Selling Out the Rohingyas

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.

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Modi Flexes His Muscles: India’s Cross-Border Raid into Myanmar

June 16, 2015

Last Tuesday, India launched a punitive raid into Myanmar.  Seventy commandos from the Indian 21 Para (Special Forces) Battalion crossed India’s eastern border to strike two militant bases.  The commandos quickly overran the bases and killed between 20 and 40 militants.  The raid was prompted by the ambush of an Indian army patrol about 110 km south of Imphal five days earlier.  Eighteen Indian soldiers were killed and another 11 were wounded in what was the deadliest attack on Indian security forces in decades.  According to some Indian officials, Myanmar’s government consented to the raid, though Naypyidaw later claimed that the raid occurred on the Indian side of the border.

India Myanmar Raid

Whatever the case, the raid was remarkable.  It reflected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s willingness to not only use military force, but also take decisive action.  As soon as the ambush on the Indian army patrol occurred, Modi directed National Security Advisor Ajit Doval to coordinate an Indian response.  Within five days, India successfully planned, resourced, and executed the two cross-border missions.  That required not only military, but also diplomatic coordination, if India really discussed the matter with Myanmar.

Modi is surely a different kind of prime minister than India has had in the past.  He demonstrated that when he visited China in May 2015.  He directly communicated to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang “the need for China to reconsider its approach” on issues that hold back their relationship, particularly the territorial disputes between their two countries.  Modi’s predecessors had consistently shied away from such frank discussion, typically sticking “to uninterrupted pledges of friendship and good relations.”[1] While Modi’s visit to China yielded no breakthroughs on the border issue, it was clear that China should take note.

Modi has also embarked on active diplomacy around the world.  Toning down India’s traditional adherence to non-alignment, he has edged close to Australia, Japan, and the United States.  He is clearly interested in having India play a greater role not only in South Asia, but also beyond it.  His ability to act decisively will make that a more likely prospect.

[1] Benjamin Haas, “India’s Modi tells China to ‘reconsider’ approach,” Agence France-Presse, May 15, 2015.

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Contested Border: China, India, and the Asian Century

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s three-day visit to India last week was supposed to have breathed new life into ties between Asia’s two giants, China and India.  It was the first visit to India by a Chinese president in eight years.  Many hoped it would reboot what was once heralded as the “Asian Century.”  Implicit in that hope was the belief that good relations between the two countries would have to develop to realize the potential of such a century.  On that score, Xi assured his host, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, that China believed its neighbors would be vital to its wellbeing, after all “a warlike state, however big it may be, will eventually perish.”

That assurance was needed, because during Xi’s visit to India, Chinese troops twice crossed into territory that India claims as its own.  One incident began near Chumar about a week before Xi’s arrival.  Chinese forces brought heavy construction equipment and workers into the area with the intention to build a new road there.  Indian troops confronted them and a standoff ensued.  Meanwhile, another incident developed at nearby Demchok, where over a hundred Chinese nomads gathered to protest India’s construction of an irrigation canal that they believed was on Chinese soil.  Thirty Chinese soldiers accompanied the protesters.  Local Indian authorities dispatched 70 border policemen to the scene.  That created a second standoff.  Both then escalated during Xi’s visit.  At their height, about 800 Chinese troops and 1,500 Indian troops were deployed to the areas.  No doubt, the incidents gave Modi something to talk about with Xi during their time together.

China India Asian Century - Border Dispute over Chumar and Demchok

In public, however, Modi and Xi tried to downplay the border incidents.  For Modi, the visit was a chance to attract Chinese investment into Indian infrastructure and manufacturing projects.  For China, it was an opportunity to pry India away from the overtures of Japan and the United States.  A number of agreements were signed.  The two sides agreed to jointly study improving India’s railway system, ease the trade imbalance between them, and cooperate on developing a new economic corridor through South Asia.  China pledged that it would invest $20 billion into India over the next five years, of which $6.8 billion would go into building two new industrial parks in Gujarat and Maharashtra.  In a speech at the end of his visit, Xi contended that “only when the China-India relationship develops, will a real ‘Asian Century’ emerge.”

Nevertheless, many issues still split the two countries.  Their disputed border is only one of them, albeit a particularly thorny one.  In the first nine months of 2014, India recorded 344 Chinese border incursions.  Seventeen rounds of negotiations between the two governments since the 1990s have done little to settle the issue.  But even without the border dispute, there were still other instances of friction between the two countries in just the last week that would have taken some of the shine off of Xi’s visit.

On September 15, India agreed to extend to Vietnam a $100 million export credit for defense equipment that Hanoi has been busily acquiring to counter China.  As if that was not enough, India’s state-owned national energy company, OGNC, signed an agreement with its Vietnamese counterpart, PetroVietnam, to expand their cooperation in oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, most of which China claims as its maritime territory.  That prompted China’s foreign ministry to warn India against entering into any deals that infringe on China’s territorial claims in those waters.

Similarly, India remains suspicious of Chinese intentions regarding its neighbors in South Asia.  Over the last decade, China has financed and built a string of major port and airport infrastructure projects in places like Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar.  Now, China has announced its “Maritime Silk Road” initiative in the region, which echoes its “New Silk Road” effort in Central Asia.  Indeed, prior to arriving in India, Xi was pushing the new initiative in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.  India has naturally grown concerned that China might challenge it as the dominant power in the region.  Last week, the Maldives only fanned those concerns when it gave a highly lucrative contract to manage its international airport to a Chinese company, after taking it away from an Indian one in 2010.

During Xi’s visit, Modi suggested that their two countries should put the past behind them.  Unfortunately, the present looks little better than the past.  The twenty-first century may well be remembered as an Asian one.  But one should not assume that an “Asian Century” will necessarily lead to prosperity and renewal, as Xi implied.  Europe dominated the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Both were known as much for the conflicts and rivalries among European powers as for their economic development.

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Diamond (Still) in the Rough: China’s New Charm Offensive in Southeast Asia

In early September, China hosted the 10th China-ASEAN Expo in southern Chinese city of Nanning.  There, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang glowingly characterized the last ten years as a “golden decade” of growing economic ties between China and the countries of Southeast Asia, all of which are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  He now foresaw that the next decade would be even better—a “diamond decade.”

Together with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visits to Indonesia and Malaysia and his high-level meetings at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum that would soon follow, Li’s remarks appeared to mark the start of a new charm offensive in Southeast Asia.  China’s last charm offensive, despite Li’s depiction of a “golden decade,” had sputtered out at the end of that decade, overshadowed by China’s growing economic and political assertiveness on land and at sea.  Although China’s disputes with its maritime neighbors have drawn more attention, China also managed to irritate its neighbors across Indochina.  Its state-owned companies operating in the region have often been high-handed.  Their cavalier attitude towards displacing communities and destroying cultural relics contributed to Myanmar’s decision to halt the construction of the Myitsone dam in 2011—the first time any Southeast Asian country blocked a major Chinese-sponsored infrastructure project.  Meanwhile, China’s unrestrained hydroelectric development on its upstream stretch of the Mekong River has worried many downstream communities in Southeast Asia, even though their governments seldom voice their concerns.

Worse for China’s image is its maritime disputes with Southeast Asia, which were put under an international spotlight in 2010 when several ASEAN countries confronted China about its behavior in the South China Sea at the 17th ASEAN Regional Forum.  Regional concerns over Chinese intentions were further stoked by China’s increased interference of Vietnamese oil exploration ship; its months-long standoff with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal in the spring of 2012; and its escalatory attitude toward Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands since September of that year.  Finally, many believed that Chinese pressure directly contributed to rifts in ASEAN itself, when the 2012 ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting failed to produce any progress on a multilateral code of conduct for the South China Sea or even issue a closing joint communiqué that mentioned one.  Surely such rising concerns have led the Philippines and Vietnam to accelerate the pace of their military buildups.

However, many Chinese believe they see the hand of the United States in China’s recently contentious relations with Southeast Asia.  They see American policy as either creating the environment that has allowed Southeast Asian countries to resist China’s interests or directly encouraging those countries to resist them.  In either case, they see the flare up of disagreements between China and its ASEAN neighbors as evidence of a larger American effort to contain China’s rise.  Hence, Beijing may believe that initiating a new charm offensive could not only capitalize on Southeast Asia’s continued view of China as a source of economic growth, but also diminish the effect of that American effort.  Whether Beijing’s new tack is momentary or longer lasting is too early to tell.

Yet China has already met with some success, perhaps enhanced as a result of President Barack Obama’s absence from the APEC meetings.  While it was not the first time an American president was absent, Obama’s absence came at a time when many Southeast Asians were looking for reassurance of American commitment.  At the very least, it allowed Xi to become the center of attention.  And Xi brought China’s “diamond decade” message with him.  He pointed out several areas of opportunity: upgrading China’s free-trade agreement with ASEAN, improving communications between China and Southeast Asian countries, strengthening financial cooperation across borders, developing maritime cooperation, and enhancing Chinese cultural exchanges with Southeast Asia.

Even before the APEC meetings, Xi visited Malaysia and Indonesia.  He heralded the advent of “strategic cooperative relationships” with those countries and was the first foreign leader to address the Indonesian parliament.  Then after the APEC meetings, Li arrived in Southeast Asia to continue China’s diplomatic efforts in Brunei, Thailand, and Vietnam.  In Brunei, Li discussed joint energy development.  In Thailand, he championed plans for a high-speed railway project connecting China to Singapore that has lain dormant for many years.  And in Vietnam—a country that has its share of maritime disputes with China—Li and his Vietnamese counterparts announced that the two countries would set up a joint maritime development working committee to ease the tensions in the South China Sea.

For their part, ASEAN countries seem to have responded positively (and possibly opportunistically).  Malaysia—perhaps sensing that the Philippines has, for the moment, halted China’s broader assertiveness in the South China Sea—may now view Chinese overtures as a chance to boost its own economy.  And while Thailand still sees the high-speed railway project as too expensive for it to undertake alone, it has encouraged China to contribute to the financing.

However, the one country in the region that China has not courted is the Philippines.  Instead, China seemed to go out of its way to isolate it.  Indeed, it is a strategy that some Chinese foreign policy scholars have advocated.  As if to underline the point, after China issued invitations to all the heads of state in Southeast Asia to attend the China-ASEAN Expo, it rescinded its invitation to Philippine President Benigno Aquino III.  And so, the Philippines was the only ASEAN country not represented at the event.  And so, even as China seeks to emphasize its kinder, gentler side, its steely side remains.  Relations between China and Southeast Asia may yet improve during the “diamond decade,” but mostly on Chinese terms.

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