Rohingya refugee issue continues to hang fire with no early solution in sight: Modi refuses to discuss it with Myanmar leaders

By Sadhan Mukherjee*
The burden of Rohingya refugee influx continues to be mainly on Bangladesh and India. No rich Muslim country has come forward to financially mitigate the problem. They have only lip sympathy for their religious brethren who are today history’s most persecuted and distressed group of refugees. The rest of the world seems quite satisfied by raising the question of human rights violation and leave it at that.
The Prime Minister of India in his talks with Myanmar leaders did not question the refugee issue. He raised the issues of terrorism and security. India’s silence on the question of denying citizenship to Rohingyas was also eloquent. The Myanmar government denies the use of force to displace the Rohingyas from their habitat. It does not stand to logic that nearly half a million Rohingyas will leave their home and hearth suo motto unless they were forced to do so. Nearly two lakh of them are officially in Bangladesh and India, and the rest are scattered in Malaysia, Pakistan and other countries.
There certainly may be radicalised elements among the Rohingyas who support terrorism or the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) may have links with international terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba. But to combat them, why should such a largescale assault be launched on the Rohingya population as the Myanmar government has done? Are all Rohingyas terrorists or terrorist supporters? Or is it because their religion is Muslim while Myanmar is largely Buddhist?
Is it the same logic that the BJP government follows here? Does the question of deporting Rohingyas from India stem from the same premise? The Indian Express (7 September) has editorially spelt out: “The truth is that a BJP ruled India seems ready to welcome only Hindu refugees fleeing countries where they are a persecuted minority , the Rohingya being Muslim does not fit the bill”.
The Rohingya refugee issue however is only one aspect of the Rohingya problem. The bigger issue is the denial to their human rights and forcible statelessness imposed on them.
The Myanmar government does not consider the Rohingyas as Myanmar citizens. That is why they are being hounded by Myanmar armed forces. The repression on Rohingyas intensified after a Rohingya militant group ARSA set fire to two police stations and killed 12 security personnel in October 2016. Myanmar considers the Rohingyas as Bangladeshi Muslims who have crossed over to Myanmar.
Yet the fact is that the Rohingyas are an ethnic minority in Myanmar. They had an independent state called Rakhine that existed for many centuries. The over 1.4 million strong Rohingyas have since not only lost their own independent Rakhine state but have been rendered stateless. Yet they have a history extending to 8th century of their own state. The British included Rakhine state in the Arakan province. The Rohingyas took part in Burma’s national affairs and were even elected to Parliament.
The problem really arose after the military coup of General Ne Win in 1962. Myanmar, earlier called Burma, won independence in 1948. Till then the Rohingya problem was not so acute. Only a very few Rohingyas since have been granted citizenship by Myanmar. At the same time Bangladesh does not accept them as Bangladeshis either but feels they are refugees from Myanmar.
It is the military regime that enacted the nationality law and refused to accept Rohingyas as an ethnic minority. In 2011, the military junta was officially dissolved and a nominal civilian government took office. Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners were released.
Aung San Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from becoming President as her two sons are British nationals despite her party winning majority in the 2015 elections. The military continues to wield considerable clout in the affairs of the state. In short, the democratic government in Myanmar is not yet fully sovereign and cannot really act on its own.
The NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, is faced with a double jeopardy. It can neither overrule the Junta imposed nationality law which is now supported by many Buddhist citizens including from among its own party members nor can it oppose the current ethnic cleansing which is backed by Myanmar armed forces. Not only that the Myanmar economy is also largely controlled by the supporters of the military.
Probably these factors also weighed with Modi while dealing with the Myanmar leaders. He possibly avoided all questions that might impair and jeopardise the position of the Myanmar civilian leaders. He concentrated on security and development assistance. Eleven new agreements were signed.
However, it is not easy for India to develop closer relations with Myanmar. The external trade and internal economic development of Myanmar are largely dominated by China. The Kyaukhphu port and gas pipeline running through Myanmar to Kunming are being built by the Chinese besides other economic projects. One-third of Myanmar’s external trade is with Chine while with India it accounts for a measly 7 per cent.
Myanmar has been India’s neglected neighbour though it has been providing some developmental assistance. But the Indian bureaucracy’s lackadaisical attitude coupled with India’s notorious delay in execution of projects impeded any rapid progress. It is now expected that assistance for security and development including the Kaladan multi-modal transport corridor will get a boost and the time frame will be adhered to. India has also shown a nice diplomatic gesture by offering gratis visa to Myanmar citizens who wish to visit India.
India has made additional commitments in several areas. These include projects on education, health, agriculture and allied activities, agro-processing, community development, construction of small bridges, up-gradation of roads, small power projects, livelihood activity, setting up of training centres, promotion of household crafts, conservation of environment and cultural heritage.
One has to wait and see how these commitments shape up. Meanwhile the Rohingya refugee issue continues to hang fire with no early solution in sight!

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