By Kalyani Shankar
The stateless Rohingya issue has caught the attention of the world leaders with thousands pouring into the neighboring Bangladesh and India while they are being pushed out by Myanmar. On the inaugural session of the UN last week several leaders including the US President Donald Trump expressed concern about them.
With Prime Minister Modi’s stated ‘neighbours first’ policy, the South Block is perplexed about how to please both – Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh. India simply cannot stand by both the countries in view of their contradictory stand. Taking a clear view will mean alienating one or the other woman leader. On the one hand, Myanmar needs to be kept engaged and on the other Bangladesh needs to be reassured. By being soft on Myanmar, India runs the risk of annoying Dhaka. Dhaka also has dealt with Myanmar bilaterally so far. While Bangladesh has adopted a balanced stand by giving shelter to the refugees while also taking it up with Naypyidaw, the latter is on a denial mode. Interestingly, both Beijing and New Delhi support the Myanmar government.
Who are the Rohingyas and what is the crisis? The UN has described them as the “world’s most persecuted people”. The Buddhist majority in Myanmar has long been accused of oppressing the Rohingya, a religious minority of more than a million people living Rakhine state. The latest violence has exploded since August 25, when the state suppressed a Rohingya militant group.
Thousands of refugees have crossed over to Bangladesh because of the geography, as the Rohingya Muslims are culturally and ethnically closer to the Bangladeshis.
India has traditionally backed Myanmar’s stand even defending it at various international forums. It has significant geopolitical and security interests in Myanmar, which is at the heart of Modi government’s ‘Act East policy’. New Delhi is also working closely with the security forces of Myanmar to target the insurgents operating in the country’s northeast.
During Modi’s visit to Myanmar early this month, he underlined India’s support to the government and praised Suu Kyi. The joint statement said: “India condemned the recent terrorist attacks in northern Rakhine State, wherein several members of the Myanmar security forces lost their lives. Both sides agreed that terrorism violates human rights and there should, therefore, be no glorification of terrorists as martyrs.” This attitude was much to the relief of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi government, which is facing widespread criticism for its handling of the Rohingyas issue. Suu Kyi has claimed that her government was facing its “biggest challenge”. She does not control the military and there is trust deficit between the two. Besides, it would have been difficult for India to lecture Myanmar when it is faced with a similar predicament back home in Kashmir. South Block also does not want to push Myanmar to the arms of China.
The relations with Dhaka have been improving since Modi took over, as the two countries have moved forward with high-level visits from both sides. Modi had delivered the Land Boundary Agreement after 41 years during his visit to Dhaka in 2015. He gave a 2 billion dollar credit to Dhaka during his visit. Now Bangladesh is bursting at the seams with the influx of more than 3,70,000 Rohingya refugees and Hasina is under pressure from the opposition to deal with the issue. Bangladesh goes to polls next year and Hasina is under compulsion to find a quick fix solution. Therefore, Bangladesh is looking to India, as a regional power, to play a larger role in persuading Myanmar to halt the exodus of Rohingyas and also to ensure the repatriation of those who have fled to other countries. Disappointed with Modi’s stand during his visit to Myanmar early this month, Bangladesh protested after which New Delhi advised Myanmar to pursue restraint on September 9 to mollify Dhaka. Modi also announced the “Insaniyat” initiative and promised 7,000 tonnes of relief material for refugees. Taking it forward at the UNHRC, India also acknowledged on September 19 that the Rohingya flight was a result of operations of Myanmar’s security forces.
New Delhi also realizes that a number of Rohingyas will land up in its own territory. Fearing radicalization, the ruling BJP is talking of deportation of Rohingya Muslims, which has become a political issue in India and is being played out on predictable lines. It has become a debate of minority-majority framework. But the political parties should work towards finding a solution.
The Centre’s submission in Supreme Court recently is the clearest indication that it does not wish to compromise on national security. The top UN human rights body has criticized Indian government plan to deport the Rohingyas saying “India cannot carry out collective expulsions, or return people to a place where they risk torture or other serious violations”.
So what is the way out? New Delhi should adopt a multi-dimensional approach and use its persuasive powers to urge Myanmar to create congenial atmosphere for the refugees to return. Expecting other countries to absorb them including India is not a desirable solution. Without addressing the root cause of the problem the issue cannot be resolved. The solution lies in Myanmar and not elsewhere and it also has to be a permanent one so that the Rohingyas live peacefully. All this is a complex problem but as an emerging regional power, India is expected to shoulder additional responsibilities and lead various initiatives. (IPA Service)