Homeland Security

India’s Rohingya Issue: A Chance to Strengthen National Security?
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Issue Vol. 33.4 Oct-Dec 2018 | Date : 14 Dec , 2018

Refugee protection and national security should be seen as complementary and not conflicting state goals. Refugee protection is a current issue while, addressing the root cause, resolution and rehabilitation provides political and diplomatic capital. The threat of terrorist recruitment, conscription and violence, speak of the need to safeguard refugees in camps and urban settings, the need to expand and expedite durable solutions and the need to extend legal migration channels to refugees. We have to go by the premise that security and refugee protection reflect a common aspiration for human safety and well-being and that the primary refugee protection strategies promote national security, including strategies to deal with human problems.

Rohingyas have an ethnic background in the Northern Arakans from the contemporary townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung…

Rohingyas have an ethnic background in the Northern Arakans from the contemporary townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung. They were once counted as part of the Mrauk-U (Mrohaung) kingdom in Arakan, which stood independent of both the Burman kingdoms in the Irrawaddy delta and central Burma as well as Bengal and the Moguls to the West. The region witnessed traders as early as 12th century AD and gave rise to settlements along the shores. The Burmese kingdom invaded Mrauk-U in the 14th century AD and the then King of Arakan, sought help from Bengal. Overthrow of the invaders by Muslim armies from neighbouring Bengal, consolidated ties between Bengal and Mrauk-U and also led to an acceptance of Muslim culture.

However, in 1784 AD, the Burman King Bodawpaya conquered and incorporated the Arakan region into his kingdom of Ava in central Burma. As a consequence of the invasion, refugees began to pour into what is today the Cox’s Bazaar area of Southern Chittagong. Cox’s Bazaar takes its name from the British lieutenant who was sent to the area to organise and provide relief for the refugees.1

During the British rule, one of the groups of dissatisfied Rohingyas that fled to British controlled Chittagong in East Bengal, proceeded to conduct raids against the Burman king. Retaliation by the Burmese King led to incursion of the king’s forces into British territory to capture the dissidents. The king’s demands for extradition of the insurgents led to tensions between the British colonial government and King Bodawpaya. The internecine fight with the ruler of Burma continued ever since and the migration of the Rohingya population continued into Bengal. The British aided and abetted the problem. Their policy of empowering minority leaders as a means of controlling peripheral states became the legacy of the problem today.

The issue got exacerbated post WW II since the Rohingyas sided with the British while the Burmese Government allied with the Japanese. The Japanese invasion forced massive exodus of people into erstwhile Bengal. Many of the Rohingyas that fled during this period never returned to Burma and instead settled in the area of Cox’s Bazaar and became integrated with the local community. Burmese independence in 1948 did not alter the situation. Immediately following independence, a group of Arakanese Muslims went on the political offensive, pushing for the integration of Maungdaw and Buthidaung into what was then known as East Pakistan. The proposal was rejected by the Constituent Assembly in Rangoon as well as in Pakistan.

The British policy of empowering minority leaders as a means of controlling peripheral states became the legacy of the problem today…

The complexity of the problem lies embedded in the history of Myanmar. What the world is seeking is a solution of acceptance of the Rohingya Muslims within the folds of the constitution of Myanmar. The history of persecution, as it is popularly reported in the media, is actually a two-way street of Rohingya-led rebellion and insurgency on one hand and the discrimination and violence of the state against the Rohingyas on the other. The Rohingya refugees affect India and their distributed population with majority getting directed to Jammu and Ladakh, is causing serious anxieties. The Government has to resolve and rehabilitate the refugees and not turn a Nelson’s eye and assume that a unilateral way of repatriation alone is the solution. There is a need to formalise a refugee strategy and policy in consonance with international norms of dealing with displaced persons and asylum seekers along with a codified model of conduct for dealing with refugees.

Ethnicity and State Responsibility

Myanmar has 135 different ethnic groups2, each with its own history, culture and language. Burmans constitute the majority ethnicity and make up two-thirds of the population. Historically, the Sangha, a monastic community practicing Theravada Buddhism, dominated the political scene and provided a patronage to the rulers in Myanmar. It gave rise to a form of Burmese religious nationalism as an assertion of Burman Buddhist identity. The Sangha has, over the years, became a respected and revered institution in Burmese life. History of the country’s ethno-religious conflict notwithstanding, the present day crisis can be mostly attributed to the legacy of the colonial era. The pointers of the legacy, which gave rise to the ethnic nationalism (Buddhists vs the Rest) were:–

  • Introduction of a new system of education by the British which was in contrast to the traditional Sangha system. This helped the minorities and gave them government jobs in return.
  • Conversions of certain receptive tribes by Christian missionaries.
  • Transmigration of Muslim ‘Indian’ population from erstwhile Bengal to assist the development of colonial infrastructure, prior to the war.
  • Alignment of majority of the Burmese with the Japanese and minorities with the British, accentuated the divide and the war destroyed the country and its infrastructure. The British, during that period also made tall promises of greater autonomy to the minority communities.

The Panglong Agreement3 preceded the independence of Burma with the singular purpose of unification of the country into a nation state. The Shans, Kachins and Chins, among other Government functionaries, were signatories to the agreement. Not surprisingly, the Rohingyas were not part of the constituent group and were excluded from the constitutional framework. This was the beginning of an independent Burma or Myanmar as it was later renamed by the military junta. The Rohingyas have been denied citizenship and remain disenfranchised till date. Interestingly, The Citizenship Act quote, “Any of the indigenous races of Burma shall mean the Arakanese, Burmese, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Mon or Shan race and such racial group as has settled in any of the territories included within the Union as their permanent home from a period anterior to 1823 AD”.4 The Act makes provisions for all other tribes settled prior to 1823 AD while it omits the Rohingyas. The inference for such exclusion points to the name Rohingya as a cause for denial and perhaps the ethnicity that goes with it.

The Rohingyas have been denied citizenship and remain disenfranchised till date…

The recent crisis of an estimated 6,00,000 refugees fleeing to Bangladesh, was a result of provocative attacks on police posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and the brutal retaliation by the police. Highlighting the state action and brutalities as gross violation of human rights, the media is correct and current. The genesis of violence is often forgotten such as the 969 Movement5 and the Ma BhaTha (an abbreviation for The Patriotic Association of Myanmar) formed in 2014. The number 969 symbolises Buddhism and the virtues of Buddha and perhaps an Islam-phobic resultant of the symbol of 786. It has been reported that a Pakistani residing in Saudi Arabia formed ARSA.

Bertil Lintner, the Swedish writer says, it is not Muslims versus Buddhists. The Rohingyas are different, though. They do not speak Burmese. They speak a Chittagonian dialect of Bengali spoken on the other side of the border in Bangladesh. Therefore, a majority of Burmese people see them as illegal. Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, a representative of The East India Company, first referred the word ‘Rohingya’ in 1799 AD when he met some Muslims of Arakan State. It had not been in use since then and became popular only in the 1990s. Nevertheless, the issue has become a demand for status for the Muslim community in the Arakans against a background of native history. Violence against the Muslims since 2012 has been attributed to be with the compliance of the state. As a consequence, it has acquired a separatist colour. It also fuels the reason for propagation of the perception by the world media, that it is an ethnic and Buddhist vs Muslim problem. Violent methods adopted by insurgent groups has alienated the community further and sowed a fear among the Buddhists of the area. There appears to be a qualitative difference, which threatens the stability and development of Myanmar, with serious implications.

Threat vs Compassion

It has been widely reported that the Indian Government is planning to deport all Rohingyas back to Myanmar on grounds of alleged links with terrorist organisations such as ISIL. The Supreme Court of India is currently hearing an appeal lodged on behalf of the Rohingyas to save them from the ‘Hindu nationalist government’. Any refugee population the world over has a causal nature and mismanagement by governments in power, exacerbates the problem. The people themselves are extremely vulnerable, having nothing to survive on in an alien land. They are the most susceptible and exploitable group. It is this exploitation by extremists, insurgent groups and magnanimously helped by devious non-governmental organisations, that make them a security threat. The helped and the help are both a national reality.

It has been widely reported that the Indian Government is planning to deport all Rohingyas back to Myanmar on grounds of alleged links with terrorist organisations such as ISIL…

The Indian Government claims that there are an estimated 40,000 Rohingyas settled in Jammu, Jaipur, New Delhi and Hyderabad and supposedly registered with the UN Agency for refugees in India. The majority are in Jammu and Ladakh, and not in Kashmir. An influx of such large numbers of poor, illiterate and an ethnic minority causes small ripples in the lives of the existing communities. It is undoubtedly an economic burden on the country with no legal means to allow the refugees to survive indefinitely. Exploitation of young women refugees, prostitution, practicing one’s culture such as cow slaughter in public and indulging in drug trafficking make them a high order social threat. For the ill doings of a few, they end up being treated as interlopers who threaten the peace, integrity, cultural identity and economic stability of the host country.

Are they a security threat? If we go by some reports, they are. It has been reported in the print media that, the Islamic State (IS), which has placed massive hate material on the Internet, was able to recruit a few Rohingya Muslims who went to Syria and Iraq to fight along with the IS. There are also reports that the IS and the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) are trying to recruit Rohingyas taking refuge in Jammu while the Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, has also supported the Rohingyas. AqaMul Mujahidin, the terrorist outfit of Rohingya Muslims, has links with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and LeT, all in Pakistan. 

There are also reports that the Rohingyas settled in Jammu illegally, helped terrorists of JeM in the reconnaissance of the Army camp in Sunjuwan. The JeM attacked the Army camp on February 10 this year in which six Indian Army personnel were martyred. The International Crisis Group Report of 2016 states that, Rohingya separatism has steadily acquired an Islamic dimension since the 1980s. The formation of the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), in 19826, which later became the Harakah-al-Yaqin (HaY), is a case in point. According to the report, it is controlled by a 20-man group of Rohingya expatriates based in Mecca and Medina. Many of them have received military training in Pakistan or Afghanistan and have imparted training to their cadres in Rakhine. The HaY has been funded by supporters in West Asia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and even India. These insurgent groups are not the issue to contend with but sympathisers with devious intent and demagogue within the country, have to be factored in.

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Who are the groups mostly involved in giving ‘humanitarian assistance’ to the Rohingyas in Jammu and Ladakh? Rising Kashmir, a Kashmir-based newspaper reported that the Sakhawat Centre and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) have been doing a commendable job in the rehabilitation of the refugees. Both these organisations, which have Islamic revivalist ideology, are taking a lead role and the issue to ponder here is of religious influence and corresponding gratitude by the beneficiaries. There is an urgent need to re-distribute and disperse the refugee population for better coordination of relief effort and minimising the societal ripples.

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