It took a hazardous three-day trip for Benjamin Sum, an acclaimed singer, to cross the border from his home in Falam, Myanmar to Mizoram in 2021 when the military seized power. Within a few months, he gained popularity for his hit numbers across the local populace in Mizoram but since a few days back, he has become a topic of controversy.
It was a soulful number titled Chhaili Di Lenna rendered by Sum that put the singer in the spotlight in Mizoram after he escaped the coup. Within a few hours, his video was on repeat in many households and now has over 4 million views on YouTube. He was a youth icon back home, the runner-up in a Myanmar idol contest and a household name. When the coup took place, he became one of the blacklisted celebrities whose staunch opposition to the military government stood out because he participated in rallies. However, Benjamin Sum in Mizoram became a sensation. While his name was blacklisted in Myanmar, in Mizoram, his name was on the hot list for concerts and festive events, the participation list was incomplete without the surname Sum printed on the banners. His songs topped the charts of local cable channels and Instagram accounts were set up by his fan base under the name ‘Summers.’
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The controversy started three days ago when a journalist, Zmp Tlau, known for filing PILs and questioning government policies, shared a status titled, “This will be sorted today,” along with a screenshot of Benjamin Sum’s motor vehicle registration details.
A paragraph was given on how he plans to find out if Sum had an Aadhar card or Voters Id and which local council helped him state that he has a garage. The simple statement had over 6000 likes and almost 2000 comments, with the majority showing support towards Tlau while questioning the legality of Sum’s documents and signalling an intolerant attitude towards the refugee population as a whole.
The issue was fueled further when just twelve hours ago, Tlau posted a photo of the singer’s birth certificate, showing that he was born in Farkawn village in Champhai. East Mojo reached out to the Economics and Statistics Department to verify the birth certificate and the response is awaited.
Meanwhile, on March 24, Farkawn Joint Young Mizo Association released a statement saying they are unable to understand why a birth certificate was issued with Benjamin Sum claiming to be born in Farkawn, and said he was not born in the village and that the person responsible for making such false documents should be captured. EastMojo reached out to Sum for comments but he responded by saying he has no comments at the moment.
In a report in IndiaSpend, Sanjoy Hazarika commented on the connection of Sum to Mizoram, saying, “Sum’s story is as seamless as the intertwined lives of communities on either side of the international border, separated by a line on a map drawn by a colonial power but joined by heritage, lineage, forests and streams. Now he is a recognisable celebrity; his shows are ticketed and draw big crowds.”
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The communities on either side of the Indo-Myanmar border have spoken of strong ethnic ties which largely motivated the local populace to welcome the refugee community. The response to this issue shows a larger picture of Mizoram’s tolerance towards refugees, and the comments and statuses shared across social media platforms show a decline.
F Lalramhluni, a Political Science professor and author, commented on the legal standpoint of the issue saying, “The displaced persons from Myanmar do not have a refugee status as the Indian government does not recognise them as ‘refugees.’ The Ministry of Home Affairs had in 2021 issued an order saying the illegal migrants should be sent back but Mizoram ignored this order because of the NGOs. So they are not refugees but political asylums. They cannot claim rights as other refugees like Tibetans can, it is against the constitution. No matter how much kinship we share, our nationalities are different, they are not Indian blood and soil and they cannot claim our rights and privileges.”
CV Lalmalsawmi, an Assistant Professor at CNESPR, Jamia Millia Islamia has done extensive research on Chin-Mizo transborder linkages in the Indo-Myanmar context. She shared her thoughts on the issue with EastMojo, saying, “The Benjamin Sum’s case in my understanding is symptomatic of a much deeper and entrenched issue which has often been brushed under the rug for a long time in Mizoram. I call it the burden of being a gateway – cultural, economic and lately humanitarian- with the influx of thousands of refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh on a smaller scale. Mizoram’s strategic location has already made it vulnerable to illegal trade and smuggling activities which have grave impacts on society. But this has been amply addressed in the public discourse. The other elephant in the room is the illegal flow of people taking advantage of the FMR(Free Movement Regime) even much before the refugee crisis emanating from Myanmar. At any point in time, there are roughly one lakh Myanmarese or people of Myanmar origin in Mizoram, a large percentage of which is a ‘floating population’. Many of these practices which can be termed as ‘transborder citizenship’ have citizenship documents of both India and Myanmar and until the recent uproar about Benjamin Sum, a celebrity singer from the Sagaing Region, the larger public appeared to be oblivious and authorities unbothered. His case could open up a Pandora’s Box in terms of identifying rampant illegality amidst calls for ‘Zo Unity’ across borders.”
“On the other hand, it reveals the genuine hardships and challenges many refugees face without proper identification. In the absence of legitimate refugee status in Mizoram despite coming here as refugees, they remain highly vulnerable, helpless and without any institutional support in the long run. The bonds of brotherhood, fragile as it may, is the only providing source of security and safety for a large majority of the Chins staying in Mizoram,” she said.
The social work and aid extended to refugees have also been dwindling. Dr Rini Ralte, secretary of the Zo Reunification Organisation Refugee Committee told East Mojo, “There is a growing intolerance towards refugees. There are so many illegal activities for which we remain silent but now when it comes to ethnicity and our refugee population, we have become over sensitive and this is very sad. We are a people who are liberal in our private life but conservative in our public life.”
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She highlighted various problems faced in the refugee camps, saying “It has been two years and our resources are running out, there is little to no help extended to the refugees. We have no help from the Central government no help from the state government and the local resources have reached their limit. We, as ZORO are trying our best to continue extending aid to the refugee community but we are not rich people, we can hardly pool in thousands. The shelter is in poor conditions in the camps, they are suffering during the monsoon. They used to get food supplies from agencies like Action Aid but even that has stopped. There are no health facilities they have ailments just like us but they are living without treatment. They are barely surviving. When we visit camps, I ask the refugees what I should bring for them, and sometimes they ask me to bring chilli because their food is so bland. There are no employment opportunities and hardly any place to earn from daily labour. We need international bodies to step in.”
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On 12 September 2021, 26 Myanmar nationals were arrested in Guwahati for carrying fake identification cards. A case was registered against them at the Paltanbazar police station under sections of the Indian Penal Code, as well as provisions of the Foreigners Act and the Passport (Entry into India) Act. One month later, on 1 October 2021, 14 Myanmar nationals were arrested at Imphal airport for attempting to board a flight with fake Aadhar cards.
A report by Caravan details how the Myanmar nationals had created the fake identification cards to seek asylum as they had no other choice, Nutei, a businesswoman from Guwahati who was taking care of the arrested refugees was quoted saying, “These refugees are nurses, some of them are teachers, they were supposed to be shot dead for joining CDF,”—the Chinland Defence Force, a local ethnic militia that has been resisting the military—“and they were given a warning so they ran away. They were going to Delhi to apply for refugee asylum. I told the authorities, ‘If we deport them, it is dangerous for their life. They will be shot dead. So please give us a chance, even if you have to put them in a detention centre in Assam or Delhi, that is better for them than to be deported to their country.’”
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