How India responds to the crisis will give a clue to its aspirations as a South Asian power
As a response to protests in East and South Asia and beyond over the deteriorating Rohingya situation in Rakhine, Myanmar called for a special meeting with Foreign Ministers of ASEAN last Monday in Yangon. The crisis has already killed 130 Rohingya Muslims, and has left dozens of buildings in their villages torched. Around 30,000 Rohingyas have been displaced internally and thousands have tried to flee to neighbouring countries, especially Bangladesh, through perilous routes. While leaders of the European Union have proactively debated and responded quite positively to finding a humane solution to the European migration crisis, emerging leaders in Asia such as China and India have remained mostly passive on the long-standing Rohingya refugee crisis, one that has direct geopolitical implications for both countries. China and India share a border with Myanmar and have vested economic interests in the country owing to trade and investment ties. And yet, the response of India, the most mature democracy in Asia with much-touted pluralistic and secular ideologies, is rather disappointing.
The plight of the Hindu minorities in neighbouring Bangladesh is always taken seriously by India. In June, when a priest from Bangladesh’s Ramakrishna Mission received a death threat, allegedly from the Islamic State, India swung into action, and the issue was given high priority by the Ministry of External Affairs. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangladesh was immediately contacted by the Indian High Commission in Dhaka. Similarly, in the last five years, around 1,200 Hindus facing persecution in Pakistan have been provided shelter in Delhi. However, the Rohingya issue, which is also the persecution of minorities in a neighbouring state and on a much larger scale, has garnered little attention from Indian policymakers. The inevitable question then is, do the Rohingyas or any other minority group have to belong to a particular religion to get the attention and importance they deserve from India?
In spite of them living in Myanmar for decades, the Rohingyas have no legal standing and are seen as illegal settlers from Bangladesh. There are restrictions on them in areas such as land ownership, marriage, employment, education, and movement. In the 2014 census, the first in three decades, Myanmar officials said they would not accept those who registered themselves as Rohingyas. Buddhist nationalists threatened to boycott the tally over fears that it could lead to official recognition for the Rohingyas. The temporary ID cards which were given to the minority community were also revoked in 2015 as result of protests from Buddhist majority groups.
India has a robust civil society, media, and human rights groups, but there are hardly any voices on the pathetic plight of Rohingya Muslims. The only exception was in 2012 when civil society groups urged the then Indian Prime Minister to end violence against the Rohingyas by engaging with Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democratic National League for Democracy party. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are around 9,000 Rohingyas registered in Delhi and thousands more unregistered living in other parts of the country.
If India wants to project itself as a regional leader, it has to rise above narrow economic and geopolitical interests and take a stance consistent with the moral and spiritual values with which it identifies. The crisis not only holds humanitarian significance, but also bears security implications for India and the region. The persecuted Rohingya Muslims are likely to provide fertile recruiting grounds for extremist groups. There have already been reports of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan funding terrorist outfits in Myanmar. In 1971, India provided shelter to millions of East Pakistani refugees. The end of the war also saw one of the most orderly and peaceful return of refugees to their land from India.
The cost of turning a blind eye
This shows that India has a good track record of providing humanitarian assistance and facilitating smooth repatriation of refugees from the neighbourhood. However, that spirit seems to be missing today in the case of the Rohingyas. The legal conundrum faced by the Rohingyas in their native land and their lack of access to bare minimum human rights goes against the principles of the universal declaration of human rights. The UN has declared the group as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. The international community only speaks out when the refugee crisis reaches its worst stage — when villages are torched, or people are stranded at sea in search of land to take refuge. The crisis, if left at its current precarious stage, risks spiralling out of control and will have security and economic implications for its neighbours. Oversight and nonchalance may prove to be costly in the long run.
Syed Munir Khasru is Chairman, The Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance, Dhaka. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org