Rohingyas Can’t Stay: That Means India Must Help Myanmar Reach A Solution That Ensures Peace

Ashok Sajjanhar

Oct 01, 2017, 07:06 PM | Updated 07:06 PM IST

Indian Muslim activists hold placards as they shout slogans during a protest against the government of Myanmar over the treatment of Rohingya Muslims (MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian Muslim activists hold placards as they shout slogans during a protest against the government of Myanmar over the treatment of Rohingya Muslims (MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)
  • A solution of the issue lies in Myanmar, not in Bangladesh or India or any other country
  • It is just over a month since militants and activists of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked about 25 posts of the Myanmar police and army and killed more than a dozen members of the Myanmar security forces. This led to the launch of brutal attacks by the Myanmar military on the Rohingyas in the western Rakhine province of Myanmar, forcing them to flee across the border to Bangladesh and beyond. These incidents have starkly brought the issue of Rohingya Muslims on the radar screen of the international community. Voices have grown in volume and intensity urging the Myanmar government, particularly the State Counsellor and the de-facto leader of Myanmar, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (DASSK) to speak out against these atrocities carried out by her own security forces. The shrillness grew in severity as Myanmar maintained a sphinx-like silence in disregard of the rising indignation of international human rights community and civil society groups, particularly from Western countries.

    Current Situation

    DASSK ultimately broke her silence on 19 September in her address to the nation in Naypyidaw when she expressed her government’s incomprehension of the causes for the flight of Muslims from the Rakhine province.

    DASSK in her remarks contended that only terrorist elements are being acted against and the common people are not being harmed. She said that Myanmar would be willing to take back those people who had fled from the Rakhine province, after a due verification process. DASSK, however, maintained that most residents in the Rakhine province were living there as before and had not fled the country. She invited the resident diplomatic community in Myanmar to visit the region and satisfy themselves.

    She had in her earlier remarks termed the campaign against her and the Myanmar government as a "huge iceberg of misinformation." Myanmar has said that elements of Islamic State (IS), Al Qaeda and others are members of ARSA are busy subverting and radicalising sections of the population in Myanmar. This is detrimental to the safety and security of the country. The leader of ARSA is a Pakistan-born person based in Saudi Arabia who is directing activities of the organisation from there.

    DASSK’s statement failed to satisfy a large segment of the international community who thought that it was "too little too late".

    India’s Dilemma

    The Rohingya issue has put India in the eye of a storm. The exact number of Rohingyas in India is not known as they have been trickling in from the porous border with Bangladesh for many years. It is also not clear as to how many Rohingyas have managed to infiltrate into India as a result of the current exodus from Myanmar. It is however clear that several thousands of them are residing in Jammu, Delhi, Hyderabad, Mewar and elsewhere.

    About 16,500 have received refugee cards from the Office of High Commissioner for Refugees. It is understood that more than 40,000 Rohingyas are living in the country as illegal immigrants. On account of the serious terrorist threat from a segment of these immigrants, the government has declared that it will deport them back to Myanmar. In response to the barrage of national and international opprobrium heaped on it, India has said that it is only implementing its national law.

    It has quashed allegations that Rohingyas are sought to be deported because they are Muslims. India has a commendable track record of accepting refugees from several regions/countries, be they from Afghanistan and Tibet or Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Even in ancient times, persecuted communities and faiths from different parts of the world including Jews, Parsis, Bahais etc. have sought refuge in India and been welcomed by the common people.

    In the present instance, the serious concern is that amongst the refugees are members of ARSA with linkages to Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Jamaat-ul-Dawa, Lashkar-e-Taiba etc. Pakistan's ISI is reported to be active in training terrorist elements among the refugees. ISI is keen to instigate violence and terrorism in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. This poses a serious security challenge to India. The government has informed the Supreme Court in response to a petition filed by two immigrants that Rohingyas constitute "a serious security threat to the country" and could lead to social tension and law and order problems.

    Myanmar is extremely significant for India's security, stability and prosperity, particularly in its northeastern states. Myanmar represents the Gateway for India's northeastern states to other ASEAN countries. It is a vital partner in India’s business and connectivity initiatives. Several major connectivity projects including the Trilateral Highway from India’s northeast to Thailand and beyond through Myanmar, and the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project, are in advanced stages of implementation.

    Myanmar security forces are actively collaborating with India to deny space and territory to Indian insurgents in Myanmar to carry out violent attacks against Indian civilians and security forces across the 1,640 km border with India. The success of India’s Act East Policy depends largely on productive relations with Myanmar. The expanding presence and increasing influence of China in Myanmar is a matter of growing concern for India. This necessitates a robust reach out to Myanmar and its leadership.

    Similarly, India's relations with Bangladesh are equally important. On account of bold leadership of Prime Ministers Modi and Sheikh Hasina, relations between the two countries are the best they have been since 1975.

    Bangladesh has been the worst affected by the refugee crisis. It is reported to have received more than 400,000 refugees over the last four weeks. Its capacity to accommodate these refugees is bursting at the seams. Sheikh Hasina finds herself under increasing pressure on this issue from opposition parties particularly Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami, both of which lean towards Pakistan.

    China's increasing leverage in Bangladesh to the detriment of India's traditional primacy and cordial relations is a matter of concern. Bangladesh goes to the polls next year, and Sheikh Hasina could face an uphill task if she does not find a quick, satisfactory solution to the issue.

    Because of this, India significantly modified its position on 9 September and advised Myanmar to use restraint so that it does not add to the unbearable physical and political burden on Bangladesh. Bangladesh looks upon India to resolve the crisis by persuading Myanmar to stop forcing out refugees and to accept back those that have already fled.

    Bangladesh needs all possible material, diplomatic and moral support to deal with this catastrophe. Under its ''Insaniyat'' (Humanitarian) initiative, India has promised 7,000 tons of relief material including food items, medicines, tents etc. for refugees in Bangladesh. Daily flights carrying these materials are travelling to Dhaka to provide succour to the refugees.

    The Way Forward

    A solution of the issue lies in Myanmar, not in Bangladesh or India or any other country. Vitriolic criticism of DASSK will not make Myanmar change its position. Diplomacy and discussion is the only way forward. Myanmar has expressed readiness to accept the immigrants after the necessary verification process. Myanmar needs international support for its political and economic development which it will receive by becoming a responsible member of the international community.

    Myanmar also appears to be ready to seriously consider implementing suggestions contained in the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine state. In several areas in Myanmar, the military still calls the shots. It controls 25 per cent of parliamentary seats as well as ministerial positions in defence, internal security, border affairs etc. DASSK’s flexibility is hence considerably restricted.

    A huge challenge confronts India at this juncture. This can be overcome only by creative and adroit diplomacy. India has to undertake a creative tightrope walk with Myanmar. It is admirably equipped to do that. It has to simultaneously contend with challenges in its relations with it's two extremely significant and sensitive neighbours, Bangladesh and Myanmar, as well as with international human rights watchdogs. Domestically it has to stave off outcries from opposition parties and civil society organisations.

    The bottom-line is that because of the serious security threat as well as the fact that Rohingyas consume resources, products and services which the Indian government would better use for its own citizens, they cannot be allowed to stay in the country. They have to be sent back to Myanmar where they have come from. Their presence in India will lead to severe social and economic stress within the communities where they might be temporarily accommodated. The matter should be taken up, on an urgent basis, formally as well as through back channels with Myanmar so that a mutually acceptable via media is arrived at and the Rohingyas are repatriated to their homeland without further loss of time.

    The author is a former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia. He is currently President, Institute of Global Studies.”

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    Future of Indian politics and economy is closely linked to the politics and economy of Uttar Pradesh