PM Modi visit to Myanmar and the Rohingya issue
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Myanmar was clouded by the refugee and humanitarian crisis arising from the exodus of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from the Rakhine province in Myanmar to neighboring countries fleeing a brutal military crackdown on the community. In a joint press release from the leaders of the two countries on Wednesday – PM Modi and Aung San Suu Kyi – pledged to cooperate their efforts on what they called “a terrorist problem”.
Suu Kyi thanked India for its diplomatic support when various international human rights groups had condemned it for its ruthless military suppression of the Rohingyas and what some commentators had even termed it as a sort of ethnic cleansing. Suu Kyi reiterated what both India and Myanmar saw as a growing terrorist menace in the region from these Muslim migrants in Myanmar and India.
The government of Myanmar has long stated that the violence in Rakhine is actually the product of increasing terrorist activity and any resultant military actions are an urgent means to protect innocent civilians. According to Myanmarese state media, this latest surge in violence began when Rohingya militants attacked border posts that killed twelve security personnel on 25 August.
Modi who was in Myanmar on a two-day bilateral visit agreed with Suu Kyi and attributed the violence to Islamic extremists. Approximately 146000 Rohingyas have escaped to neighboring Bangladesh in the past few days according to the United Nations (UN). Many of these refugees shared tales of destruction and killings by the Myanmarese military who allegedly used a scorched earth strategy to weed out militants.
As the crisis in Rakhine intensifies, a large portion of Myanmar’s Muslim majority neighbors has asked the government to stop persecuting the Rohingyas. India has a lot of Rohingyas on its territory, the largest concentration after Bangladesh, and it has some self-interests in stopping the violence and curbing the influx of refugees but its geopolitical interests have overtaken humanitarian considerations. According to a senior fellow at an Indian think tank the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), K. Yhome, “The Modi government has been trying to push its Act East Policy and to build a kind of community around the Bay of Bengal, where Myanmar is a key player.”
For India Myanmar is a strategic ally to maintain its status quo with its geopolitical rival China. Without Indian support, Myanmar will succumb to Chinese influence which will be against India’s interest in the region. Aside from this, domestic factors have also played a key role in this stance by India. Kire Rijju from India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) told the Indian press that, “whether the Rohingyas are registered under the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) or not, they are illegal immigrants in India… as per law they stand to be deported.”
While India in the past played a very welcoming role when it came to refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Tibet etc. even though it is not a signatory to the 1951 UN refugee convention. India provided refuge to Tibetans escaping persecution at the hands of the Chinese in the 1950s, even setting up and continue to host the Tibetan government in exile at Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh under the patronage of the Dalai Lama even though it continues to be a major thorn in Sino-Indian relations. India has hosted a lot of Afghan refugees fleeing the violence in their country with thousands of Afghan students studying in India and India contributing to a large part in nation building in Afghanistan.
Now, these Rohingyas are undocumented refugees which make them illegal immigrants thus causing significant concern in the states they are settled in. The demographics of northeast India are already muddled due to the influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Furthermore, there is a threat of growing Islamic radicalism in Bangladesh that might spill over to the bordering Rakhine state in Myanmar. Various international organizations have already said that although Rohingya militants are relatively few and unorganized they receive support from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. A big number of Rohingyas are settled in the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and this has raised alarm bells in the security agencies due to the fear of rising extremist notions in J&K.
National security considerations aside the cause of the Rohingyas to demand a separate state in Myanmar is also invalid because they are Rohingyas are not an ethnic group, they are Muslims, a religious group. While their other demand, the one for citizenship might sound legitimate, it actually is also not so true. According to Myanmarese officials the Rohingyas are illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and to force the Myanmarese government to say otherwise would be infringing on their sovereignty and doing so will make the Myanmarese look towards China or Russia for support, infuriating the West and alienating India.