By Aasha Eapen
Rohingyas are an ethnic minority, mostly Muslim, who practice a Sufi–inflected type of Sunni Islam. They comprise a third of the Rakhine state’s population and claim to have existed in Rakhine much before Myanmar took control in 1784. Rohang means “Arakan” in the Arakan dialect while gya means “from”–thus asserting their ties to the land under the erstwhile Arakan kingdom. This is disputed by officials in Myanmar who think they were just farmhands from the neighbouring country and that the term means “returnees from Arakan”. The Rohingya are not recognized as part of the 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar and considered as illegal Bangladeshi migrants.
Origins of the Rohingya
Violence in the Rohingya state is not a new phenomenon and can find its roots in the Second World War when the Rohingya sided with the British while the local Arakan population sided with the invading Japanese forces. The last four decades have seen the Rohingya caught in a cycle of terror, expulsion, destruction, exodus and lull. The current wave of refugees is said to have been caused by the military’s retaliation to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacks on police and army posts in the eastern state of Rakhine.
The expulsions and forced transfers of Rohingya Muslims from their villages in the Arakan State and their subsequent treatment make it apparent that the aim is to change the state’s demographic make-up. While both deportation and forced transfer refer to the involuntary evacuation from the location of residence, deportation is inter-state, and forced population transfers occur within a state. The Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) and the Buddhist sangha in the Arakan State, both led efforts to organize the Arakanese community to economically and socially isolate the Rohingya, thereby forcing them to leave an area they lawfully resided in cooperation with the government.
The Buddhist deprivation of access to livelihood and other acts of violence could be considered an act of persecution that is a crime against humanity.
International action and the repatriation deal
The UNHCR defines a refugee as a person living in another country following persecution in his own on the basis of “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion“. It has described the large departures following the violence in the Arakan state as “unprecedented”. Bangladesh’s Kutapalong-Balukhali camp is now the world’s largest refugee camp; housing around 600,000 people.
State Counselor and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been heavily censored for inaction and condemning violations, but not the military. US and EU confidence has also eroded since lifting sanctions after Suu Kyi’s release, while companies worry about the risks associated with human rights concerns.The ASEAN too has not taken action, on grounds of the principle of non-interference in internal affairs.
On January 16th, 2018, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a repatriation deal to return the Rohingya Muslims within two years, aiming to process at least 150 people each day by 23rd January 2018. Five transit camps are to be built across the border while Myanmar would build a transit camp capable of housing 30,000 refugees. A Myanmarese official told Reuters that the returnees could apply for citizenship after passing the verification process but this is a conundrum since they are not recognized as citizens and are effectively stateless.
It is highly appalling that refugees were not consulted in this matter. Moving to camps in Myanmar implies keeping them in an artificial situation yet again, impeding their return to normalcy. The repatriation would be especially harmful to orphans and children born out of rape resulting in pregnancy. The deal is vague about assurance against future pogroms and Rohingya rights. A step like this is flawed since the Rohingya fled to escape persecution.
Also, the scale of violence has etched a deep distrust in the military and many young men fear being profiled as terrorists. They understandably doubt their safety on return, preferring the dire Bangladeshi camp conditions.
But things could get worse as the cyclone season approaches; over 520,000 children face an even greater risk of disease, flooding, landslides and further displacement. The UN Inter-sector Coordination Group (ISCG) has warned that the cyclone season would seriously hamper relief efforts and has asked for $950 million in aid for food and shelter.
Including those who fled previous waves of persecution, Bangladesh has around one million Rohingya refugees who reached either by crossing the Naf River or through alternative routes. According to the UNHCR, there are 16,000 Rohingya refugees in India but the Indian government puts this figure at 40,000. The Rohingyas who fled to India are settled in Jammu, Hyderabad, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi-NCR, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu.
The third committee meeting of the United Nations General Assembly resolved that the world won’t stand by as Myanmar’s military engages in ethnic cleansing against the Rohingyas. India chose to abstain in the resolution and was censored by the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein for this. In a trip to Myanmar in September 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked about “extremist violence” perpetrated by Rohingya militants yet kept mum on the massive humanitarian crisis.
India should play a greater role given its proximity and past experience with refugees. A careful study of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine state led by Kofi Anna would be a fruitful step in this direction. In what is viewed as an attempt to counteract Chinese influence, Washington had made an offer to New Delhi this month to provide for the needs of the Rohingya in Bangladesh and put pressure on the Myanmar’s government for the repatriation of the Rohingya.
The Ministry of External Affairs has accepted the offer of joint aid but has made no comment on the latter request. Such caution is probably exercised in light of India’s Act East policy and its efforts to rejuvenate the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) , an initiative of which both Bangladesh and Myanmar are a part of.
While there isn’t a specific refugee law, India adopted an ad-hoc policy when it took in refugees from Pakistan, Tibet and Sri Lanka in the past. It also signed the New York Declaration for refugees and migrants, recognizing rights of refugees to asylum and the principle of non-refoulement (refusal to return asylum seekers to a country where they are prone to persecution on grounds of “race, religion, and nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”). Even though India is not a signatory of the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, the principle of non-refoulment is a part of the customary international law and thus considered to be binding on all states.
India has also signed major international human rights instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Due to this, it is seen as a beacon for upholding refugee rights. Deporting the Rohingya is both inhumane and difficult considering they are not recognized as citizens in Myanmar.
On 19th March, the Supreme Court bench heard a Public Interest Litigation(PIL) filed by Zaffar Ullah, a Rohingya refugee represented by Colin Gonsalves on the squalid conditions of the Rohingya camps and their restriction from hospitals and schools. The Centre rejected the plea seeking education and healthcare similar to those received by Sri Lankan refugees saying that the two cases were incomparable and the relief measures received by the refugees was the result of the 1964 Indo-Ceylon Agreement. It also rejected the claims of denial of basic medical care to the Rohingyas.
Following this hearing, the bench comprising of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud have sought a “comprehensive status report” regarding the same. In the meanwhile, the Centre has also decided not to pass an interim order on pleas to grant certain facilities to Rohingya refugees citing media attention and possible negative effects on diplomatic ties with Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The Supreme Court will also hear another plea filed by two Rohingya refugees on the subject of their deportation. The Centre has denied charges of chill and stun grenades being used by the Border Security Force against the Rohingyas and has asked the Supreme Court to leave the matter of securing borders to the executive.
What can India do?
Last year, deputy interior minister Kiren Rijiju made a statement claiming that India would deport 40,000 undocumented or “illegal” immigrants back to Myanmar, on grounds of a possible security threat. The government’s proposal for deportation was met by protests by those who expressed solidarity with the Rohingyas in New Delhi. Taking charge of the situation is an opportunity to lead the way forward in the region before extremist outfits exploit their vulnerabilities.
The Rohingya should not be refused on grounds of being a probable terror risk or by citing other national priorities to focus on. This is in India’s best interests since only a peaceful neighbourhood can ensure India’s national security. Ignoring the issue is a detrimental geopolitical strategy given that Myanmar and Bangladesh border four and five states of India, respectively.
A distinction should be made between the stock of Rohingyas already present in India and the flow of refugees. Proper documentation and holistic relief measures should also be carried out for those refugees on Indian soil.
In 2008, India’s Ministry of External Affairs allocated $30 million per year in a separate budget for international disaster relief. The focus of the disaster relief could be directed to Bangladesh now. It must capitalize on its relations with the pro-India Sheikh Hassina government to ensure better co-operation and higher security in maritime and littoral areas, joint rescue and relief operations and security cooperation.
India has an incentive to take action based on its economic interests in the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport project which includes a deepwater port in Sittwe, the capital of the Rakhine state. The project would help to develop the transport in south-west Myanmar and India’s Northeast.
The way out for New Delhi is to pursue a vigorous value-based diplomacy that takes into consideration relations with Myanmar and Bangladesh and the humanitarian concerns for the Rohingya people.
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