Tragedy cannot be the end of our lives. We cannot allow it to control and defeat us.
What is going on?
Over 3,00,000 Rohingya refugees have fled from Myanmar and have started taking refuge in neighbouring countries, following the ongoing violence and unrest in Rakhine state. Tensions rose after a dozen security forces were attacked by a militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on August 25, which led to a crackdown by military forces. This crackdown has been referred by many as an attempt of ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar government. “Ethnic cleansing” refers to killing, imprisonment or expulsion of an ethnic minority by the majority group for achieving demographic uniformity.
Who are the Rohingya?
They are a minority group, predominantly Muslims, living in the Rakhine state (earlier known as Arakan), along with the west coast of Myanmar for centuries now. There are about 1.1 million Rohingya living in the Buddhist majority country.
During the British Rule from 1924-1948, there was significant migration of labourers from today’s India and Bangladesh to Myanmar and since British administered Myanmar as a province of India so this was considered internal migration. But when Myanmar gained independence, the new government viewed this migration as illegal and refused to give citizenship to the Rohingyas. They were asked to submit ancestry proofs which the most of them could not produce.
Under the new citizenship law passed in 1982, they were denied citizenship and were not considered as one of the 135 officially recognised ethnic groups, making them stateless. The Rohingya faced persecution and discrimination for years. They were denied free movement, education, and were even slaughtered.
Violence and unrest began in 2012 when a group of Rohingya men were accused of raping a Buddhist woman. Riots broke out and houses of this community people were burnt. Millions of Rohingyas were moved to refugee camps. About 1,20,000 are still housed there. They have been living in poor conditions with lack of basic services, no legal protection from the government, and face strong hostility in the country.
Thousands fled from their homes to seek refuge in neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, and India.
India is home to around 40,000 Rohingyas, this is mainly due to porous borders we share with Myanmar and Bangladesh. The influx of Rohingyas into Bangladesh has added to the pressure on India to be stern with Myanmar. But India’s diplomatic silence on Myanmar had its reasons.
Primarily, India needs to maintain its relations with Myanmar when it is looking to enhance its influence in Southeast Region through Act East policy. Secondly, Myanmar helps tackle insurgency threats in northeast India and a condemnation of Myanmar would push it closer to China.
India has undertaken projects in the region like the Kalandan Multi-Modal transit transport project of constructing a deepwater port on the river. So peace and stability in the area are economically beneficial for us. At the same time, Bangladesh could also not be ignored. Already burdened with floods in the country, and the refugee crisis upon them, they look towards India for support.
The issue of refugees is always a sensitive topic and India is facing a dilemma here.
India has been home for millions of refugees over the years from countries such as Tibet, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan. On humanitarian grounds, it should also provide shelter to the stateless Rohingyas too. Also, the international community has been involved in the issue, so deporting them would cause a backlash from them as well.
But there is security related factors involved, (i) influx of refugees causes a strain on local infrastructure and resources of which we already have limited, (ii) It can affect the demographic balance, Jammu already being a source of tension. (iii) Also, the Islamist terrorist groups may try to expand their networks through the Rohingyas
In light of all of this, India is trying to push Myanmar, both bilaterally and multilaterally, to take back the Rohingya refugees and to stop the atrocities against them. It has also assured assistance to Bangladesh and is providing relief material to help them with the crisis.
Economic Context – Religious Differences or more
Religion and ethnic differences have been widely stated as the leading cause of the persecution. But it is becoming extremely hard to believe that there are no other factors at play. Looking critically towards other root causes of the persecution, vulnerability, and displacement we must consider vested political and economic interests as contributing factors. Not just the Rohingya people but other minorities such as the Kachin, the Shan, the Karen, the Chin and the Mon have been forced to displacement in Myanmar.
Land grabbing and confiscation is not a surprising phenomenon in Myanmar. Since the 1990s, military juntas have been taking away the land of smallholders across the nation without giving any compensation against it. The land has been acquired primarily for “development” projects which comprise natural resource exploitation and extraction, large agricultural projects, military base expansion, infrastructure, and tourism. For example, in Kachin state military forcefully acquired 500 acres of land for a gold mining project.
In 2011, Myanmar’s transforming political and economic reforms opened it up to foreign investment and led it to be dubbed ‘Asia’s final frontier’. Myanmar economy flourished thereafter. Myanmar government established several laws relating to the management and distribution of farmland which enabled large corporations to earn huge profits from land grabs.
Countries, like China and India, have long eyed Myanmar’s resources. Since past two decades, Chinese companies have exploited timber, rivers, and minerals in Shan State in the North. In Rakhine State, both Indian and Chinese interests revolve around the construction of infrastructure and pipelines in the region. A transitional pipeline built by China National Petroleum Company(CNPC) connecting Sittwe, capital of Rakhine, to Kunming, China, began operations in 2013. Meanwhile, the Sittwe deep-sea port was financed and constructed by India as part of the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project aiming to connect the northeast Mizoram state in India with the Bay of Bengal. Such developments put local communities at risk of vulnerability and forceful displacement.
India is in a challenging spot right now. It is not just trying to balance the contradictory interests of Myanmar and Bangladesh but has its own reasons to worry about the influx of refugees.
The solution to the problem lies in Myanmar itself. While India cannot let its guard down when it comes to counter-terrorism cooperation with Myanmar, this has to be done by simultaneously staunching the outflow of refugees. The report by the Annan-led commission, which argues for a citizenship verification process to increase the social and economic participation of the Rohingyas, may offer some useful suggestions. Bangladesh and India can indeed give shelter to some refugees, but there are clear constraints that both the countries face in the form of the resulting burden on their economies, alteration in the demography and potential impact on national security.
In a situation like this, it makes sense for Indian government to support Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but she should also be made to understand the problems of Rohingya Muslims and Rohingya Buddhists and resolve the current crisis keeping aside her vested interests in clearing lands for further development to boost its already rapid economic growth.
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