February 21: Political refugees from Burma celebrate at middle school with songs, dances and speeches.

Five years ago, all the Chin expatriates who had settled in Indianapolis could gather in an apartment to celebrate “Chin National Day.”

There were 21 then, mostly refugees who came here seeking political asylum.

They had fled their native land along the Indo-Burmese border because of the military junta’s dictatorial rule in the country many people know as Burma. (The junta renamed it Myanmar.)

And one by one, family by family, they came to Indianapolis because they knew the Rev. Thlaawr Bawihrin, a Chin who moved here in 1996 to study at Christian Theological Seminary. Or because they knew someone else who had followed him here.

Today, about 350 Chin live in Indianapolis, mostly on the city’s Southside, in or near Perry Township.

It is, said celebration chairman Hre Mang, one of six major Chin communities in the United States, communities that range in size from 200 to 500 people.

On Sunday, Indianapolis’ Chin community, like the settlements in Atlanta, Dallas, Seattle, Washington and Battle Creek, Mich., celebrated their national holiday — a day that could only be celebrated as a national “state” day in their homeland.

In the gymnasium at Perry Meridian Middle School, about 250 Chin men, women and children listened to a plaintive folk song and sang their national anthem. They heard short speeches. They watched traditional dances such as the “ruakhat tlak” — a victory dance in which couples dance, carefully in step, between pairs of bamboo rods banged together in beat.

Here, the holders used long poles of 2-inch PVC pipe instead of bamboo.

Nearly everyone was wearing a blazer, skirt or blanket in burgundy or black with colorful stripes bearing geometric symbols. Each shape had a meaning. The designs represented the courage, faithfulness and peacefulness of the Chin, Bawihrin said.

Yet the speakers gave their talks in English, rather than Chin, so that visitors could understand who they are.

The Chins are descendants of Mongoloid tribes who settled a mountainous region, slightly smaller than Switzerland, that is mostly in Burma but also overlaps parts of India and Bangladesh.

Today, Chin is one of seven Burmese states — a poor state in an economically troubled country. The Chin people, including those in India and Bangladesh, number about 1.5 million, whereas Burma has a population of about 52 million, according to U.S. estimates.

When the British colonized the area in 1895, Baptist missionaries converted most of the Chins to Christianity. And when the British gave Burma independence, Chin leaders helped negotiate what they thought would be a constitutional democracy. Chin would be its own state, and possibly independent one day, Bawihrin said.

According to the State Department’s Burma profile, however, a military government took control of the mostly Buddhist country in 1962, and some version of military government has largely ruled since.

The military changed Burma’s name to Myanmar, but in a show of support for the junta’s opposition, the U.S. government still uses “Burma.”

Mang, who helped organize Sunday’s celebration, said that only in the past couple of years has he been able to call or send e-mail to friends in Chinland, and he still has to watch what he says. Any mention of something political could land the recipient in jail.

Bawihrin is luckier than most because he has a religious visa, which has allowed him to visit his three brothers, two sisters and their families, who remain in Burma.

In Indianapolis, the Chin remain very close to one another. A committee of eight, assisted by an advisory board of 26, tries to lead and help the community. But it’s very loosely organized, Mang said.

The community, though, is close-knit, Bawihrin said. And he said nearly all Chin hope to return to their homeland, “when freedom comes,” he said.