Myanmar Communal Strife

What could India do?

By Prof. (Dr.) DK Giri
(Prof, International Politics, JMI)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Myanmar following a successful BRICS summit was not free from criticism. Why did he not raise the issue of Rohingya Muslims who are subjected to appealing repression, rape and murder by the Army and Buddhist mob? A human tragedy of such magnitude could not possibly escape the attention of the ever-alert Modi. It was, indeed a studied, silence owing to the geopolitics in the region. The argument being that maintaining a balance between democratic ideals, humanitarian issues and critical security interests has been a hard task for India vis-à-vis Myanmar.
Then, Modi’s visit begs the second criticism that he could have raised it with the de-facto head of Myanmar, noble laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Why didn’t he make her speak on Rohingyas? The entire world was amazed and worried by Suu Kyi’s silence on the pogrom in the State of Rakhine, inhabited by majority of Rohingya Muslims.
However, both the concerns have been addressed by Modi and Suu Kyi as both of them spoke up. The problem needs to be handled carefully, as the situation is complex. Aung San Suu Kyi said that protecting everyone, even those not citizens, in Myanmar is the government’s responsibility. Obviously, she was mainly referring to Rohingyas who are stateless without their citizenship entitlements; and others living in the country as diplomats, businessman and like.
But, do Modi’s and Suu Kyi’s utterances help resolve the crisis? Are they not mere rhetoric as hundreds and thousands of Rohingyas flee the country to escape rape, murder and mayhem? By the latest estimate, about 300,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh in most punishing and inhuman conditions, and are literally starving of food, clothes and shelter. Some have left for Malaysia, Thailand and other neighbouring States. Over 400 Rohingyas have died in fighting the army, and attackers from Buddhist community. Their villages and houses have been torched and razed to the ground.
Although there have been sporadic violence in Rakhine, the latest reached the nadir of ethnic rivalry. The violence began on 25 August when the Rohingya insurgents led by Aarakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police posts and an army base killing 12 security personnel. This spurred an unusual military counter offensive of rape and murder. There has been a mass exodus of Rohingyas.
Observers said the genocide that was perpetrated is a “text book example of ethnic cleansing.” Some compared it to ‘Srebrenica’, the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia when 8000 Muslims were killed by Slobodan Milosevic. Myanmar calls it ‘clearance operation’ of Muslim terrorists. The insurgent group called a ceasefire last Sunday. But, the government has rebuffed it, saying they would not negotiate with the terrorists.
The conflict is rooted in the origin of Rohingyas. One account traces their origin to Arab Traders centuries ago whose descendants decided to stay back. Another profiling of Rohingyas suggests that they are Bangladeshi immigrants, who should go back at some point. The problem was deepened by persisting poverty and manipulation over decades by the army. They have no citizenship, which made things worse for them.
What could New Delhi do to repair Rakhine and restore peace, normalcy so that Rohingyas return home and are resettled? India is in a difficult diplomatic situation. The Prime Minister made his first visit to Myanmar capital, Naypyidaw “in order to cement ties,” and coincidentally, Rakhine was burning at that time. Obviously, India is playing a catch-up game with China on Myanmar. Modi’s visit was also a part of his ‘act east’ policy, like the famous ‘ostpolitik’ (look east) politics of Willy Brandt of Germany. Will he succeed like Brandt had done?
India shares 1600 km border with Myanmar. New Delhi seeks to prevent Naypyidaw from slipping into China’s sphere of influence. It depends on Myanmar military for presenting North-Eastern militants from using Myanmar as a safe haven. India will like to help Myanmar’s successful transit to a stable democracy after 50 years of military rule from 1962 to 2011 but is wary of ethnic Burmese sensitivity to any external pressure.
Against this backdrop, New Delhi has to raise it with Myanmar government and rally behind Rohingyas. Instead, it has asked for the expulsion of 40,000-odd Rohingyas residing illegally in the country. The matter is in the court. Worse, it has chosen to remain silent to UN Refugee Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s censure of India’s decision to expel Rohingyas. New Delhi maintains that, since India is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, it is not bound by international law. Be that as it may, it has persuaded Myanmar government to run a large-scale aid programme in Rakhine province.
During his visit, Modi chose to push for big infrastructure projects. By building roads, ports and other transport links relations would improve between the two countries and security interest be secure. In this connection, the Kaladan transport project delayed since 2013 for ‘this and that’ could be fast revived. It is among the “crucial pieces of infrastructure” and is strategic in furthering relations between the two. Modi also suggested trilateral highway projects connecting India’s North-East with Myanmar and Thailand.
Back to Rohingyas, Modi said, “India and Myanmar shared “similar security interests”, which included the extremist violence in Rakhine. This is being interpreted as a support to Myanmar government vis-à-vis Rohingyas. It may be some respite to Myanmar from international condemnation in the form of a Security Council censure looming large. Some commentators have started suggesting that Modi and Suu Kyi had an ‘alignment of word views’, State sovereignty and security over individual human rights etc.
This is ominous. Suu Kyi was the Poster-lady for human rights, democracy and non-violence for activists around the world. But in power, she seems to have become pragmatic over principles. Some would say she has to be ruthless in a ruthless environment. There is a demand for her noble peace prize to be withdrawn. Modi represents a majoritarian Hindutva politics. His position on the minorities is equivocal and controversial, although he seems to put up a moderate stance as Prime Minister.
However, India has been accused of equivocating on Burmese military junta for long while partly, clandestinely supporting the liberation movement. Former US President Barack Obama while showering encomiums on Indian democracy in his address to the Parliamentarians, picked Indian leadership on its lack of support to Burmese democracy movement. Now, we are faced with a similar dilemma over Rohingyas. Although the narratives on Rohingyas are complex, India needs to exert friendly pressure on Myanmar government to end the ‘genocide’.
New Delhi has won the trust and confidence of Myanmar leadership. It abstained from signing a resolution in Bali recently moved by World Parliamentary Forum on sustainable development censuring Myanmar on Rohingyas. New Delhi should use that goodwill in helping solve the crisis. It should not be quiet or disengage from such a huge catastrophe in the neighbourhood. The idea is to send an all-party delegation to talk to the government and Rohingya leaders to find an amicable solution. Something to start at India’s behest! —INFA