It demands New Delhi fulfil its obligations as a natural regional power and one lobbying for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council.
Over the past few weeks, more than 300,000 Rohingya refugees have fled northern Myanmar for Bangladesh, as unimaginable violence is unleashed against them under the guise of the government in Naypyidaw clearing the region of terrorists.
As global media parachutes down to Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state to cover the previously largely ignored crisis, distressing images of burnt villages, charred corpses and a mass migration of the community out of their homes have caught the attention of global consciousness, with the United Nations mincing no words and declaring the actions as “textbook ethnic cleansing”.
As the world grapples with understanding the transition of long-time “Burmese” pro-democracy activist and current state counsellor of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi, from a Nobel Peace Prize winning idealistic activist who lived under years of house arrest for her cause to becoming a politician, the Rohingya crisis has also come knocking in New Delhi, the regional heavyweight looking to transform itself into a global superpower.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi stopped over in Myanmar last week in the midst of the crisis, as New Delhi’s initial reaction to a potential influx of refugees was the home ministry announcing a deportation plan, citing security concerns. This narrative led Bangladesh, withstanding the worst of the humanitarian crisis, rushing to the ministry of external affairs on Raisina Hill to raise an alarm. Modi missed what could have been a pivotal opportunity during his visit to push the Myanmar government publicly to resolve the crisis urgently.
Instead, he only added to the empty all-encompassing echo chamber of the “terrorism” argument under which grave humanitarian abuse is taking place.
Despite the erratic initial global reactions on the Rohingya issue, ranging from nonsensical calls for Suu Kyi’s Nobel accolade to be revoked (which would not help even remotely in any way), the Rohingya crisis is not new. It has been building around the levees of Myanmar’s societal and cultural fault-lines for decades. According to a Hudson Institute report released in 2006, since 1991, more than 300,000 Rohingyas have been displaced from Myanmar. The same number has moved within a span of just 14 days.
However, India flagging security concerns over the movement of Rohingya refugees towards its northeastern borders as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an armed militia that arose for the protection of the community from the Myanmar military announced a ceasefire, is part of its foreign policy, which is being dictated by domestic politics.
It was ARSA’s attack on Myanmar military in August which set off the chain of violent events we witness today, called a “clearance operation” by the military aided by Suu Kyi’s office, under whose ambit the country’s foreign ministry runs and has backed the crackdown.
The reasons behind Suu Kyi’s dramatic change of political manners are many, with identity, and a wave of Buddhist nationalism led by the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (locally known as MaBaTha) gaining significant power in the country’s social and political discourse leading the charge. This seemingly has forced Suu Kyi to recalibrate her own agendas closer to the realities of her nation-state rather than just her activist persona that the world had got used to.
While there is no valid reasoning against the fact that India needs to make sure that the refugees registered under the UN ambit are allowed to stay, the security argument being flagged by the government is not completely without merit.
The Bangladesh-Myanmar border, spreading from the former’s town of Cox’s Bazaar, around the region of Ukhia where the Kutupulong refugee camp has been home to more than 50,000 Rohingya refugees since the early 2000s, with regular instances of alleged radicalisation attempts.
Bangladeshi organisations such as the Jamaat-e- Islami initially, and then its youth wing, the Islamic Chatra Shabir were known to have significant influence within the camp, raising an alarm in both Dhaka and New Delhi. Other organisations, such as the Rohingya Students Organisation (RSO) were known to have links with “like-minded” groups such as the Harkat ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI) along with Hizb-e- Islami of Afghanistan and the Hizbul Mujahideen.
More recently, in the wake of the current crisis, al Qaeda released a statement urging its followers to avenge the sufferings of Rohingyas at the hands of the Myanmar government. “We call upon all mujahid brothers in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines to set out for Burma to help their Muslim brothers, and to make necessary preparations – training and the like – to resist this oppression,” the statement said.
While terrorism is leading the narrative on the security front, backed by India’s “no good terrorism bad terrorism” policy approach, it is in fact another front which leads India’s realpolitik interests, and that is of its Act East policy.
New Delhi is carving out its own influence zones in South East Asia. Myanmar is a pivotal piece of this puzzle. Largely designed on two basic ideas, economic growth and countering China, which has already put its political weight behind Myanmar’s “anti-terror” operations, a heavy-handed approach by directly criticising Myanmar could undermine India’s positioning in the region.
It is important to remember here that, despite all the restiveness, India has a permanent diplomatic mission in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, and as per some diplomatic chatter, had warned Myanmar of possible attacks by the ARSA prior to the August incident. In February, India had also warned of an increased presence of Pakistan-based and funded militants in the region.
The Rohingya crisis deserves New Delhi’s full attention, and demands India fulfil its obligations as a natural regional power and one lobbying for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council.
The outcome of such a crisis would decide New Delhi’s place in global politics and, as of today, how it balances the age-old conundrum of moralistic decision-making and realpolitik could shape its capabilities of geopolitical influence.
This commentary originally appeared in DailyO.