‘On Ro­hingyas, UNHCR’s crit­i­cal state­ment about In­dia is not cor­rect’

Business Standard - - DEMOCRACY AT WORK -

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.

ILLUSTRATION: BINAY SINHA

For­mer In­dian en­voy to Bangladesh and Malaysia VEENA SIKRI ex­plains the prob­lem of the Ro­hingyas to Aditi Phad­nis.

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