In the past several weeks, much attention has been devoted to the abject plight of the minority, predominantly Muslim, Rohingya community in Burma’s (Myanmar’s) Rakhine state. They have long been mistreated in the country and are denied citizenship rights despite a claim to have inhabited the Rakhine region since the sixteenth century; their situation has recently taken a particularly adverse turn. On August 25, it is reported that an emergent Rohingya guerrilla group had launched an attack on some Myanmarese army units. The military retaliated with considerable force and massacred substantial numbers of villagers at Tula Toli near the Bangladeshi border. In its wake, thousands of the hapless villagers trekked to nearby Bangladesh swelling an already turgid refugee population.
The harshness with which the Burmese military has responded to the guerrilla attack has generated understandable condemnation in the global community. Some groups have even organized to try to strip the Burmese leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, of her Nobel Prize. A fellow Nobel Laureate, Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, has sharply criticized her deafening silence about the situation of the Rohingyas. Another Nobel Laureate, Malala Yousufzai, has also criticized her silence.
Bangladesh and India’s Response
The focus on the global community’s response to these most tragic developments in Myanmar is entirely warranted and appropriate. Lost in much of the reportage on these events, however, are the reactions of two key regional countries, Bangladesh and India. Bangladesh, which has grudgingly sheltered Rohingya refugees for years, has allowed more of them to enter the country, albeit with much reluctance. The conditions that prevail in the Bangladeshi refugee camps can only be described as being downright squalid. Yet, such dire conditions do not deter the wretched Rohingyas from fleeing the depredations of the Myanmar army. Of course, Bangladesh has little or no incentive and has limited resources to improve the existing state of the camps. Making them more livable is likely to make them a magnet for further refugee inflows. Furthermore, despite much economic progress over the past few decades, it remains a desperately poor country and can ill-afford to provide succor to increasing numbers of refugees even if they happen to be fellow Muslims. Even if substantial inflows of international assistance were available to Bangladesh, it is most unlikely that its regime would alleviate the milieu of these camps for fear that the refugees would seek more permanent residence in the country.
Bangladesh’s response to the emergent refugee crisis, while less than laudable, is at least somewhat understandable. What then has been India’s reaction to the unfolding crisis? The country has a long and storied tradition of not merely accepting refugees, but actually providing them solace. For example, in the wake of the Khampa rebellion in Tibet in 1959, it provided comfort to thousands of Tibetans. It has also sheltered the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of the global Tibetan community, for decades since his flight to India. More recently, in 1971, it opened its borders to nearly ten million Bengalis who fled East Pakistan following a military crackdown during the crisis that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Why then has the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime adopted a mostly uncaring stance? The reasons stem from the imperatives of both regional and domestic politics.
In his visit to Myanmar last week Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at least in the public domain, scrupulously avoided bringing up the issue of the Rohingyas. Worse still, he concurred with Suu Kyi that Myanmar was confronted with and needed to address a “terrorist problem.” According to reliable Indian newspaper sources, he was able, however, to persuade her that it was necessary to provide substantial economic assistance to the strife-torn region. Whether or not such aid ever materializes and reaches the unfortunate population remains an open question.
What explains Modi’s reticence to criticize the country’s role in precipitating this humanitarian crisis? In considerable part, it stems from a careful calculation of India’s perceived national security interests. Given that the country has long faced and continues to confront a range of insurgencies in its northeastern region abutting Myanmar, it needs to elicit Suu Kyi’s cooperation to prevent them from using bases and sanctuaries in her country.
Additionally, it can also be traced to India’s interest in limiting the influence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In earlier decades, Myanmar’s fledgling democracy movement was battling a vicious military dictatorship, and India had been at the forefront of supporting it. However, after watching the PRC make steady inroads into Myanmar in the early 1990s, India started to move away from its unstinted support for democratic reforms. Modi’s muted reaction to the ongoing crisis amounts to a logical culmination of that strategy.
Beyond regional concerns, what are the domestic determinants of this policy? The BJP regime, as is well known, has little or no regard for India’s vast Muslim minority. In fact, elements within the party are known for their active hostility toward India’s Muslim citizenry. Consequently, it should come as little surprise that the regime has no particular regard for the Rohingyas who have sought refuge within India. With complete disregard for customary international law, which calls on states not to deport refugees to countries where they face a reasonable prospect of persecution, Kiren Rijiju, the junior minister for Home Affairs, has threatened to deport the Rohingyas to Myanmar. Without adducing any evidence, he has argued that the refugees pose a potential terrorist threat and thereby should be deported. It is uncertain that the stinging rebukes that he has received from both Indian civil society as well as human rights groups will lead to a suspension of this stated policy.
At a juncture when multiple global crises command the attention of national leaders, there is a strong likelihood that the stance of the two most important regional actors— Bangladesh and India—to this humanitarian crisis will be mostly overlooked. Under those circumstances, the predicament of the Rohingyas will simply be written off as yet another footnote to the many humanitarian tragedies of the new century.
Sumit Ganguly is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.