzima News', said the UNHCR fails to understand the real problems of the refugees, many of who had been through harrowing experiences such as torture and imprisonment and had lost their self-respect. ''We are just waiting for conditions to improve so we can go back home,'' he said.

 
 
     
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