Stand on Rohingyas puts India in a dilemma

T P Sreenivasan

India seems to be torn between its anxiety to forge close relations with Myanmar and the need to preserve its traditional stand of permitting refugees to enter the country.

Mystery surrounds the story of the Rohingyas.

From the days when Bengali Muslims are believed to have migrated to Rakhine state of Burma in the 19th Century, till this day when the Government of India seems to waver between security concerns and humanitarian considerations in dealing with them.

The estimates of their strength have ranged from 1 million to 7 million.

Threat to security

There are those, some believe, who fled from East Pakistan after the Bangladesh war as they had fought the war on the side of Pakistan.

India has been allowing Rohingyas to enter India as refugees for several years, but suddenly characterises them as a threat to national security. For years, they have been fleeing to Bangladesh, India, Thailand and Indonesia and also perishing on the high seas, barely noticed.

Persecution of minorities is not unheard of in the world, particularly South Asia.

Myanmar has a number of stateless persons, including Indians, who have not been given nationality. Very few Hindus have survived in Pakistan and even Shias have been attacked there. Further afield, both Jews and Palestinians have been persecuted for centuries.

Ethnic cleansing

Myanmar is known for “a million mutinies” within the country and no particular attention has been given to the other minorities being put down by military might. After the Cold War, the emergence of racist trends and ethnic cleansing in several countries have been treated differently by the international community.

It is, therefore, inexplicable that, on this issue, the UN Security Council has issued a consensus statement, condemning the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that has led more than 370,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh, and calling for immediate steps to end the violence.

It is the first time that the UN Security Council has issued a statement in nine eventful years on the situation in Myanmar. The Council expressed concern at reports of excessive violence during security operations by Myanmar and called for a de-escalation of the situation, re-establishment of law and order, protection of civilians and a resolution of the refugee problem.

The Security Council welcomed Bangladesh’s efforts to help the refugees as well as support from the UN and other international agencies.

Sudden turnaround

India’s sudden turnaround on the Rohingyas issue during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Myanmar (on September 5, 2017), on his way back from China after the BRICS meeting, took the world by surprise.

Although India had not signed the Refugees Convention, it had taken on the obligations of a signatory by way of allowing refugees to enter, looking after them in cooperation with the UN and sending them back only when the situation in their country became normal.

But in the case of the Rohingyas, Modi expressed concern over “extremist violence” in Rakhine, without mentioning Rohingyas by name and announced that, on this issue, India stood with Myanmar in fighting terrorism. He made no mention of the alleged persecution of the Rohingyas. Nor did he give any credit to countries like Bangladesh for the burden borne on account of the influx of refugees.

“We hope that all stakeholders together can find a way out in which unity and territorial integrity of Myanmar is respected,” Modi said in a joint statement with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar’s capital.

Suu Kyi thanked India for taking a strong stand on the “terror threat” faced by her country. She said that India and Myanmar jointly can ensure that terrorism is not allowed to take root on their soil or in neighbouring countries.

The strategy was to win over Myanmar at a time when it was under international pressure over the Rohingya crisis.

Bangladesh miffed

India and China found themselves on the same side as champions of the Myanmar regime.

But Bangladesh complained that India had not balanced condemnation of terrorism by acknowledging the pressure on neighbouring countries on account of refugees being forced out in large numbers.

India quickly issued another statement that “India remains deeply concerned about the situation in Rakhine State in Myanmar and outflow of refugees from that region. At the same time, India maintained that the Rohingyan refugees in India will be expelled, whether they had UN documents or not.

The reason for India’s tough position on Rohingyas is being unofficially explained as a response to the information received that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which staged an attack on the army of Myanmar in August, was led by someone trained in Pakistan as a terrorist.

What was till recently a pure humanitarian matter is now being influenced by considerations of national security. “We cannot rule out the possibility of a security threat,” said Home Minister Rajnath Singh. To take care of the humanitarian aspect, India sent a consignment of food and other materials to Bangladesh.

HCHR ruffled

India’s unprecedented decision to expel Rohingya refugees prompted the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad of Jordan, to use unusually harsh words against India: “I deplore current measures in India to deport Rohingya refugees at a time of such violence against them in their country……India cannot carry out collective expulsions, or return people to a place where they risk torture or other serious violence.”

India naturally reacted strongly to the statement as the UN had no business to force the hand of a member country on the refugee issue. But the action taken by the Security Council has caused some embarrassment to India. Doubts were expressed in India and abroad whether the proposed action was on account of Modi’s Hindutva agenda.

Incomplete affidavit

To add to the confusion, the Government of India characterised as “incomplete” an affidavit authorised by it to be submitted to the Supreme Court.

The affidavit had asserted that the court should not interfere with the deportation of Rohingyas as their continued stay in India posed a national security threat. The final position that India would take in the court and the action it would take in the matter remains unknown.

India’s dilemma is in choosing between its anxiety to forge close relations with Myanmar and the need to preserve India’s traditional stand of permitting refugees to enter India.

The unconditional support India has extended to Suu Kyi, together with the assurances of expeditious implementation of projects in Myanmar, have strengthened the relationship with Myanmar.

But any stern action against the Rohingyas will dent India’s image abroad and draw protest from within the country. The way out is to root out the terrorists, if any, and allow the others to remain in India, like before, as refugees.

T P Sreenivasan is a retired diplomat from the Indian Foreign Service. Among his assignments were India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, India’s Governor at International Atomic Energy Agency based in Geneva. He was also India’s High Commissioner to Fiji during the first coup in 1987. He is currently Director General of the Kerala International Centre.

Mr Sreenivasan is the Guest Speaker at the Eight Annual Saint Mother Teresa Interfaith Meeting on November 26, 2017 at Christ the King Church, Mount Roskill, Auckland and the Tenth Annual Indian Newslink Indian Business Awards on November 27, 2017 at Sky City Convention Centre.

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Photo Caption:

  1. Narendra Modi with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw on September 6, 2017 (Picture Courtesy: AP)
  2. Rohingyas, Displaced people of Rakhine State (Picture by Wikipedia)

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