Whether in Rakhine State or any other part of the world, the Rohingya of Myanmar find themselves trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea.
More than 40,000 Rohingya are battling against possible deportation by the Indian government, the latest in a series of struggles for the community who the Myanmar government and the majority of the Burmese speaking population refer to as “Bengalis,” implying they are interlopers from Bangladesh.
In a statement earlier this month, the Indian home ministry said the Rohingya “pose grave security challenges” as they may be recruited by extremist groups.
Around the same time, Junior Interior Minister of India Kiren Rijiju told Reuters news agency that the Rohingya living in India were illegal immigrants and must be deported.
India is talking to the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh on the issue, according to interior ministry spokesman K.S. Dhatwalia.
However, the decision to return refugees to Rakhine may not be as easy as the Indian government would like, especially given the recent wave of protests and criticism against the move.
Prominent among those that have questioned New Delhi’s decision is the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which on August 18 issued a notice to the home minister calling for a detailed report within four weeks, stating the “refugees are no doubt foreign nationals, but they are human beings and before taking a big step, the government of India has to look into every aspect of the situation.”
The notice follows an appeal by the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO) to New Delhi over the move. In a statement signed by its members in exile in Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, ARNO said it was aware that India was not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
However, it added, as “a close neighbor and the world’s largest democracy, when Rohingya refugees are already on its soil the Indian government should not return them to Burma/Myanmar where their life would be in danger or deport them elsewhere where they might face persecution or their freedom would be threatened.”
The ARNO then went a step further, invoking India as a member of the UN Security Council to exert its leverage on the Myanmar government “for a peaceful resolution of the Rohingya problem so that the Rohingya people with their refugees could live peacefully and honorably with all human dignity and rights in Myanmar.”
The position taken by the NHRC and the ARNO assumes great significance given the highly unstable situation in northwestern Rakhine, where hundreds of Myanmar Army troops were recently sent after a spate of killings, allegedly by a Muslim insurgent group calling itself Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), also known under its previous name Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement).
Predominantly Muslim northern Rakhine has been reeling from periodic violence since the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman triggered communal clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims in June 2012, which left about 200 dead and displaced thousands.
The situation was elevated on Oct. 9 last year with an attack on three border security posts by Harakah al-Yaqin that killed nine police officers and sparked a brutal military crackdown. More than 70,000 people fled to neighboring Bangladesh, with many others killed, raped and brutalized.
The specter of violence—and the communalism embedded in it—keeps northern Rakhine on tenterhooks.
Even more disturbing is that the insurgency has added an altogether new dimension to the volatile, racial nature of the conflict. Now every act of violence is associated with the Muslim insurgency.
Perhaps lending credence to this assumption is the recent killings of seven members of a Buddhist ethnic minority in the Mayu mountain range near the town of Maungdaw. The discovery of their bodies, which were riddled with machete and gunshot wounds, prompted the Tatmadaw to send fresh reinforcements to the area.
As the Myanmar government grapples with the conflict and threat of militants in northern Rakhine, India has been fighting its own battles against insurgencies in Kashmir and parts of its northeastern region bordering Myanmar. It has had to be cautious on how it approaches the “Rohingya issue.” Reports of Rohingya who have found their way to Jammu and Kashmir have given some reasons for the establishment in New Delhi to sit up and think.
According to reports published in Indian media, most refugees from Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships in Rakhine who have come to India are spread across Jammu, Hyderabad, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and the Delhi region. India’s Deputy home affairs minister Rijiju quoted in parliament on Aug. 9 “available data” that showed more than 14,000 UNHCR-registered Rohingya are staying in the country. The figure is arguably much higher as a number of self-identifying Rohingya from Myanmar are said to be staying illegally in India.
The Indian government sounded an alarm, asking all its state governments to form district-level task forces to monitor the movement of foreign nationals and deport those found to have entered the country illegally. An influx of undocumented migrants from Bangladesh across the porous border running along as many as four states in India’s northeast has been a thorny issue; the cause for social unrest and insurgencies since the country’s independence.
Bordering Bangladesh for more than 850 kilometers, Assam has been the most affected by immigration. The Assam Movement (1979-1985), which set out to expel illegal immigrants, has left a trail of bloodshed and social unrest that continues to stir locals to this day.
This is perhaps why people of Assam and many other parts of the northeast are willing to support the Indian government’s decision to deport illegal migrants from Rakhine.
Even the otherwise compassionate Patriotic People’s Front of Assam (PPFA), which has suggested to the Assam government ways of solving the state’s refugee problem, is against illegal Rohingya migrants staying in India.
“Why should they not be deported as they have come across illegally and are not refugees, and even if they are why should we invite more problems?” asked professor Jagadindra Raychoudhury, a member of the PPFA, in response to a question on whether India should be more sympathetic.
India has, after all, previously accommodated the Tibetans, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Chin, and other Myanmar citizens.
The nation is said to be home to 300,000 odd refugees from 30 odd countries. PPFA general secretary Nava Thakuria during a conversation with the author in the northeastern Indian city of Guwahati argued, “no more refugees and migrants from any countries should be accepted.”
“We have already paid the price in Assam and see where it is today,” he said.
More than showing compassion in the world’s largest democracy, there is need for a rethink on India’s refugee policy and on what eventually impacts its internal security.
So far though, details of how the deportation would take place remain unclear. Neither the home nor the external affairs ministries have spelled out anything on the plan.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Myanmar during the first week of September—an opportunity for both countries to discuss the issue. India has taken a more pro-Myanmar government stand on the Rohingya, while the international community denounces alleged crimes against humanity in Rakhine.
India has strategic interests in Myanmar, especially in Rakhine, where it has invested hugely in the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project (KMTTP), which aims to connect the landlocked Indian state of Mizoram to the Bay of Bengal as well as provide new trading routes for the rest of northeast India.
India is also investing heavily in a new project to develop a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and a seaport in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine—primarily to keep up with China, which is developing a deep seaport and SEZ in the state’s Kyaukphyu Township.
Given India’s perception of Myanmar as a gateway to the rest of Asia—via its Act East policy—and its projects in the country, it would be in India’s interest to work toward stability in Rakhine.
Whether India will change its position on the Rohingya issue, however, is difficult to say. Both Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar Army chief Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing have refused the idea of a United Nations intervention in northern Rakhine. During a recent visit to India, Min Aung Hlaing reportedly told New Delhi that the Rohingya “are Bengalis from Bangladesh and do not belong to Burma,” according to a source in New Delhi.
Bidhayak Das is a veteran journalist who has also spent over a decade working on promoting democracy in Myanmar. He is currently working as an independent consultant on elections, media and communications.