By Ashis Biswas
With no prospects of an early end to the ongoing civil strife in Myanmar, the exodus of Burmese refugees to India’s Northeastern states has swelled from a trickle to a torrent. As of now, various media reports suggest that the number of people crossing over to Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland within only five months may have crossed 16,000 and counting. More than the head count, it is the overall financial/administrative /diplomatic fallout of the situation in Myanmar that plagues the NDA II Government.
Recent developments in Myanmar could not have come at a worse time for India. The sheer magnitude and stupendous cost of battling the Covid 19 pandemic has left the country reeling. Regardless of the mandatory optimism about a quick economic bounceback spouted by some Ministers and experts, it can not be denied that even the middle classes have been hit hard. While India’s teeming millions stand reduced to a hand to mouth existence especially in the rural interior areas, gushing media reports about the robustness of the stock market look grotesquely incongruous.
At one level, India and Bangladesh are in the same page. Both countries now stand major impacted by Myanmar developments, occurring beyond their borders and administrative jurisdiction. The present refugee influx in the Northeast (NE) in dimensional terms is no patch on the massive Rohingya re-settlement problem entangling Bangladesh in recent years.
Till recently, Dhaka-based policymakers/politicians used to express their frustration over ‘negotiating with Myanmar authorities’ over the Rohingya problem.. Repeatedly they urged upon all major powers, but especially neighbouring India, to nudge Naypitaw to take due cognizance of the problems Bangladesh faced through no faults of its own. While they officially appreciated Delhi’s diplomatic limitations in approaching Myanmar with a hard core message, the Bangladesh political commentariat did not conceal its disillusionment over what they saw as India’s undue soft-pedalling on the issue.
Dhaka’s long, agonising experience of ‘talking to Myanmar authorities’ over the years should now serve as a salutary warning to Delhi about what the future holds. How will India react if the civil conflict in Myanmar gets as protracted as the as yet unsettled Rohingya problem, bringing in its wake an ever lengthening streams of armed Burmese ‘pro-democracy freedom fighters’ into the NE states? After all, the NE region itself has been cradle of often violent armed insurgent/secessionist movements not so long ago. What price regional security?
There can be no easy answer. With remarkable diplomatic patience and perseverance, Bangladesh has over the years succeeded in projecting the contentious matter of Rohingya repatriation to Myanmar both as an acute regional as well as a major international, aggravation. Much of Myanmar’s present pariah status internationally as well as the near total loss of any moral ground or official credibility among Myanmar’s rulers, is a direct outcome of Dhaka’s remarkably single-minded pursuit of its goals. In the process, Bangladesh has deftly ensured that as a small developing democratic country, it is not solely saddled with the overwhelming costs of maintaining at different times nearly a million displaced people from Myanmar.
As for India, it is doubtful if Delhi-based policymakers will adopt such an apparently humble yet highly effective statecraft, as demonstrated by Dhaka’s mandarins.
Over here people in power are more prone to talk in deafening decibels about India’s trillion dollar economy , the growing number of its home grown millionaires , its mighty middle class and a large, aspirant youth( even if largely unemployed!) population. Influential segments of India’s print/electronic media dutifully follow the same line.
Yet, India’s unconcealed enthusiasm to win Western appreciation at all costs does not always achieve the desired results. Western mainstream media whether in the US or the EU countries mostly treat India as a country that has taken a shift towards what is called ‘Hindu fundamentalism’.
It may not be very long before Delhi faces the question of resources to meet the financial needs of an international refugee crisis in the making. India may find itself in the situation that Bangladesh was in a few years ago over the sheer cost of maintaining a large number of jobless, extremely poor Rohingyas and seek international financial assistance for their upkeep and feed urgently.
Consider the facts. Government of India(GOI) anticipating the fallout from the Myanmar army coup on February 1 had instructed the Chief secretaries of Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, four states that share a border with Myanmar, to ensure that no one crossed over into India illegally. The Assam Rifles were also kept in the loop. There were instructions to turn away shelter seekers as gently as possible. As for medical assistance , only people in dire need of urgent help were to be looked after .
It is common knowledge that matters have proceeded much further and faster on the ground. Mostly the people of the Chin state in neighbouring Myanmar, especially close to Mizoram crossed over first. A senior Minister of the Chin state, a leader of the erstwhile ruling party National League for Democracy (NLD) joined his fleeing compatriots and came over to India later. According to reports circulating in the border areas, the Burmese army was using heavy duty weapons to crush the armed resistance that developed in Myanmar after efforts to snuff out the civil protests against the coup failed.
Reports said that many armoured cars and an array of heavy and medium automatic weapons were being used by the troops, as they ran into resistance from armed activists supporting the ousted NLD in some areas away from major towns and urban centres. In Myanmar, trained cadres and activists of organisations like the Chin or Kachin National Armies have been battling the authorities for long, calling for greater autonomy. Their cadre often receive/ or buy arms and weapons from China and elsewhere.
Bangladeshi media reports suggest that such entrenched insurgent groups, whose members have often taken shelter in the past in nearby Indian territories in Mizoram or Manipur, have joined the fight to restore democracy along with the NLD and other groups. Together they have put together a broad coalition called National Unity Government (NUG). There has been an instantly favourable response from the Western countries which have assured material and moral support for their struggles against the army. Friendly liberal groups/activists in EU countries and elsewhere, help them in their arms procurement drives.
Dhaka-based reports claimed that the ruling army units have lost effective control over 33% of the land area of Myanmar so far. In retaliation, the skirmishes intensified, taking a heavier and bloodier toll of lives and property — a recent fight in Mandalay saw major explosions and mayhem. The army has resorted to using heavy duty arms and weapons including artillery and even air power, in some places, but exact details are lacking.
However as the conflict escalates, it is estimated that the official figure of around 900 people killed so far is a gross under estimation. At least twice as many people might have been killed. Lakhs of people in the villages are known to be homeless and in acute distress as they face the heavy rains.
While India’s liberal circles will hail the sturdy battlers for the restoration of democracy, the ongoing conflict could well escalate to a regular civil war, with both sides digging in for the long haul. That should set alarm bells ringing in Delhi. The number of stragglers/refugees has gone up from around 50 or so in Mizoram to over 16,000 in 4/5 weeks, with some people reaching Manipur and Nagaland as well.
The Mizoram Government has asked the centre to provide it with resources to help the refugees in an emergency situation. This comes despite a clear GOI instruction not to encourage more people to cross over. The response from Manipur and Mizoram has been contrasting. While the Manipur government broadly advised state officials not to take any responsibility for providing food or other provisions, Mizoram reacted differently.
Mizoram Chief Minister Mr Zoranthanga informed Delhi that its advice to ignore the refugees and stop them from coming was ‘unacceptable’. Nagaland authorities indicated that they would treat such refugees’ with sympathy.’ NE Political leaders and officials have met Central Ministers and officials in Delhi already including Vice President Mr Venkaiah Naidu and Union Home Ministry top brass to brief them on the present situation and seeking guidance. (IPA Service)