External Affairs

India Backs Myanmar Even as International Actors Mull Action Over Rohingya Violence

India continues to maintain a hands-off approach and advocates giving Myanmar’s democratic government more time to resolve the Rohingya issue, an approach encouraged by experts.

Boys stand among debris after fire destroyed shelters at a camp for internally displaced Rohingya Muslims in the western Rakhine State near Sittwe. Credit: Reuters

Boys stand among debris after fire destroyed shelters at a camp for internally displaced Rohingya Muslims in the western Rakhine State near Sittwe. Credit: Reuters

New Delhi: After stinging criticism by the UN special rapporteur on Myanmar’s recent military operations in Rohingya villages, India has now come out strongly in Nay Pyi Taw’s corner. This may be the first time that India has reacted to the recent violence in Rakhine State – but the latest statement shows that New Delhi has no plans to deviate from its consistent support of the Myanmar government on international platforms.

On Monday, March 13, Yanghee Lee, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, held an interactive dialogue with members of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) after the presentation of her report last month.

Lee called for the setting up of an independent commission of inquiry – just like for Syria and North Korea – to “investigate the systematic, structural, and institutional discrimination in policy, law and practice, as well long-standing persecution, against the Rohingya and other minorities in Rakhine State”. Lee also expressed apprehension that the recent military operations seemed to be directed towards expelling all Rohingya from the country.

Myanmar considers Rohingya as Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh and has refused to recognise them as citizens, restricting their legal rights and movement over the last two decades.

Displeased at the tone of Lee’s report, an Indian representative has pointed out that that the “overall approach of Special Rapporteur’s report gives an impression that Myanmar’s continuing efforts under difficult circumstances have failed to receive the credit they deserve”.

He said the progress made by Myanmar in its “challenging transition to democracy is worth commending”. “The present government of Myanmar is barely a year old. Democratic institutions in any country take time to acquire roots,” asserted the Indian diplomat.

While there was no allusion to the proposed commission of inquiry in the statement, his remarks implied that New Delhi will not support the proposal.

“Myanmar needs further encouragement and support in their nascent tryst with democracy. In addressing the still remaining human rights concerns in the country, the Government of Myanmar will require capacity building and international assistance as requested by Myanmar and also acknowledged by the SR [special rapporteur],” he stated.

India also claimed that most of the initiatives launched since 1992 under the UN human rights body have “substantially achieved their intended objectives in Myanmar”.

“The fact that Myanmar has shown strong commitment to reform at the highest level along with its extensive cooperation with the UN mechanisms must find reflection in the work of the Council and its Special Procedures,” he said.

The international NGOs that took part in the discussion advocated the special rapporteur’s proposal for a commission of inquiry. But there was no categorical support from the European Union or ASEAN.

In fact, it was Bangladesh, despite a recent warming of ties with Myanmar, who found “strong merit” in the “suitable investigation mechanisms” proposed by Lee and the UN high commissioner for human rights.


Thousands of Rohingya have been displaced since renewed violence broke out in October 2016. Credit: Reuters

Thousands of Rohingya have been displaced since renewed violence broke out in October 2016. Credit: Reuters

Not mincing words, Bangladesh’s permanent representative said that there was no change of attitude toward the Rohingya issue between Myanmar’s previous military junta and its new administration led by nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. “We welcomed the democratisation process in Myanmar, but see no visible change in approach. The same denial of rights and facts, confiscation of land, destruction of building and cruel treatment continue,” the Bangladeshi diplomat said.

India’s reference to the short existence of the current government was an echo of the Myanmar government’s statement, which stated that human rights challenges existing for decades “could not be solved by the new Government in office for barely a year”. Myanmar also rejected the commission of inquiry proposal.

China, Myanmar’s other giant neighbour, also took the line that ethnic disputes like that of the Rohingya were an “internal affair” and that the new government should be given “more time, patience and technical assistance”.

Interestingly and to the surprise of many, China apparently mentioned Rakhine State specifically in its statement with a condemnation of the “violence”, but the Indian statement steered clear of even using that relatively vague phrase.

In a telephonic conversation with The Wire, Rohingya activist-lawyer U Kyaw Hla Aung backed the findings of the UNHRC report. “It is totally correct. She (Lee) was here and spoke to us… She [Lee] has given the right picture,” he said.

The 77-year-old Rohingya community leader, who has been jailed several times, also agreed that there should be an independent inquiry into the alleged violations. “India should also support the demand for inquiry… India is also impacted as there are many Rohingya who have fled there due to the troubles,” he said.

With most of the international community showing little appetite for a new mechanism, Kyaw Hla Aung is worried. “It has been really disappointing that countries that should be supporting us, like European Union and India, are not helping,” he said.

According to news reports, the preliminary draft resolution on Myanmar – to be moved by the EU – does not seek an international investigation. Rather, it prefers to give time to domestic processes established by Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s state councillor, to complete their work. The Myanmar government has set up an advisory commission on Rakhine State chaired by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and a national investigation commission led by the vice president.

Aligned security interests

During the current session of the UNHRC, India has again raised questions about Pakistan’s “deplorable” human rights record in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Balochistan. Just like its advocacy over Balochistan, India’s public silence over the Rohingya in Myanmar is all about its ties with the ruling dispensation.

New Delhi remains convinced that there is no upside to dipping its toes into a highly sensitive issue, even after recent links have emerged between the organised militancy among the Rohingya and the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

The current upsurge of violence in the restive Rakhine State came after a gap of four years.

It began on October 9 after around 400 militants attacked three border posts in the Maungdaw township in a coordinated plan, leaving nine soldiers dead. The subsequent military operation caused over 69,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh over a period of four months and gave rise to reports of serious human rights violations.

A Rohingya refugee family is seen at Kutupalang Unregistered Refugee Camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, February 27, 2017. Credit: Reuters

A Rohingya refugee family is seen at Kutupalang Unregistered Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, February 27, 2017. Credit: Reuters

The reports of atrocities were dire enough to even get ASEAN members, who diligently kept away from domestic politics, to raise the matter with Myanmar. To fend off the diplomatic pressure, Suu Kyi convened an ASEAN meeting in Yangon, which assuaged some concerns, although Malaysia did call on the body to take a lead in giving aid and probing human rights violations. But Kuala Lumpur’s call did not find any takers within the group – as evident from the statement issued by ASEAN chair Philippines at the UNHRC dialogue on Monday (March 13).

A week after the October 9 attack, Suu Kyi was in Goa for the BIMSTEC outreach event during the BRICS summit.

On October 17, in her first remarks to an international audience post the attack, Suu Kyi spent some time during her speech to ask “friends and neighbours across the world to recognise the complexities of the situation that is a great challenge not just to our country but to peace and stability throughout the region”. For a “very young democracy,” Suu Kyi acknowledged that finding a solution, while maintaining the rule of law, was a difficult plan.

The bilateral joint statement, released two days later on October 19, made a direct reference to the Maungdaw incident. While Suu Kyi condemned the “recent terror attacks” in Uri, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi slammed the “armed attacks against three border posts in the northern part of Rakhine State and expressed his profound sympathy for the families of the policemen killed in the attacks”. The condemnatory sentence prefaced a joint denunciation against terrorism in all “forms and manifestations” and “also states that encourage, support or finance terrorism in any way” – a standard diplomatic parlance inserted in most bilateral statements by India to point the finger at Pakistan.

While Modi’s remarks at the end of the formal discussion did not refer to the Rakhine attacks, he mentioned the cornerstone of India’s bilateral relations with Myanmar – “closely aligned” security interests.

India and Myanmar share a land border of about 1600 kilometres, largely remote and mountainous, making it an ideal staging post for insurgent groups to launch attacks inside Indian territory.

The October 9 further heightens Indian security concerns, particularly with the Myanmar government making a direct link to Pakistani terror camps. Announcing that a new group, Aqa Mul Mujahidin, was behind the well-coordination terror operation, Myanmar identified the leader as a Rohingya ‘Havistoohar’ who had been trained in a Taliban camp in Pakistan. A Pakistani national, called Kalis, was also said to be part of the group.

In December 2016, the International Crisis Group (ICG) claimed that the attacks heralded a new Islamist insurgency, conducted by a well-funded, organised group actually called Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY). Set up by a group of Rohingya settled in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, ICG noted that its emergence could be a “game changer”. While ICG asserts that HaY does not appear to have a transnational jihadist agenda, the Rohingya issue has also become a propaganda recruiting tool for terror groups like ISIS, al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba.

The missing word

The security aspect, and Myanmar’s domination by China, was largely the reason for India changing its stance of active support towards the pro-democracy National League for Democracy to that of proactive courting of the military junta in the mid-nineties.

So sharp was India’s pivot towards the regime, that a perusal through statements made in the last ten years by Indian diplomats shows that the word ‘Rohingya’ was never officially used by New Delhi. Rather, Indian representatives at international platforms have usually used euphemism of ‘developments in Rakhine State’. The Myanmar government asserts that ‘Rohingya’ is a fictional construct.

While India has not publicly expressed concern about the Rohingya, they have featured in bilateral discussions. “Developments in Rakhine State of Myanmar, including the importance of maintaining communal harmony, has been discussed on various occasions with Government of Myanmar,” minister of state for external affairs V.K. Singh said in a written reply to the Rajya Sabha in December 2015.

Hands-off approach

Besides security, India has another powerful interest in a peaceful Rakhine State. India’s critical infrastructure project to link North-Eastern India with South-East Asia passes through this region.

India is constructing a Kaladan multi-modal transit corridor worth Rs 2,904 crore, which has seen several delays over the years. The waterway component, including the Sittwe port, is likely to be completed this year, but the road upgradation is still some years away.

According to former Indian ambassador to Myanmar Gautam Mukhopadhyay, it is true “that part of the delay of the delay in the Kaladan project could be attributed to 2012 riots” in Rakhine State.

Most of the skilled labour force on the project – builders, welders or craftsmen – were from the Muslim community. Therefore, when the riots started, they fled their homes and curfews to control the situation further delayed the schedule.

When then external affairs minister Salman Khurshid visited the region in December 2012, he announced $1 million in aid for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of schools in the Muslim and Buddhist areas.

The latest unrest has stoked fears of a repeat of the 2012 sectarian violence. Credit: Reuters/File Photo

The latest unrest has stoked fears of a repeat of the 2012 sectarian violence. Credit: Reuters/File Photo

Despite these strategic interests, experts say India should remain aloof from the Rohingya issue.

“India could not only burn its hands, but could compound the problem. One should not enter into it unless one has the expertise and solutions….and one is asked,” said Mukhopadhyay, who retired as Indian ambassador to Myanmar last year.

This is a view echoed by other experts. “I think we need to handle this with great care. Making statements that may be seen as supportive of Rohingya in an explicit manner may not be wise,” said V. Seshadri, who was Indian ambassador to Myanmar from 2010 to 2013.

Similarly, well-known author Bertil Linter told The Wire that India has been on the sidelines and allowed Bangladesh to handle the refugee problem to keep relations with Myanmar on an even keel. “But, it is important to remember that Rohingya refugees have also made it to India, Hyderabad especially seems to be where many of them are gathering, so it is an issue that India cannot ignore,” he said.

Linter, who has written about the gradual radicalisation of exiled Rohingya groups in Bangladesh, noted that India must be keeping a close eye on the developments along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.

“It is, however, uncertain what India can do about it in practical terms, but I would be surprised if India’s security agencies didn’t share what they know with their Myanmar counterparts,” he said.

If India steps up its intelligence presence in Myanmar-Bangladesh border, it could trigger a version of the ‘great game’ on the eastern side of the subcontinent, certain quarters believe.

Linter pointed out that Pakistan was already sniffing around. “Pakistan is already meddling…or rather groups based in Pakistan which may have contacts with the ISI,” he said.

Seshadri suggested that India’s aid activities following the violent 2012 riots could be a replicated again.

“A peaceful environment is a must and this is something we need to work for behind the scenes. We could for example enhance our assistance through technical cooperation including in capacity building in a manner that both the Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya communities benefit. This is also how we approached the issue in 2012 when the area was badly affected by arson and rioting and we had extended assistance for relief and rehabilitation worth US$1 million to be spent on relief work directed at both the communities,” he said.

Myanmar policemen stand in a check point outside Rohingya refugee camp in Sittwe, Myanmar March 3, 2017. Credit: Reuters

Myanmar policemen stand in a check point outside Rohingya refugee camp in Sittwe, Myanmar March 3, 2017. Credit: Reuters

While noting that Myanmar also had to show some flexibility in accepting the Rohingya as citizens, a former Indian diplomat noted that the international community was not looking at the Rohingya issue comprehensively. “They are looking at straightforward as a Myanmar internal issue, human rights. The international community talks about the Rohingya problem without taking into possibility that there might be some illegal migration,” he said.

A possible way for Myanmar to be incentivised to find a solution is to have a sustained discussion with Bangladesh. But India is not the right country to do that, warn experts, even though New Delhi has good relations with both capitals.

So far, India has not discussed the Rohingya issue in detail with Bangladesh, according to diplomatic sources. A hands-off approach remains India’s best course, noted Observer Research Foundation’s Joyeeta Bhattacharjee.

“Any intervention might lead to completely new dynamics to the problem of refugees as a country in the neighbour is eager to offload its burden and it might lead to the rise in the influx of Rohingya refugees towards India,” Bhattacherjee said, suggesting that Dhaka may be tempted to get India to accept a certain number of refugees refugees.

It would be a long haul to convince Bangladesh to get into a dialogue, especially since Dhaka considers it be Myanmar’s internal issue. Here, ASEAN countries, who have recently seen public demonstrations on the plight of Rohingya, could have the credibility to push both sides to the table.

But that could be a step too far for Myanmar, argued Linter. “I don’t think Myanmar would want Indonesia and Malaysia to mediate. It is a potentially very explosive issue domestically in Myanmar, where there’s little sympathy for the Rohingya, even from Myanmar’s other Muslim communities. Most people in Myanmar see it as an immigration issue – wrongly many would argue, but that’s how they perceive the problem,” he said.