In­dia’s Ro­hingya Realpoli­tik

People's Review - - LAST PAGE - NIRANJAN SAHOO

31 Oct 2017 – In­dia's eastern neigh­bor­hood is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an enor­mous hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe. Since late Au­gust 2017, over half a mil­lion Ro­hingya refugees from Myan­mar's restive Rakhine State have fled to neigh­bor­ing Bangladesh. Sec­tar­ian ri­ots in Myan­mar in­volv­ing Ro­hingya Mus­lims and Rakhine Bud­dhists, as well as un­re­lent­ing state­spon­sored vi­o­lence tar­get­ing the Ro­hingya mi­nor­ity, have in­vited wide­spread global con­dem­na­tion and calls for ur­gent hu­man­i­tar­ian in­ter­ven­tions. While the in­ter­na­tional re­sponse in gen­eral ap­pears to be ten­ta­tive and evolv­ing, In­dia's muted re­ac­tion is of par­tic­u­lar note. Given the coun­try's demo­cratic cre­den­tials, long hu­man­i­tar­ian record, and lever­age over both the Burmese and Bangladeshi regimes, re­gional and global ex­pec­ta­tions were high that In­dia would help dif­fuse this state-or­ches­trated hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis. How­ever, In­dia has floun­dered. Its Home Af­fairs Min­istry de­clared the Ro­hingya to be “il­le­gal im­mi­grants” and or­dered their de­por­ta­tion from In­dia in early Au­gust. In­dia's re­sponse lacks the em­pa­thy and hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism that the coun­try is known for. In­stead, a cold cal­cu­la­tion of strate­gic in­ter­ests seems to be guid­ing its re­sponse. This au­gurs ill for In­dia's at­tempted po­si­tion­ing as a ris­ing, pro-democ­racy in­ter­na­tional power. The Causes of the Ex­o­dus The Ro­hingya are one of the most per­se­cuted mi­nori­ties in the world. Their sta­tus in Myan­mar is frag­ile; at 1.1 mil­lion, they con­sti­tute about 2 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. Cur­rently, the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment al­lows Ro­hingya civil­ians to reg­is­ter as tem­po­rary res­i­dents with iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cards. While the Ro­hingya had been al­lowed to vote and stand for par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in 2012, the Myan­mar state chose to dis­en­fran­chise the Ro­hingya com­mu­nity in the 2015 na­tional elec­tion, after heavy pres­sure from hard­line Bud­dhists. While the Ro­hingya have been sub­jected to both vi­o­lent at­tacks from the army and sec­tar­ian pres­sure from Bud­dhist vig­i­lantes since the 1970s, the sit­u­a­tion has es­ca­lated to an un­prece­dented level in the last few years. Ac­cord­ing to Hu­man Rights Watch, the state-spon­sored vi­o­lence forced a full 125,000 Ro­hingya per­sons to leave their homes and live in squalid refugee camps in Rakhine State in 2012. When a new Ro­hingya mil­i­tant group, the ArakanRo­hingya Sal­va­tion Army (ARSA), at­tacked army out­posts in Oc­to­ber 2016, state-en­forced vi­o­lence took on even greater fe­roc­ity. A bru­tal crack­down by the Burmese army caused many deaths and forced more than 75,000 Ro­hingya mi­grants to cross over to Bangladesh, with hun­dreds of them dy­ing in tran­sit. Hav­ing been dis­owned by their own coun­try, the Ro­hingya found no tak­ers in the neigh­bor­hood. For in­stance, Bangladesh, while now pro­vid­ing tem­po­rary shel­ter to more than half a mil­lion of them, had strongly re­sisted their en­try in pre­vi­ous decades.1 Sim­i­larly, Thai­land and Malaysia had ear­lier put up strong re­sis­tance, hold­ing boats car­ry­ing Ro­hingya refugees at gun­point. De­spite be­ing a Mus­lim coun­try, In­done­sia has turned away mi­grant boats on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions. In short, the Ro­hingya are state­less and the most shunned com­mu­nity in the re­gion. While Myan­mar's gov­ern­ment has claimed 400 deaths, in­de­pen­dent re­search by the United Na­tions and hu­man rights ac­tivists es­ti­mate a death toll ex­ceed­ing 1,000 since the Au­gust 25 mil­i­tant at­tacks on the Burmese army. The UN High Com­mis­sioner for Hu­man Rights termed the Ro­hingya sit­u­a­tion “de­plorable” and noted that the Rakhine case was a “text­book ex­am­ple of eth­nic cleans­ing.” The on­go­ing vi­o­lence, and the state-led cam­paign in­tended to push out a vul­ner­a­ble mi­nor­ity, is jus­ti­fi­ably be­ing con­demned world­wide by ma­jor na­tions, mul­ti­lat­eral bod­ies, and re­gional or­ga­ni­za­tions. Re­spond­ing to the grow­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis, the UN Hu­man Rights Coun­cil (UNHRC) in­tro­duced a res­o­lu­tion and has ap­pointed a com­mit­tee to in­ves­ti­gate the vi­o­la­tion of hu­man rights in Rakhine. Not­with­stand­ing the grow­ing in­ter­na­tional pres­sure, Myan­mar's democratically elected gov­ern­ment, un­der the iconic Aung San Su­uKyi, has been broadly sup­port­ive of the mil­i­tary's ac­tions. Un­der mount­ing pres­sure and in re­sponse to wide­spread global con­dem­na­tion, Su­uKyi—who pre­vi­ously set up a com­mis­sion headed by for­mer UN sec­re­tary gen­eral Kofi An­nan to sug­gest mea­sures to ben­e­fit the Ro­hingya—has promised to take back Ro­hingya refugees. What has sur­prised most world lead­ers and an­a­lysts was not only her fail­ure to con­demn army ex­cesses, but her re­fusal to even ut­ter the word Ro­hingya. With the army hold­ing veto power over se­cu­rity and the coun­try dom­i­nated by hard­line Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ists, it is an open ques­tion whether the Ro­hingya will ever safely go back to their homes. In­dia's Re­gional Re­ac­tion At home and abroad, there have been loud calls for In­dia, the re­gion's dom­i­nant power and a coun­try with a long his­tory of pro­vid­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance to its neigh­bors, to play a proac­tive role in the cri­sis. In­dia has strong in­flu­ence in both Myan­mar and Bangladesh, and could make a real dif­fer­ence. How­ever, New Delhi has not risen to the oc­ca­sion in the evolv­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian tragedy. Far from be­ing sup­port­ive or sen­si­tive to the plight of the Ro­hingya, the gov­ern­ment of Prime Min­is­ter Naren­draModi la­beled them as il­le­gal mi­grants who re­quire de­por­ta­tion. In­dia's Home Af­fairs Min­istry has is­sued in­struc­tions to con­cerned states to iden­tify il­le­gal Ro­hingya and repa­tri­ate them to Myan­mar. In ad­di­tion, the gov­ern­ment has filed a counter pe­ti­tion be­fore the In­dian Supreme Court declar­ing the Ro­hingya to be both il­le­gal mi­grants and a threat to na­tional se­cu­rity.2 Com­ing at a time of great tragedy, when hun­dreds of flee­ing refugees are dy­ing in des­per­ate cir­cum­stances, New Delhi's hard­line po­si­tion has been crit­i­cized by the global com­mu­nity and, in­deed, the UN High Com­mis­sioner for Hu­man Rights.3 The gov­ern­ment's pro­nounce­ments have also pro­voked a rau­cous po­lit­i­cal de­bate at home. An even big­ger shock came when the In­dian prime min­is­ter vis­ited Myan­mar in Septem­ber. At his joint press con­fer­ence with Su­uKyi, Modi said, “We are part­ners in your con­cerns over the loss of lives of se­cu­rity forces and in­no­cent peo­ple due to the ex­trem­ist vi­o­lence in Rakhine State.” Not only did he avoid us­ing the word Ro­hingya, pos­si­bly at the be­hest of his host, but Modi did not even make a pass­ing men­tion of the state's per­se­cu­tion and on­go­ing dis­place­ment of the Ro­hingya. The only sav­ing grace was the an­nounce­ment of de­vel­op­ment aid, in­clud­ing re­con­struc­tion pro­grams within Rakhine State, which would be ben­e­fi­cial for the Ro­hingya. In­dia did make some mar­ginal ad­just­ments to its ap­proach after Bangladesh made its dis­plea­sure known. It de­vised a face-sav­ing pro­gram called Op­er­a­tion In­saniyat, of­fer­ing ma­te­rial aid to Ro­hingya refugees in Bangladesh. In an­other step to undo the dam­age, In­dia chose not to dis­as­so­ci­ate from a UNHRC res­o­lu­tion, which man­dated a probe into crimes by Burmese se­cu­rity forces. Con­sid­er­ing the In­dian prime min­is­ter's stance at Naypyi­daw, this re­vised po­si­tion at the UNHRC in­di­cates a no­table shift. Three fac­tors have driven the gov­ern­ment's con­tro­ver­sial stance. The first is grow­ing se­cu­rity con­cerns over global ji­hadi groups such as the self­pro­claimed Is­lamic State and al-Qaeda, and the ac­tions of Pak­istan's In­ter-Ser­vices In­tel­li­gence (ISI) pro­mot­ing the rise of ARSA as a new ter­ror­ism ma­chine. These de­vel­op­ments have made the pro-Hin­dutva regime in New Delhi wary of the po­ten­tially wider se­cu­rity ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the con­flict in Myan­mar. With in­tel­li­gence agen­cies warn­ing of se­ri­ous emerg­ing threats, and the Pak­istan-based ter­ror­ist out­fit Lashkar-e-Taiba des­per­ately seek­ing to arm the In­dian Ro­hingya, New Delhi feels it would be a se­cu­rity risk to have more Ro­hingya refugees in its ter­ri­tory. Sec­ond, Myan­mar re­mains In­dia's gateway to South­east Asia, so its co­op­er­a­tion cru­cial is for New Delhi's broader re­gional ob­jec­tives. In­dia's strong back­ing of the cur­rent regime in Myan­mar, and its re­luc­tance to openly con­demn “ex­ces­sive coun­terin­sur­gency mea­sures” fol­low­ing the mil­i­tant at­tacks, are linked to the Burmese gov­ern­ment's role in both quelling in­sur­gen­cies in north­east­ern In­dia and as­sist­ing In­dia's Act East pol­icy. Third, China's over­whelm­ing pres­ence in Myan­mar con­tin­ues to guide In­dia's deal­ings with the Burmese au­thor­i­ties. In­dia's strong stance against the mil­i­tary's sup­pres­sion of Burmese demo­cratic move­ments in the 1980s pushed the junta into China's arms. In­dia now wants to avoid a re­peat of this. With China strongly back­ing both the mil­i­tary and Su­uKyi's gov­ern­ment on their Rakhine pol­icy, In­dia per­ceives that geopo­lit­i­cally it has lit­tle choice but also to stand by the regime. In short, New Delhi's re­sponse ap­pears to be guided by a cold cost-ben­e­fit cal­cu­la­tion con­cern­ing trade with Myan­mar, main­tain­ing its lever­age vis-à-vis China, and safe­guard­ing co­op­er­a­tion on coun­terin­sur­gency op­er­a­tions in its north­east. Is In­dia Do­ing Enough? Ob­vi­ously, each na­tion has the right to act in its own self­in­ter­est to de­fend vi­tal na­tional ob­jec­tives, in­clud­ing se­cu­rity and geopo­lit­i­cal ad­van­tages. Yet, if they want to be re­spon­si­ble stake­hold­ers of in­ter­na­tional or­der and global gov­er­nance, na­tions should main­tain a healthy bal­ance be­tween in­ter­ests and values. Be­ing both a close neigh­bor to Myan­mar and a re­spon­si­ble re­gional ac­tor, In­dia could and should play a more bal­anced role and take on a greater re­spon­si­bil­ity in pre­vent­ing the vi­o­lence from spi­ral­ing out of con­trol, as well as proac­tively ad­dress­ing refugee is­sues. In­dia jus­ti­fi­ably pro­motes its cre­den­tials as a demo­cratic power—and this iden­tity is a corner­stone of its geopo­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage in the re­gion. Yet In­dia's stance on Ro­hingya refugees di­min­ishes its demo­cratic cre­den­tials and its proud hu­man­i­tar­ian her­itage. Like many coun­tries in the world, In­dia does not have a per­fectly con­sis­tent record on hu­man­i­tar­ian crises and refugee is­sues, yet at no point in its in­de­pen­dent his­tory has it ever shut the door to refugees flee­ing from con­flict zones, par­tic­u­larly in its close neigh­bor­hood. De­spite not be­ing a sig­na­tory to the 1951 Refugee Con­ven­tion, In­dia has an ad­mirable record in ac­com­mo­dat­ing refugees from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Ti­bet, and even Afghanistan. And In­dia was able to shoul­der these bur­dens when the coun­try was poorer and con­sid­er­ably weaker than it is to­day. Fur­ther­more, In­dia's found­ing fa­thers are on record as ad­vo­cat­ing a postsovereignty phi­los­o­phy, and they evinced strong in­ter­est in the UN and hu­man rights in­sti­tu­tions.4 Even with re­gard to the Ro­hingya, New Delhi shel­tered sev­eral thou­sand as re­cently as 2012. Then for­eign min­is­ter Sal­man Khur­shid paid a visit to Rakhine and an­nounced eco­nomic aid to the tune of $1 mil­lion. So why has there been such a sud­den U-turn? Many sus­pect that the hard­en­ing of the gov­ern­ment's pol­icy on the Ro­hingya is in con­form­ity with the Modi gov­ern­ment's hos­tile stance to­ward mi­nori­ties, par­tic­u­larly Mus­lims. This trend is re­flected in the pro­posed 2016 Cit­i­zen­ship Amend­ment Bill—New Delhi's re­cent an­nounce­ment to rec­og­nize non-Mus­lim refugees, in­clud­ing eth­nic Chak­mas (those of Bud­dhist ori­gin), as In­dian cit­i­zens5—and re­cent ut­ter­ances made by pow­er­ful ide­o­logues in the BharatiyaJanata Party.6 In­dia's muted re­sponse to the Ro­hingya cri­sis, un­der the pre­text of se­cu­rity and geopol­i­tics, cuts against its own global am­bi­tions. Of­fer­ing lim­ited ma­te­rial as­sis­tance to Bangladesh, which one an­a­lyst called “a few sacks of rice,” can­not sub­sti­tute for a more proac­tive re­sponse. Its cal­cu­lated and tact­less re­ac­tion to a hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe in its own neigh­bor­hood paints the coun­try in a poor light, di­min­ish­ing the moral halo of an an­cient civ­i­liza­tion and de­valu­ing its long his­tory of hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism. Im­por­tantly, such a stance ac­tu­ally un­der­mines In­dia's abil­ity to stand dis­tinct from China and fos­ters se­ri­ous doubts among its neigh­bors con­cern­ing In­dia's com­mit­ment to demo­cratic and hu­man­i­tar­ian values. While In­dia has to tread cau­tiously given grow­ing rad­i­cal­iza­tion within the Ro­hingya com­mu­nity, and the re­lated ef­forts of the Is­lamic State and other Is­lamic ji­hadists, a great demo­cratic power surely can­not pas­sively watch a hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe un­fold on its doorstep. Ni­ran­janSa­hoo is a se­nior fel­low at the Ob­server Re­search Foun­da­tion in New Delhi.

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