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India must step up diplomatic efforts on the Rohingya issue

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
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  • August 16, 2017

    The Rohingyas and the Rakhine province of Myanmar to which they belong are once again in the news. There were official reports last week from Naypyitaw that the Myanmar government has moved hundreds of troops into northern Rakhine and increased military deployment in the area as part of its counter-insurgency efforts. As it is, this south-western region of Myanmar has been witnessing intense military operations since the October 2016 attack on some military outposts bordering Bangladesh by the so-called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) composed of extremist members of the persecuted Rohingya community. Though the combined military and police operations initiated on 9 October 2016 were officially declared as ended on 9 February 2017, the presence of the security forces in the area had continued, albeit in a less visible manner. Even though Myanmar`s national security adviser, U. Thang Tun, had declared the campaign over, General Aung Ye Win, spokesman of the Tatmadaw, denied any such decision of the government to this effect. The latest escalation of military operations has to be viewed in this context.

    United Nations

    In the wake of the Tatmadaw’s military operations in Rakhine and the violence unleashed by mobs against Rohingyas, the 34th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) had passed a Resolution on 24 March 2017. Adopted by a 34 to 22 majority, the Resolution constituted a three-member Commission of eminent persons in the realm of international law and human rights –Indira Jaisingh of India as chairperson, and Radhika Coomaraswamy of Sri Lanka and Christopher Dominic Sidoti of Australia as members., The Commission was tasked to undertake a Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) to Rakhine province (as well as areas inhabited by other ethnic minorities) and report back to the UNHRC by March 2018. Myanmar State Councillor Aung San Su Kyi criticized the appointment of the FFM and Naypyitaw has hinted that the members of the commission would be denied visas. It is to be seen how the Myanmar government eventually deals with the FFM.

    It appears that the Government of India has dissociated itself from the UNHRC resolution of 24 March 2017 due to both the imperative of maintaining security cooperation with Myanmar and avoiding international monitoring of internal administrative actions.

    Extent of the Crisis

    In the past ten months alone, nearly 100,000 more Rohingyas have been displaced, with three-fourths of them seeking refuge in Bangladesh and the rest turning into internally displaced persons. This is over and above the more than 300,000 Rohingya refugees already present in Bangladesh from previous waves of displacement. Yanghee Lee, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, had pointedly mentioned that the 9th October attack appears to have given the security forces the perfect cover to amplify and accelerate certain actions they had previously carried out through policies, rules and laws with the apparent objective of expelling the Rohingyas from Myanmar altogether.`

    Affected Countries

    Bangladesh and India to the west as well as Indonesia, Malaysia and even Thailand to the east of Myanmar have been affected by the Rohingya refugee issue in recent years. In India, there are nearly 40,000 Rohingya refugees, with 16,500 registered with the office of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner. Interestingly, they are spread over several cities and states: Jammu, New Delhi, Jaipur and some places in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and the north-east. Some Rohingya refugees have in fact been residing for more than ten years. This only indicates the protracted nature of the crisis affecting the Rohingyas. While some of the Rohingyas are psychologically and socially at ease in India`s accommodative milieu, there are a few places in the country where politically instigated attempts are being made to re-locate them. The Ministry of Home Affairs has consequently expressed the intention to identify and deport these Rohingyas as illegal migrants irrespective of their UNHCR registration. It is to be seen whether the contemplated deportation can be executed at all without reasonable cooperation of the Myanmar government and that too under proper international supervision or even in association with neighbouring countries with which Naypyitaw has working relations.

    International Efforts

    Indonesia and Malaysia have also faced the refugee problem since last year when a large number of Rohingyas arrived in their coastal regions in boats arranged by human traffickers. In November 2016, the Vice President and Foreign Minister of Indonesia, Yusuf Kalia and Retno Mardi, respectively, had attempted to intercede with Naypyitaw. Without any formal criticism of the Myanmar government and acknowledging this as a domestic problem of Myanmar so as not to appear interventionist, they expressed deep concern about the humanitarian dimensions of the crisis. The solutions they suggested were motivated by the objective of ensuring that positive conditions are created within Myanmar for the refugees to return. But these efforts have not had any significant impact.

    Organised and concerted international support for the Rohingyas has not been evident, except for the occasional interest taken by the UNHRC and the Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights. The fundamental reasons for the violation of the human rights of the Rohingyas, accentuated by the withdrawal of their citizenship status by the Ne Win led military junta regime in 1982, have neither been vigorously inquired into nor has effective international pressure been brought to bear on successive governments in Naypyitaw to roll back such policies and the toleration of communal and sectarian violence directed against the Rohingyas. And neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, India and Indonesia have raised the issue with Myanmar only when the refugees became economically burdensome or politically sensitive.

    The Rohingya refugees accommodated in Bangladesh`s Chittagong Hill Tract area have been posing a huge economic burden and generating socio-political tension with the local population. As a consequence, the Bangladesh government has been working on a proposal to relocate 70,000 Rohingya refugees to an infertile, cyclone-prone, and difficult agro-climatic island known as `Thengar Char` in its coastal estuary in the Bay of Bengal. This attempt has been criticised by domestic and international human rights groups, since it will involve the forcible re-location of the Rohingya refugees followed by a struggle for survival in harsh environmental conditions. Dhaka has also been trying to obtain international financial assistance, particularly from Germany, to offset the economic burden involved in maintaining the Rohingya refugees.

    But Bangladesh has failed to repatriate even a small segment of these refugees to Myanmar. This is because the political conditions and internal security milieu in Rakhine remain extremely fragile and hostile for the Rohingyas, with no visible sign of Naypyitaw`s commitment to take back and rehabilitate the displaced persons. Despite being the most affected, Bangladesh has not succeeded in building up pressure on Naypyitaw on the Rohingya issue by itself or in concert with either India or some of the ASEAN countries. Moreover, neither Bangladesh nor India appear to be keen on initiating a trilateral engagement process with Myanmar. This is notwithstanding the claim of India`s Minister of State for Home Affairs that India is engaged in talks with Bangladesh and Myanmar about a plan to deport the Rohingya refugees to Myanmar.

    Need for enhanced Indian diplomatic efforts

    Myanmar`s national security adviser visited India in February 2017. How, and to what extent, the Rohingya issue and its spill over impact on Myanmar`s western peripheral region and security implications figured in the discussions is not clear. In all probability, the import of the ferment caused by the Rohingya migration, efforts of radical Islamists to influence some of the Rohingya youth, and the Pakistan ISI’s attempts to capitalise on the situation and promote anti-India activities would not have been overlooked. The success of India's diplomacy will lie in the extent to which it can induce Naypyitaw to take a long view in the interests of its own political stability, internal security and social harmony. If such a process can be initiated with the help of Indian diplomacy, the Rohingyas would be able to come out of the genocidal situation in which they find themselves at present. That, in turn, would engender a stable security environment in Myanmar`s western region, and in the peripheral areas adjoining Bangladesh and India. If such a milieu cannot be created, the conditions of the Rohingyas will continue to deteriorate. Short-term measures like Indian financial assistance for better living conditions in the refugee camps outside Myanmar, and also rehabilitative measures in Rakhine without international supervision, may not be effective at all in the present circumstances.

    India has a stake in the security conditions in upper western Myanmar adjoining the Naga self-administered zone where the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim operates. A modicum of understanding prevails between New Delhi and Naypyitaw with a view to ensuring that the internal security environment in India`s north-eastern states is not jeopardised by the activities of the Khaplang group in Myanmar. New Delhi should strive for a similar approach vis-à-vis Rakhine keeping in view the larger implications of the Rohingya issue.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.