Why it’s difficult for Delhi to deport the ones who are here
Pushed by Bangladesh, India has asked Myanmar for “restraint” in its military operations against the Rohingya in its Rakhine state. Nearly 300,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine into Bangladesh because of the operations. New Delhi’s advice that “it is imperative that violence is ended and normalcy in the [Rakhine] state is restored expeditiously” came after a protest by Dhaka against India’s perceived encouragement to Myanmar’s forces last week during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit.
India had condemned “terrorist attacks in… Rakhine, wherein several members of the Myanmar security forces lost their lives”; Myanmar, in turn, condemned the Amarnath yatra attack, and “various acts of terror perpetrated by terrorists from across the borders”.
India’s national security fears are based on intelligence reports linking the radical Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army to the Lashkar-e-Taiba; key individuals in ARSA, or its front organisations such as Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, are allegedly close to Hafiz Saeed. RSO has a Pakistan chapter, and the Jamaat-ud-Dawa front Falah-e-Insaniyat had a presence in Rohingya refugee camps in 2012.
But no individual Rohingya in India has yet been linked to any terror organisation. They live in dismal conditions in cities across India. Statements by MoS Home Kiren Rijuju, and some senior BJP members that the 40,000 Rohingya (the UNHCR-registered number is 16,500) in India are a generalised threat, have fed off existing Hindu-Muslim communal faultlines.
There is, in fact, a reason the Rohingya are here, and a reason they cannot be sent back.
The Rohingya are the world’s biggest stateless ethnic group. There are about a million of them, most of whom live in northern Rakhine.
They are Muslim by religion. Myanmar’s government does not recognise them as citizens, which results in their legalised persecution.
There are numerous restrictions on them, including on their movement, access to the economy, education, health and other rights, which keep them in poverty and squalor.
Under Myanmar’s discriminatory 1982 citizenship law, only those who trace their residence in the country to before 1823, or those belonging to the majority Burman, or Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan ethnic groups, qualify for full citizenship. A list of another 135 ethnic groups, drawn up in 1982 and made public in 1990, did not include the Rohingya. Other categories of citizenship are technically open to Rohingya, but in practical terms, make their acceptance impossible.
The Rohingya trace their origins in Rakhine to the 15th century or earlier. But the official name for them today is “Bengali”, intended to underline that they came to Rakhine as part of the British East India Company’s expansion into Burma after it defeated the Burmese king in 1826. (This is why 1823 is the cut-off date for both the 1948 and 1982 Citizenship Acts.) The Burman, Chinese, Malay and Thai Muslims have a different, better relationship with the Myanmar state. The Rohingya are also racially different.
According to Rohingya activists, there are enough references after 1948 to point to their political acceptance as citizens. One of these is a statement by Burma’s first President U Nu, who is believed to have said in a public speech on September 25, 1954 that “the people living in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships [Rohingya dominated areas in Rakhine state] are Rohingya, ethnics of Burma”.
From May 1961 to October 1965, the Burma Broadcasting Service in Yangon broadcast a Rohingya language programme three times a week, and the Rangoon University Rohingya Students Association was among the many ethnic student associations that functioned from 1959 to 1961. Even after the military takeover in 1962, the junta continued to use the Rohingya expediently. They voted in every election from 1948 until 2010, each time after being issued “temporary scrutiny cards” that clearly mentioned that the cards did not entitle them to citizenship.
“[A] new National Scrutiny Card was introduced in 1989 and Rohingya were not entitled to receive them as they became non-citizen under the 1982 Citizenship Act. However, the authorities issued Temporary Scrutiny Card to all and promised twice in 2008 constitution referendum and 2010 election that National Scrutiny Card will soon be issued to all the Rohingyas. But the promises made to Rohingya were never honoured,” wrote Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist and blogger based in Europe.
In the 2010 election, the last under the junta, Rohingya parties took part, and while none of their candidates won, the military’s Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) sent three Rohingya MPs to Parliament. But the Rohingya were disenfranchised for the 2015 election, heralded as the first full democratic election in Myanmar.
In 2012, there were Rohingya-Buddhist clashes, triggered by the rape and murder of a Rakhine Buddhist woman, allegedly by two Rohingya men. Human Rights Watch released satellite pictures of entire Rohingya villages burning. Thousands fled to Bangladesh and to camps set up under UN supervision in Rakhine. Some 140,000 people still live in the camps. The International Crisis Group said it was in the camps that ARSA took shape.
On October 9, 2016, nine Myanmar policemen were killed in armed attacks on border posts on Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh in the Rakhine province, which were claimed by ARSA, then known as Harraka al Yakin/Aqa Mul Mujahideen. Eight of the attackers were also killed.
Over the past year, there have been allegations of grave human rights violations by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya. A UN Human Rights Council-appointed Fact Finding Committee has been denied permission to enter the country to investigate these allegations. On August 25, ARSA claimed responsibility for coordinated attacks on police posts and an attempted raid on an army base. The response by the Myanmar security forces has sent over 250,000 fleeing into Bangladesh.
The ARSA attack, oddly, came a day after the Myanmar government-appointed, Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State submitted its report to the State Counsellor and de facto Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi. The Commission, appointed last September, strongly recommended a review of the 1982 citizenship laws and specifically pointed to the slow and sporadic process of citizenship verification, which has covered only 10,000 Rohingya since 2014.
Suu Kyi has been criticised internationally for her attitude towards the Rohingya, and there have been calls for withdrawing the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to her for her fight for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. But it was also at Suu Kyi’s instance that the Annan Commission was appointed, and she has welcomed the report. Her office has said the report’s recommendations would have a positive impact on the process of reconciliation and development. While a large majority of the recommendations “will be implemented promptly”, a few “will be contingent upon the situation on the ground but we believe there will be speedy progress”. The powerful military has, however, more or less rejected the report.
India’s security and diplomatic establishments have been concerned at events in Myanmar since 2012 and the “disproportionate response” by the security forces since last year, for their potential to radicalise the Rohingya.
India believes “quiet diplomacy” is its only option, but is worried it will be increasingly drawn into the situation. No one believes the crisis will be resolved soon, leave alone Myanmar accepting the Rohingya as citizens. Which is why the Home Ministry’s plan to “deport” the 40,000 Rohingya in India may be premature. There is nowhere yet to deport them. They belong to no country, and no country wants them.