After over 50 years of military rule, Myanmar had finally made the long-awaited transition to elected government in 2011. Its second liberation is brought about by Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and the daughter of Aung San, the man who is known for engineering Myanmar’s first liberation from the British. Yet, as foreign media converges on the nation, coverage in recent months has been focused on one issue: the Rohingya.
According to these coverage reports tens of thousands of Rohingya have been forcibly confined in deplorable conditions in Sittwe, with the allegations made that the ethnic cleansing perpetrated under the military government amounts to genocide. In May 2015, photos of stranded Rohingya off the coast of Thailand made the headlines and world cried for in-humanitarian condition of these people. Ever since, foreign commentators have called for an end to what appears to be government inaction or lack of accountability for extreme human rights abuses in Rakhine state.
History of the crisis
The phrase “ethnic cleansing” refers to the expulsion, imprisonment and killing of an ethnic minority by a dominant majority, in order to achieve demographic homogeneity. In simpler words, the majority gets rid of the minority. In the past, dictators like Hitler or more recently Muammar Gadaffi have been accused of ethnic cleansing, and the regime in Myanmar is now being accused of it as well.
Myanmar’s military-backed civilian government has been accused of ethnic cleansing by many world bodies along with the United Nations. Many newspapers of international repute have accused Myanmar of facilitating an ethnic cleansing which is the most brutal the world has seen in years.
Media or the world bodies can cry louder and louder but the unrest in this South Asian country has a long history attached to this problem.
While the situation has worsened recently, tensions between the majority Buddhists and the minority Rohingya in Rakhine state of Myanmar has its roots placed from the beginning of British rule in 1824. Buddhists and Muslims are the two largest ethnic groups in Myanmar; while Buddhists are a large majority, the Rohingya are a group that originated in what is today Bangladesh, as per the reports of various newspapers. These reports indicate that a large proportion of the Rohingya population is concentrated in west Myanmar, while other Muslim communities have also been attacked in central Myanmar.
These reports claim that the British colonialists favoured Muslims at the expense of other groups. They recruited them as soldiers during World War II, pitting them against Buddhists aligned with the Japanese as the war played out on Burmese soil.
Their status was fortified in 1947 when a new Constitution was drafted, enshrining them with full legal and voting rights, which would be later stripped to render them State-less. Rakhine has a poverty rate nearing 80 per cent, double the national average, kindling resentments over ethnic claims to the area.
According to a report in The Telegraph, after World War II, Myanmar authorities started treating Rohingyas as illegal, interloping Bengalis. They were made to face apartheid-like conditions which denied them free movement or State education while the government intermittently forced them out and even put them out of the Census which deprived them of their citizenship and they become state-less.
In June 2012, sectarian violence flared up following the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman in a Rohingya-dominated locality. The resulting riots went on for almost a month. Further riots broke out in October after which the government moved a million Rohingyas to refugee camps. Thousands of Rohingyas fled their homes and sought refuge in Bangladesh, Thailand, the Phillipines, Indonesia and Malaysia. The conflict was contained after military intervention, the report added.
Tensions mounted again in October 2016, when a small and previously unknown militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), staged a series of deadly attacks on various posts of the Myanmarese armed forces. The army responded with a massive crackdown, sparking a new wave of refugee arrivals into Bangladesh.
On 25 August, ARSA again launched an attack on army installations in Rakhine, triggering another brutal military campaign in response. As the Rohingya crisis is escalating, it has left Myanmar’s neighbours squirming at the prospect of lakhs of refugees coming into their territories. While Bangladesh has been at the forefront in managing the refugee crisis, India too has 40,000 Rohingyas to deal with.
India’s deft handling of the crisis
In an affidavit before the Supreme Court (one more to be filed), the Central government has taken the stand that the Rohingya Musims cannot stay in India as they are a threat to national security. The government further stated that some Rohingyas are linked to terror groups, and hence cannot be allowed to stay. This shows that government on its part is not disregarding the security interest.
India’s stance on the Rohingyas is certainly not a new one, as earlier, Home Minister Rajnath Singh had called them a threat to national security and promised to deal with the issue with a firm hand.
In August, the home ministry had communicated to the states that illegal immigrants like the Rohingyas pose grave security challenges as they may be recruited by terror groups. It had then asked the states to identify and deport them.
Government’s concerns in this case are backed up by intelligence reports. As per a NDTV report a meeting was called by Nripendra Misra, the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, on 12th September. It was attended by NSA Ajit Doval and the heads of intelligence agencies including the Research and Analysis Wing. The intel report which they reviewed concluded by saying, “In our assessment, penetration of Pakistan-based terrorist outfits among Rohingya Muslims community is a serious emerging threat, as the same would ultimately be used for targeting India.”
The meeting focused on the alerts about links between Rohingya militant commanders in Myanmar and terror groups in Pakistan, including Hafiz Saeed’s Lashkar-e-Taiba. This report also raised other red flags for India as a Pakistani Al-Qaeda operative was reported to have visited Thailand in August to train Rohingya militants. There is also speculation that a Rohingya in Kashmir was the guide for terrorists who attacked a police compound in Pulwama, killing eight security personnel.
Furthermore, it is to be noted that Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar and Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed, both terrorists who operate out of Pakistan and target India, are openly supporting the Rohingya.
The apprehensions cast aside by the government on the issue is backed up with a solid intelligence inputs by different agencies of the government. One can certainly measure up the dangers of giving refugee status to these Rohingya Muslims, if one goes by a report in Indian Express is that, “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.”
Centre’s affidavit at the Supreme Court on the issue of deportation of Rohingya Muslims from India puts to rest some needless confusion. The NDA government has expectedly taken a stringent stand. According to media reports, the government has clearly indicated in the apex court that there are enough intelligence inputs to consider the illegal immigrants to be “a serious security threat to the country”, pointing out that the issue has become a witches’ brew of terrorism and pan-Islamic assertiveness with Pakistan’s ISI and Islamic State operatives thrown into the mix.
It seems that global Islamic jihadi ideologists have focussed their attention on the Rohingya crisis as it has the potential to becoming a rallying point for the pan-Islamic uprising. The country’s policy towards this issue must be based on the security concerns of its own citizens first. Careful diplomacy, realpolitik and humanitarian concerns must be used in dealing with the issue and avoid the moral sermons from the western countries and United Nation which are far away from the issue and don’t have direct involvement in the crisis.
With regard to dealing with the crisis it appears that the Narendra Modi government has taken a three-pronged approach with focus on security, realpolitik and sensitivity.
The Centre’s affidavit in Supreme Court proves the intention of the government that it will not compromise on national security. It promised to share evidence with the Court that terrorist elements among the Rohingyas are active in Delhi, Hyderabad, Mewar and Jammu. According to report in The Times of India the government has told the court that touts operating on India’s eastern border are arranging identity papers for the illegal immigrants, while some Rohingya Muslims are “using the ‘hawala’ route to raise money for illegal activities.” The report also mentions that the Centre has asked the court not to interfere on deportation of Rohingyas since it is a policy issue and falls within the executive domain.
This is a valid contention of the government. The issue of deportation of the Rohingya Muslims has taken political turn within no time and is being played out on predictable lines. Turning the issue into majority-minority framework may give political mileage to some but in the long term we will have to pay the price for this myopic view.
With the China backing the state actions of Myanmaar, India already is in a diplomatic tight spot. India cannot chide Myanmar for its actions in Rakhine state as it will push the key ASEAN state towards China, which already has made foray into Myanmar. This is the reason why the joint statement during Modi’s visit to Myanmar carried no reference to the Rohingya crisis except from the point of view of national security.
With this approach New Delhi has pushed Bangladesh in a tight spot as it is already grappling with huge number of refugees from Myanmar. Some estimates it to be around 4 lakhs. If some reports are to be believed, the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has made calls to Bangladesh and pledged support in handling the crisis. Thus, the policy — of placating Bangladesh and backing Myanmar publicly while privately asking it to rein in the military offensive — is the most sensible among some very difficult options before India which cannot afford to ruin its ties with either nation.
With the launch of Operation Insaniyat – a food aid programme- under which it is shipping food, medicines and other relief materials daily to Dhaka which is fighting an almighty struggle, the government has shown its humanitarian concerns. Also, India has committed to Myanmar that it will help in developing the Rakhine region and has initiated infrastructure projects in the area.
‘India remains deeply concerned about the situation in Rakhine State in Myanmar and the outflow of refugees from that region’, was the start of a statement released by Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of India. The rest of the statement centred around the condemnation of the terrorist attacks on Myanmar armed forces and urged the government of Myanmar to act with ‘maturity’ in handling the situation and bring normalcy to the region. Soon after the release of this statement, government started the Operation Insaniyat for the refugees pouring into Bangladesh. Both the statement and providing aid for the refugees, clearly indicate how the present government at the centre is trying to balance between both its domestic and foreign policy advocacies and priorities. India’s policy towards this crisis is still developing but at this point India has shown maturity and prudence in handling the situation.
By Nilabh Krishna