By Nimesh Bansal
Narendra Modi’s first bilateral visit to Myanmar has been overshadowed by the ongoing Rohingya crisis in the Rakhine state. A visit aimed at fostering economic and political ties with Myanmar soon turned into a discussion about the humanitarian crisis at hand.
The Rohingyas are an ethnic group inhabiting the Rakhine province of Myanmar. The country’s government does not recognise them as original inhabitants of Myanmar and have even declared a large section of the Rohingyas as non-citizens. They are among the poorest and least-literate populace in the country. 78% of the Rohingya population lives in poverty as opposed to a national average of 37%, while the literacy rate stands at 84% against the nationwide average of 93%. Following clashes with Myanmar’s majority Buddhist population and persecution by the military, thousands of Rohingyas have fled to nearby Bangladesh and India. A ‘clearance operation’ launched by the security forces and supported by the Buddhist militia has led to arson and violence, culminating in the deaths of at least 400 people.
A historically welcoming attitude
It is estimated as many as 2,50,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh, with 15,000 more crossing the border every day as the crisis continues. An additional 6,000 to 10,000 refugees are reported to have set up camp in Jammu and Kashmir. India has historically adopted a welcoming attitude towards refugees. More than 1,20,000 Tibetan refugees currently reside in India. A Tibetan government in exile has also famously operated from McLeodganj in Dharamshala. Furthermore, reports indicate that 10,000 Sri Lankan refugees and anywhere from 30 lakh to 2 crore Bangladeshi nationals also live in India. The refugee influx can partly be associated with India’s lack of legal framework around refugees. Guidelines issued by the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs allow local immigration offices to dispense long-term visas to refugees on a case-by-case basis.
India’s reservations regarding Rohingyas
Rohingya refugees, however, will not have it so easy. The country sees them as posing a bigger security risk than any other group seeking asylum in the past. Reports indicate a Rohingya terror group, Aqa Mul Mujahideen (AMM), was in touch with terrorist groups active in Jammu and Kashmir including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), last year. AMM has been held responsible for multiple bombings across the Myanmar border. Even more worryingly for India, multiple Rohingya terrorists were reported to have been sent to Kashmir Valley alongside Pakistani mercenaries. This has led to the Indian government stating its intention to deport Rohingya refugees living in India illegally. 40,000 Rohingyas, in total, have settled in India, including 16,000 who have received refugee documentation. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, a UN Human Rights official slammed India for its stance against the Rohingyas saying, “I deplore current measures in India to deport Rohingyas at a time of such violence against them in their country”.
Modi sidesteps the issue
Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about a number of issues during his visit to Myanmar but carefully sidestepped the humanitarian crisis. Addressing the Indian diaspora, he sought to justify decisions such as demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) saying, “We never shy away from taking big and tough actions for the benefit of India because we consider the country bigger than politics”. However, a stern response to the issue at hand was amiss. Only three days after Modi’s visit did the Ministry of External Affairs release a public statement raising concern at the influx of refugees, “We would urge that the situation in Rakhine state be handled with restraint and maturity, focusing on the welfare of the civilian population alongside those of the security forces. It is imperative that violence is ended and normalcy in the state is restored expeditiously”.
Myanmar’s importance to India
India is treading carefully with Myanmar as the country is the single biggest factor in Indian geopolitics at present. India shares a 1,640-km-long border with Myanmar passing along a number of north-eastern states including militancy-hit Nagaland and Manipur. A close working relationship with Myanmar is essential to counter China who has made inroads into Indian land. Indian and Myanmarese militaries have, in the past, jointly undertaken operations to flush out militants; India would want for the cooperation to continue.
Modi, during his visit, pushed for stronger India-Myanmar relations saying, “I read somewhere five Bs are the base of India-Myanmar relations – Buddhism, Business, Bollywood, Bharatnatyam and Burma teak. But, I think most important ‘B’ is missing here and that ‘B’ is ‘Bharosa’. India Myanmar are not only connected by border but also feelings”.
The fragility of Myanmar
Myanmar is still a fledgeling country when it comes to federal democracy. After decades of isolation from the outside world, a haphazard constitutional structure and a complex relationship between civilians and the military, Myanmar is still finding its feet as the Southeast Asia region’s up-and-coming democratic state. With India being the dominant economic power in the region, both countries will benefit from strong ties with each other.
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