‘On Rohingyas, UNHCR’s critical statement about India is not correct’
What exactly is happening to the Rohingyas? The situation that the Rohingyas are in is multidimensional and complex. First, it is Myanmar itself. Then it is the relationship between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Third, it is the region: On the one side with other South Asian countries — India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh; on the other side, the Asean neighbours of Myanmar — Malaysia, Indonesia, etc, which have a dominant Muslim population. Then of course, you have the global dimension, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which are taking a very strident role in this whole issue.
Within Myanmar, the Rohingyas have been facing problems for some time now, as a Muslim minority in a Buddhist majority country. It is a historical legacy. The Rohingya people are in the Rakhine (earlier Arakan) state on the western coast of Myanmar, which is along the coast of the Bay of Bengal. This region has always had a close interaction with east India — East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh. The Rakhine state is also isolated from the rest of Myanmar because of a mountain range in between. So the sultans of Bengal had close relations with the Buddhist rulers of the Arakan region; they even sometimes took Muslim names. Mosques and pagodas existed side by side and there was a relationship.
Because of this, a lot of people from then British India — now East Pakistan — would come and live there. But the British, after the Anglo-Burmese wars, were administering Burma from India and there was a whole lot of moving around. During World War II, there was a kind of divide because the Muslim community supported the British and the Buddhist community supported the Japanese because they thought it would mean independence of the region: Even Gen Aung San, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, supported the Japanese in the struggle for independence from the British.
But what was the key to the current alienation of the Rohingyas? It was that during independence and after, no one bothered about the Muslim communities living in Myanmar, about giving them citizenship. The British were there, the region was fertile, there was rice cultivation on a large scale and because the British thought local people were not good workers, they used to get workers from Chittagong — just as they got the poorest Indian Tamils to work on Malay rubber plantations and Indians in Mauritius, Guyana and elsewhere. In Rakhine, these were seasonal workers but a lot of people settled down. That was the genesis of the problem.
During the Malaysian independence movement, the leaders made sure the Indian people got their rights and the majority of them got citizenship. But this did not happen in Myanmar — not in their original citizenship laws in the 1940s and then in 1982. So citizenship laws did not apply to this community — whether you call them Rohingyas or you call them Muslims of Myanmar — barring one set of people called Kaman. That is the only group that has Myanmar citizenship.
If they were travelling to and fro between East Pakistan and Myanmar, how could they be identified? This was the problem. In citizenship laws drawn up by Myanmar in 1982, if you could prove your grandfather and others after him had been born and lived in Myanmar, you were entitled to Myanmar citizenship. This lingered — this lack of recognition. The Rohingyas even went to Jinnah, and petitioned him to let them join with East Pakistan. He, of course, refused to consider that proposal.
So they remained stateless though they had a region to call their own. So why the flare-ups? The problem has been growing with Islamic radicalisation. It is not recent — it is similar to the period after the Afghan war, in the late 1990s, before 9/11. When I was in Bangladesh, in the late 1990s, there were groups that took part in the Afghan war and returned to Bangladesh to form the Jamaat ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, which, to date, is the predominant local radical Islamic group. You have links between Myanmar Muslims and all these groups — Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan supporting the Rohingyas, you have the Islamic State supporting them… Radicalisation has been happening for a good 15-20 years. It is the post-9/11 radicalisation that has begun to worry everyone.
What has happened in the last two or three years to set these groups off? There were sporadic attacks in 2014. But October 2016 saw a major episode where the Army and police officers were attacked and killed. This led to a massive retaliation from the Myanmar security forces.
The other point is the Bangladesh factor: A lot of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, as they are called, would come here and use this as a springboard to get refugee status in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, even as far away as Italy and Switzerland. When the 2016 clash took place, there was talk of a new fundamentalist group called Harakah al-Yakin emerging in the region, with a leadership based in Saudi Arabia. There seemed to be no shortage of funds or access to weapons. Now, in August this year, there has been another big attack. This time, too, there is money, weaponry… and the motivation of the local people.
They were disenfranchised in the 2015 elections in Myanmar. Does that seem to have been a turning point? They had been involved in elections before that. And they were disenfranchised in the 2015 election. That was the turning point. This got them further support from sponsors. The 2015 election led to the formation of a civilian government. When Aung San Suu Kyi became state councillor, she yielded to great international pressure on her and invited former UN secretary general Kofi Annan to set up an advisory commission on the Rakhine situation. The commission submitted an interim report, which is a very interesting document, but the Muslim community seems to not like it.
It is interesting. The Indian and Bangladeshi intelligence services picked up certain intercepts between Hafiz Tohar, military wing chief of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, on August 23 and 24 that are key to the offensive against the August attack on the Myanmar security forces. The intercepts reveal conversations between Tohar, who was trained by a “Major Salamat” of the Pakistan Army. Because of intelligence cooperation between India and Bangladesh, the Bangladesh forces raided Tohar and his associates. They found contact numbers of one “Brigadier Ashfaq” and of “Major Salamat” of the Inter-Services Intelligence and one ISIS recruiter in Iraq. They related the date of the attack to the release of the Kofi Annan report.
Where does India come in? From India’s point of view, there is no doubt that at least 40,000 Rohingyas have entered the country. About 16,000 of them are documented; the remaining are not. A large number are found to have moved as far as Jammu. How could they have moved on their own?
That is the pressure that has led to the government announcement of deportation of Rohingya refugees. India is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees and the Protocol of 1967. But it has always had a reputation of welcoming refugees — however, not at the cost of national security.
The UN Human Rights commissioner has made a statement that is critical of India. I don’t think this is correct. I was rather disappointed that he should have chosen to attack India. I don’t think he has the mandate to do this.
Former Indian envoy to Bangladesh and Malaysia VEENA SIKRI explains the problem of the Rohingyas to Aditi Phadnis.