When Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes a two-day stopover in Myanmar on his way back from the BRICS summit in China next week, he will be watched across the region on two counts: how he seeks to widen India’s relations with a country that China is assiduously wooing with its money; and very much linked to that, if he will say anything new on the burning Rohingya issue that has spilled into several countries, including India.
The stage, though, has already been set. From the time of the UPA government, when the Myanmar junta was cooperating with India on flushing out safe havens for Northeast militants, New Delhi has always felt it “unwise” to make any statements that would be perceived in Myanmar as “pro-Rohingya”.
Over the last year, the Rohingya problem has shown every sign of worsening. In mid-August, after an attack attributed to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army killed 10 policemen, the Myanmar Army has launched a new crackdown in Rakhine. Thousands of Rohingya are fleeing to Bangladesh.
New Delhi has already made it clear whose side it is on. In a statement on August 26, India said it was “seriously concerned by reports of renewed violence and attacks by terrorists in the northern Rakhine state of Myanmar. We are deeply saddened at the loss of lives among members of the Myanmar security forces…”
Aside from Naypitaw and Yangon, Modi will travel to the ancient city of Bagan, where he will visit its famous temples, some of which date back to the 11th century, and announce Indian financial assistance for their conservation. Unable to compete with China’s money power, India will use cultural diplomacy to win hearts and minds in Myanmar.
But India has not been able to wall itself off entirely from the effects of the Rohingya crisis. There are 16,500 Rohingya spread across several cities in India. Rohingya are all Muslims, and their presence has started melding into the country’s communal fault-line. Unsurprisingly, the BJP in Jammu was the first to raise demands that they be sent back.
Since then, the Ministry of Home Affairs has asked all state governments and Union territory administrations to “sensitise law enforcement and intelligence agencies” to begin the process of “detection and deportation of such illegal immigrants from Rakhine state, also known as Rohingyas”, and to do this “expeditiously”.
Quite apart from where it is going to deport them — neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh wants them — India seems to have forgotten about “non-refoulement”, the principle of not sending back refugees to a place where they face danger, something that is considered part of customary international law and therefore binding on all states whether they have signed the Refugee Convention or not.
In an official response, UNHCR told The Indian Express that though it had seen media reports on the planned deportation, it has “not received any official communication from the Government in this regard and there are no reported instances of deportations of UNHCR registered Rohingya from India… UNHCR is trying to understand better the situation and the Government’s position in relation to these reports.” UNHCR also said it was encouraged by India committing itself to the principle of non-refoulement at all international fora.
Modi’s visit will come days after the ‘Advisory Commission on Rakhine State’, headed by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, and formed at the request of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, submitted its report.
On a request from Suu Kyi, the report has not used the word Rohingya, nor the Myanmar government’s official description of Rohingya as ‘Bengali’. Instead it describes them as Muslim. But the report itself is candid on what the problems are and what the solutions should be.
It points to the underdevelopment of the province where the other ethnic group, the Rakhine Buddhists, also feels discriminated against by the majority Burman Buddhists; the “statelessness” of the Rohingyas; their segregation, lack of voting rights, restrictions on their movement, and denial of economic opportunities to them. It also points to radicalisation on both sides of the ethnic divide, and the emergence of the armed militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which wants an independent Rohingya state, as well as the Rakhine Arakkan Army (AA).
The report says:”While Myanmar has every right to defend its own territory, a highly militarised response is unlikely to bring peace to the area. What is needed is a calibrated approach — one that combines political, developmental, security and human rights responses to ensure that violence does not escalate… If the legitimate grievances of local populations are ignored, they will become more vulnerable to recruitment by extremists.”
The commission has recommended that the government clean up its 1982 citizenship laws that exclude the 1 million Rohingya population, and meanwhile, not discriminate against non-citizens; invest more in the socio-economic and education development of Rakhine state; allow Rohingya interned in camps to go back to their villages; and give them freedom of movement so they can access economic opportunities.
Both the main political party in Rakhine and the Myanmar military opposed the commission. Suu Kyi has accepted the report but its implementation is up in the air.
Independent of this, a UN Human Rights Council fact-finding committee to investigate human rights violations by security forces against Rohingya (which was not in the mandate of the Kofi Annan Commission) will present an oral update in the Council’s session in mid-September, and then again in March 2018. Myanmar opposes the committee, led by the Indian lawyer Indira Jaising, and has not given it permission to enter the country yet. Suu Kyi said earlier this week that international workers were linked to “Bengali” terrorists in Rakhine.
India’s few thousand Rohingya pale in comparison to the 400,000 in Bangladesh, which is protesting about the continuing waves of refugees entering from Myanmar. Some 20,000 have crossed the border from Rakhine in the last week alone. Thousands more are believed to be stranded between the two countries as Bangladesh says it cannot take any more.
“Why should the world push us to accept more Rohingyas, we are an over-populated poor country ourselves, we are surprised why the UN and other Big Powers are not pushing Myanmar to create conditions so that no Rohingya is forced to take shelter in Bangladesh or elsewhere,” Bangladesh foreign minister Dipu Moni said recently.
India has Big Power aspirations but also a big China problem, and cannot be as candid about what Myanmar ought to do. But if New Delhi is genuinely concerned about the influx of Rohingya refugees, it may not be able to ignore Myanmar’s role in pushing them out for too long.
India should also be concerned about the unrest for another reason, though experts dismiss this as a minor worry. The second leg of its big-ticket Kaladan multi-nodal transport project, which aims to connect Kolkata to the Northeast through Myanmar, will start in Sittwe, the Rakhine capital.