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Year of the Rats – Nuvo

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?”

“1958.”

“So, if it’s a cycle that repeats every 50 years, that means it’s happening now?”

“Exactly.”

“Welcome to 2008, the year of the rat.”

 

Border crossings

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.

 

Dangerous curves

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.

 

Slayer sightings

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.

 

Undercover

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.

 

Whispers on the street

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.

 

Sunday arrives

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.

 

This article originally appeared in print in NUVO in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Story and photos by Mark Belinsky and Emily Jacobi 

Editor’s Note:

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.

Photo by Mark Belinsky

Photo by Mark Belinsky

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