The Reluctant Philanthropist

India’s untenable position on the Rohingya crisis

On 8 August, India’s home ministry issued an advisory that asked all state governments to take prompt steps in “identifying the illegal migrants and initiate deportation processes expeditiously and without delay.” Masfiqur Sohan/NurPhoto/Getty Images
01 October, 2017

On 14 September, an Indian Air Force aircraft landed in Chittagong with 53 tonnes of relief materials, including food, salt, cooking oil and mosquito nets. The delivery was meant to help Bangladesh cope with the vast influx of Rohingyas—a minority community in Myanmar that is facing large-scale violence there. This was the first tranche of assistance India said it would provide, as the refugees continued to arrive, crossing the Naf—the river that marks the border of south-eastern Bangladesh and western Myanmar—and swelling overcrowded, makeshift camps that have emerged on a narrow strip of land that faces the Bay of Bengal to its east. India has pledged to deliver 7,000 tonnes of aid.

The gesture had an immediate effect. Bangladesh shed its apprehension about hosting more refugees and opened its doors. Its prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, said that her country can feed the anticipated hundreds of thousands of people, given that it could already look after its 160 million citizens.

India’s generosity, however, was a departure from how the country had seen the Rohingya crisis barely a month earlier. On 8 August, India’s home ministry issued an advisory that asked all state governments to take prompt steps in “identifying the illegal migrants and initiate deportation processes expeditiously and without delay.” The advisory did not name the Rohingya, some 40,000 of whom are living in India right now, but referred to “infiltration from Rakhine state of Myanmar,” which it said posed “grave security challenges” to the country. On 1 September, two Rohingya men, with help from the lawyer Prashant Bhushan, filed a plea challenging the advisory, and the Supreme Court is hearing the matter. On 18 September, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that the government would abide by the Supreme Court’s verdict, thus passing the decision of whether the Rohingya will be deported on to the judges.

The initial hostile stance of the BJP government, evident in the advisory, spoke to its Hindu-nationalist followers, who are largely unsympathetic to the predominantly Muslim Rohingya, with some even spreading lies about the community on social media. India initially tried to align itself with the Myanmarese government, which has painted the community as one of violent secessionists. But this position on the crisis became increasingly untenable for the Bharatiya Janata Party government over the next few weeks. Not only did the view have few takers in the international community, but also by endorsing it, India risked alienating Bangladesh—a valuable ally in the region. Though the government continues to argue against recognition of the Rohingya as refugees in court, many see the assistance now being provided to the community as India softening its stand, after having shown little understanding of a complex and sensitive issue.

The history of the Rohingya crisis goes at least as far back as Partition. For centuries, the Rohingya lived on land that is now part of Myanmar and Bangladesh. They have been settled across a territory that is now divided by an international border, but which was ruled from Delhi during the British Raj. Myanmar, then known as Burma, was separated from British India in 1937. During Partition, Rohingya leaders sought to join what was then East Pakistan, but Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, did not let them do so. After Bangladesh became independent, Burma asked the newly independent country to take the Rohingya in, but Bangladesh refused. In 1978, the Burmese army launched Operation Nagamin, or dragon king, to fight a weak Rohingya insurgency, leading to the first of several mass evictions of the Rohingya from Burma into Bangladesh. Such acts of ethnic cleansing continued in the subsequent decades.

The conflict changes the region’s political dynamic significantly. According to Michael Vatikiotis, a former editor-at-large at the Far Eastern Economic Review and now a peace-building envoy, Myanmar is on the faultline that divides Buddhist Asia from Muslim Asia. Vatikiotis has noted the protests at Myanmar embassies in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, and the fissures created within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, the intergovernmental regional grouping of which they are all part.

The militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army has been active only since 2012, according to the NGO International Crisis Group. In late September, Bertil Lintner, a Swedish writer who has written extensively on Myanmar, wrote of ARSA’s links with the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, and said its leaders include two Rohingya men who were born in Pakistan and are fluent in Urdu.

ARSA’s operational tactics are similar to the way Muslim insurgency groups have acted in the Philippines and southern Thailand, also ASEAN states. Lintner wrote that ARSA militants do not wear uniforms and do not act like other insurgent groups that the Myanmar army has fought with, including Karen, Kachin, Shan and other rebel groups. Instead, ARSA blends with the Rohingya community, often forcibly conscripting young Rohingya men, making their villages vulnerable to violence from the army. Lintner estimates there are fewer than 500 ARSA operatives in Rakhine, although the Myanmar army claims the numbers are much larger.

Myanmar’s military crackdown on the Rohingya, which started in late 2016 and which many United Nations experts have described as ethnic cleansing, has led to nearly 380,000 members of the community fleeing the country. Refugees arriving in Bangladesh include the old and the infirm, the wounded and the young, the pregnant and the raped. Satellite images released by the international organisation Human Rights Watch show dozens of burned and razed villages. Myanmar’s government has protested, saying nearly half the villages are unaffected—but this means approximately half have been affected by violence, and some are destroyed.

Myanmar has been arguing before the international community that the Rohingya are tearing the multi-ethnic country apart. Such a stance has stretched international credulity, as UN officials have used terms such as“genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” to describe the conduct of the Myanmar army. Other observers who have visited Rohingya camps say the vast majority of their inhabitants are dispossessed and lack the means or the will to fight.

The crisis has severely dented the pristine image of the country’s state counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate. Suu Kyi led a non-violent struggle to establish democracy in Myanmar. After her party, the National League for Democracy, won the country’s first free election in a generation, in 1990, the military annulled the outcome and imprisoned elected parliamentarians and hundreds of NLD supporters, and placed her under house arrest.

In order to make its economy less reliant on China and more integrated with the world, Myanmar’s generals relaxed controls by 2010 and initiated political reforms. Suu Kyi was released and allowed to stand for elections, which she won in 2015. She could not head the government, though, because the military-written constitution prevents anyone who has married a foreigner or has children who are foreign citizens from holding the office of president. The post of state counsellor was created for her, making her Myanmar’s de facto ruler.

Ever since her release in 2010, Suu Kyi has been travelling abroad and receiving ecstatic, warm welcomes from supporters in western capitals as an icon of democratic change. She had been placed on a pedestal, like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, the Czech Republic’s Václav Havel, or Poland’s Lech Wałęsa. But since she was released, Suu Kyi has spoken of the army in surprisingly kind terms. She referred to soldiers as her brothers, since her father, General Aung San, was considered the father of the Burmese Army. As a guest on Desert Island Discs, a popular radio programme on the British Broadcasting Corporation, she named a Burmese martial tune as one of her favourite pieces of music.

Many expected Suu Kyi to speak up for the Rohingya, but she did not. When asked about the crisis, she used non-committal, banal terms, saying that the rule of law must prevail. She did not criticise laws being passed and rules being set that stripped Rohingyas of citizenship rights, such as being counted in the census, allowed to marry or to practise their religion. (The stateless Rohingyas are not counted among the 135 communities officially recognised in Myanmar).

Most experts have interpreted Suu Kyi’s silence as an indication that the military still wields power in Myanmar. Her supporters claim that the government could possibly even be toppled if it confronts the army. But Suu Kyi’s own views seem consistent with the dominant view in Myanmar that Rohingyas are outsiders and that they do not belong. By saying that she will not pick sides and wants to uphold the rule of law, in effect, she is presenting the army as the enforcers of the law. In a few private conversations, one of which I was witness to in 2013, soon after she gained freedom, she said the solution to the crisis lay in corruption-free and effective immigration controls, suggesting that she saw Rohingyas as illegal immigrants, rather than as a community that had lived in Rakhine for a few centuries but been denied rights.

Global opinion has turned sour. From being an inspiring idol whose struggle stirred global conscience, Suu Kyi is now seen as a papier-mâché mask giving the generals—who had once jailed her—credibility.

On 6 September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyitaw, where Suu Kyi referred to a “terrorist threat” facing her country. Modi expressed sympathy and talked of business opportunities, not referring to the Rohingya by name. He said he fully understood his hosts’ concerns about extremist violence. On 25 August, Myanmarese forces had fought pitched battles with ARSA, in which 71 people—12 government security personnel and 59 people described as militants—were killed. At home, on social media, vociferous BJP supporters gleefully disseminated questionable memes from dubious sources, which portrayed Rohingyas as bloodthirsty militants. That may have played well within a particular, virulently anti-Muslim section of the BJP’s constituency.

But the BJP government’s antipathy to the Rohingya was putting at stake India’s reputation as a generous host for the persecuted. India’s past record as a host for refugees has been exemplary. While the country is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention—a UN multinational treaty that defines who is a refugee—it has scrupulously abided by that document’s spirit by granting asylum to refugees from Tibet, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. India has also historically upheld the “non-refoulement” principle, under which a country receiving refugees must not return them to their country of origin if they have legitimate fear of being persecuted on account of ethnicity, religion, nationality, membership to a specific group or having a particular political opinion.

But since the BJP’s victory in the 2014 election, the Modi government seems to have developed new criteria for admitting refugees from India’s neighbourhood, under which only those who are from persecuted religious minorities in their countries would be allowed to enter India. This would rule out Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh as potential refugees. Given the violence against Shias, Ahmediyas, and others who are nominally Muslim in the region, it would amount to cherry-picking refugees, and go against international norms. Even following this criteria, the Rohingya, a minority community in Myanmar, should be eligible for asylum in the country.

Aligning so firmly with the Myanmar government was also leaving India in the uncomfortable company of China, without any rewards from any other major power. India was listed as a supplier of weapons to Myanmar in recent news reports. Compared to China, its arms exports to Myanmar are modest, but the damage was done at a time when the UN and Europe were condemning Myanmar. Continuing to support Myanmar would have alienated India from the ASEAN countries, which are conservative and wary of chaos. They prefer stability and the Rakhine crisis only means trouble for ASEAN. Thousands of Rohingyas have sought refuge in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, as they leave by boats, on their own, or as victims of trafficking.

But most importantly, Modi’s bonhomie with Suu Kyi annoyed Bangladesh, which is bearing the brunt of the Rohingya crisis, and must find resources to deal with the unending stream of refugees. India has strong economic and defence ties with Bangladesh, and needs the country’s support to deal with militancy in the Northeast. Even if India’s relations with Bangladesh may get prickly from time to time, Hasina is India’s best friend in Dhaka. Bangladesh is set to hold a general election next year, and a new national leader who is hostile to India would only make matters worse.

It is this realpolitik that led India to help Bangladesh with relief supplies to cope with the Rohingya crisis. Bangladeshi media criticised India after Modi’s Naypyitaw visit, and Delhi expressed concern over the violence in Rakhine right after, through a statement released by the ministry of external affairs. Bangladeshi newspapers claimed credit for this perceived change in India’s stance, and the assistance operation followed.

The fate of the 40,000 Rohingyas in India is now in the hands of the Supreme Court. If good sense prevails, India may yet be able to walk back from the precipice.