After the successful conclusion of the BRICS summit in China, the Prime Minister reaches Myanmar to tackle other issues like the Chinese presence in that country and the recent problem of Rohingya migrants who have fled the country and come to India. There are also the economic and security aspects and both countries are scheduled to sign some mega deals. An official spokesperson said that Narendra Modi ‘will hold wide-ranging talks with the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, covering the entire range of bilateral issues’.
One more reason for India to take special interest in Myanmar is that country’s proximity to China, which has been eyeing Myanmar for multiple reasons. China is its biggest source of foreign investment and its largest trading partner. China is looking for a seaport in the Rakhine state. India constructed the deepwater port Sittwe in Myanmar in 2016 and, thus, has a natural advantage.
The violence in Rakhine state and the exodus of the Rohingyas will naturally figure in the talks. New Delhi has always taken care to not upset Myanmar over the Rohingya issue. Since Myanmar does not recognize the term, India too refrains from using the word and instead addresses them as just illegal immigrants. The Indian government has always referred to the crisis as the ‘developments in the Rakhine state’. Myanmar is also a key focus under India’s ‘Act East Policy’. And for that purpose a peaceful Rakhine state is in the country’s interest. It is also important because India has an ambitious project worth Rs 2,904 crore under construction in the region, the Kaladan multi-modal transit transport project which aims at connecting Kolkata to Mizoram through Myanmar.
This interestingly would help India avoid the 27-km wide Chicken’s Neck near Siliguri. This first major project India undertook with Myanmar is already behind schedule. The project, which should have been completed by 2013, has its deadline extended to 2015 and then to 2019. One of the reasons behind the delay is the fleeing of the workers who belonged to the Muslim community after the 2012 riots. The curfew imposed in the region further delayed the project. Therefore it is all the more important for India to restore peace in the Rakhine state.
Modi is scheduled to visit both Naypitaw and Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar and will also travel to Bagan to announce Indian funding for the conservation of 11th-century temples in the ancient town. India is stuck on the horns of a dilemma. Within its borders it is on the one hand, being attacked by human rights organizations for it’s decision to deport Rohingyas. On the other hand anti-Rohingya sentiments are also on the rise, especially in Jammu, where a large number of them are currently based.
The first voice of resistance came from the J&K Panthers Party which put up posters asking Rohingyas as well as Bangladeshi immigrants to leave. Voices have also been raised against them in Jaipur. There is another technical problem; India cannot send them back to Myanmar, not only because the latter does not approve of them; it is a customary international law which says that no refugee can be sent back to the place where they fear persecution.
India’s increasing border conflicts are also a reason to worry. Cross-border insurgency has been a major problem and Indian forces had recently done a surgical strike into Myanmar to destroy insurgent camps and resulting tensions were slowly diluted. India has a 1640-km border with Myanmar and the emergence of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) can pose a serious threat to India. There are also other militant groups and many insurgent outfits from the north-eastern region that take refuge in Myanmar. The Myanmar Army’s support is inevitable in tackling these insurgents.
The one-million-strong Rohingya community has been persecuted and considered stateless since 1982, despite having lived there for generations. A Buddhist-majority country, Myanmar classifies them as ‘Bengali’ and, therefore, belonging in Bangladesh. Nearly 400 Rohingya are reported to have been killed in military action in Rakhine. These are the ‘boat people of this century’ and no neighboring country, neither Malaysia, nor Indonesia, nor the Philippines are willing to offer shelter to them.
While the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has said he was concerned about ‘reports of excesses during the security operations’ he has urged ‘restraint and calm to avoid humanitarian catastrophe.’.
And catastrophe it is. Last week, roughly 30,000 Rohingyas crossed into Bangladesh where there is already an estimated 400,000 refugees. In India, there are roughly 40,000 refugees, all of whom the country wants to send back, though the government has not yet announced a timeline.
The Union Minister of State for Home, Kiren Rijiju, has said that the UN’s registered identity cards were meaningless. ‘As far as we are concerned, they are all illegal immigrants. They have no basis to live here. Anybody who is an illegal migrant will be deported.’ The Supreme Court is also scheduled to hear a plea by two Rohingya refugees, Mohammad Salimullah and Mohammad Shaqir, who petitioned that their lives would be in danger if they are sent back. An argument will be made that their deportation violates international human rights norms and Article 21 of the Indian constitution.