Homeland Security

Indian Challenge in Rohingya Crisis
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 26 Sep , 2017

Burnt house during ethnic violence

As India surges ahead militarily and economically, the world and the region is keenly watching its every move. Doklam crisis and its resolution in India’s favour has proved India’s maturity and acumen in handling the belligerent northern neighbour. All this, while rendering all out support to India’s time-tested friend Bhutan, during its border crisis with China.

As China’s profile continues to rise in India’s vicinity, New Delhi would like to enhance India’s presence by developing infrastructure and connectivity projects in Myanmar.

The arrival of India on the world stage as a regional power can be calibrated from the time when we responded during the tsunami crisis of 2004. Indian Naval ships, aircraft, helicopters, and personnel responded to the Tsunami in the Indian Ocean promptly. The Indian Navy deployed 32 naval ships, seven aircraft and 20 helicopters in support of five rescue, relief and reconstruction missions in peninsular India, Andaman& Nicobar Islands, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

As the first responder, the Indian Navy addressed an area spanning from the Maldives in Arabian sea all the way up to Indonesia, beyond the strait of Malacca. A geography spreading thousands of nautical miles apart. India’s strategic ability and reach was noticed by all the major powers for the first time. India had arrived.

Be it the hegemonic stance of the Dragon in South China Sea or response natural disaster, the countries in South Asian region look up to India for leadership and help. Even the powers like US and Japan see India in a major role containing China’s territorial ambitions.

For India, her trade and economic linkages in the Pacific are becoming stronger and deeper. Not only are ASEAN and the far-eastern Pacific key target areas of the “Act East” policy, Asia’s Eastern commons are increasingly a vital facilitator of India’s economic development.

With growing dependence on the Malacca Strait for the flow of goods and services, economics is increasingly a factor in India’s Pacific policy. China must know that territorial conflicts in the South China Sea threaten the future trajectory of India’s economic development, creating an unacceptable hindrance for regional trade and commerce.

Myanmar military’s miss handling of the Rohingya insurgency in Rakhine province of the Arakans is making it to be a humanitarian catastrophe for whole of South Asian region.

And in this, Myanmar is India’s gateway to the East. India has significant geopolitical and security interests that continue to shape its outreach to Myanmar. As China’s profile continues to rise in India’s vicinity, New Delhi would like to enhance India’s presence by developing infrastructure and connectivity projects in Myanmar.

India has so far found it difficult to counter Chinese influence in Myanmar, with China selling everything from weapons to food grains there, and projecting power in the Indian Ocean will become an even greater challenge if China increases its naval presence in Myanmar.

It is for this reason, Myanmar is at the heart of India’s Act East policy with the India-Myanmar-Thailand Asian Trilateral Highway, the Kaladan multimodal project, a road-river-port cargo transport project, and of course BIMSTEC, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.

India is also working closely with the security forces of Myanmar to target the insurgents operating in the country’s northeast. India shares a 1,600-km border with Myanmar which has been very cooperative in flushing the Naga insurgents from its territory.

Upsetting India’s calculus could well be the Rohingya crisis. The region is now reeling under a mega humanitarian crisis. As it appears, this crisis has spiralled out of hand of Myanmar government. Myanmar military’s miss handling of the Rohingya insurgency in Rakhine province of the Arakans is making it to be a humanitarian catastrophe for whole of South Asian region. This crisis is adversely effecting almost all the countries in the region. Bangladesh faces the maximum brunt.

More than 400,000 Rohingya refugees have fled the military crackdown in Myanmar, a crisis that the United Nations human rights chief has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The Myanmar government has reported that 176 out of 471 Rohingya villages are now abandoned, with satellite images showing stretches of villages burned to the ground.

With the rise as a regional power comes the responsibility. It is essential for India to assert itself in resolving the convoluted ethnic conflict of the Arakans, a conflict that has security ramifications to all the regional countries.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Myanmar has once again underlined why New Delhi struggles to maintain a delicate balance between its strategic interests and its democratic ideals when it comes to its neighbourhood.

India has not directly engaged itself with the issue of Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority. But at a time when Myanmar is getting isolated, India underlined its support with its joint statement: “India condemned the recent terrorist attacks in northern Rakhine State, wherein several members of the Myanmar security forces lost their lives. Both sides agreed that terrorism violates human rights and there should, therefore, be no glorification of terrorists as martyrs.”

Not surprisingly, it is perhaps for this that Nay-pyi-daw seems to have allowed India to provide aid in the form of infrastructure and socio-economic projects to Rakhine province where violence against Rohingya continues unabated.

With the rise as a regional power comes the responsibility. Despite the challenges mentioned above, it is essential for India to assert itself in resolving the convoluted ethnic conflict of the Arakans, a conflict that has security ramifications to all the regional countries.

Though this Rohingya crisis has colonial roots, but it was in 1982 when the Myanmar government stripped the Rohingya their citizens’ rights in their new constitution, the new trouble started. The Myanmar government enacted the citizenship law and declared the “Bengalis” are foreigners.

Rohingya formed a militant organisation by the name of ARSA to fight for their rights. The low intensity conflict ensued between the rag tag ARSA till lately when Saudi Arabia and Pakistan showed interest and backed the Rohingya terror outfit financially and materially.

The contemporary crisis has the potential to engulf the whole region into chaos if not addressed the earliest.

Emboldened by the patronage provided under the idea of Islam and consolidation of Sunni brotherhood, ARSA carried out multiple attacks on the police posts in October 2016, in Maungdaw district bordering Bangladesh.

In its retribution, the Myanmar army unleashed the terror resulting in ethnic cleansing of worst form seen in decades. Nearly 4 lakh Rohingya have managed to escape the wrath of government forces. Rohingya also known as boat people took to flight through the sea route to reach South Asian countries and the land route for Bangladesh and India.

Initially Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand refused asylum but later accepted them on humanitarian grounds. Reluctantly though, even Bangladesh was forced to provide space to the fleeing Rohingya.

With widespread international condemnation of Myanmar military and uneasy silence of the Nobel laureate, Aung Sung Su Ki has raised many a concern for the fleeing Rohingya and those left behind.

The contemporary crisis has the potential to engulf the whole region into chaos if not addressed the earliest. India throwing itself behind the Myanmar government, it was soon followed by the Chinese, backing Nay-pyi-daw, clearly highlighting the dimensions of strategic underpinnings.

Taking on the Islamists who sided the Pakistani genocide of the Bangla people has literally exposed the chasm between the Islamists and the pluralists.

In words of an imminent strategist, Thyn Myint Yu, Burma lies at the Crossroads of China and India. The deft diplomacy spanning through the years of Myanmar’s isolation, India has managed to make inroads. The gains of being in Myanmar’s in good books is India’s strategic necessity. Jostling for its share, India is competing hard with the Chinese to make its geo-economics succeed. Myanmar, the gateway to South Asian Region may hold the key to the India’s march into the much talked about the inevitable Asian Age.

The Rohingya crisis a human tragedy bearing Islamic dimensions becomes a fertile breeding ground for Islamic terror. Rohingya crisis may prove itself to be an Afghanistan of the East and Bangladesh a frontline state in the game played at the Crossroads.

Largely a plural society, Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina’s leadership has eased out of the clutches of the hard-line Jammait-e-Islami and other Pakistan backed organisations. Taking on the Islamists who sided the Pakistani genocide of the Bangla people has literally exposed the chasm between the Islamists and the pluralists. A pluralist government in power makes it favourable for India but this may be under strain due to the Rohingya refugee crisis.

The rising voices of descent over the Rohingya refugees within India, Kiran Rijiju made a statement over the government’s intent of deporting Rohingya. This Indian idea drew widespread condemnation from within and various international organisations. The toughest criticism came from the UN human rights commission.

…there are reports that many Bangladeshis have taken advantage of the situation and crossed over in disguise, making the problem even more complex.

With this evolving situation Bangladesh got anxious and conveyed its concerns to New Delhi. The growing sympathy towards the plight of Rohingya Muslims. It has all the ingredients needed to destroy the gains of Hasina’s government made so far and render the political space to hard-line Islamic parties otherwise marginalised.

Having Muslim populations in areas adjunct to Bangladesh of similar ethnicity, it could prove a bigger challenge, counterproductive to Indian and regional interests as well. India, alive to the threat to its internal security posed by the some of those radicalised Rohingya who might have infiltrated with the refugees. Even there are reports that many Bangladeshis have taken advantage of the situation and crossed over in disguise, making the problem even more complex.

Even though India backed the internationally-isolated Myanmar government on the Rohingya crisis, facing the ire of several nations including Bangladesh, New Delhi decided to send relief materials to the refugees under Operation Insaniyat. The first lot of materials was delivered to Chittagong by an Indian Air Force planes as immediate relief. Further, India despatched around 1,000 tonnes of relief material loaded on naval ships INS Gharial. This caters for around 62,000 families, for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Left with lesser options there exists little scope for India to be a mute spectator. All the countries affected will have to work for a conducive and a safe environment along with Myanmar military, for the Rohingya to return home. And India may have to take the lead as a regional power while carrying out the delicate balancing act.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Danvir Singh

Associate Editor, Indian Defence Review, former Commanding Officer, 9 Sikh LI and author of  book "Kashmir's Death Trap: Tales of Perfidy and Valour".

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