External Affairs

What Role Can India Play to Resolve the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis?

Ambassador Vijay Nambiar, Amy Kazmin and Kabir Taneja discuss the situation in Myanmar and beyond with Maya Mirchandani.

Maya Mirchandani: The Rohingya issue is something that has been dominating the headlines, certainly in India, on the diplomatic front for the last few weeks. The reason for this perhaps is that the junior home minister had said all Rohingya in India would be sent back, they would not be welcome.

Now how many of them are actual refugees who have been identified by the United Nations? What really is the nature of this crisis that is pushing them out of their own country in Myanmar? Statelessness, landlessness, homelessness are all wrapped up in the issues that confronts this large group of people that today are being considered really ‘nowhere’s’ people, ‘nobody’s’ people. Joining us to talk about this we have with us Mr Vijay Nambiar. Ambassador Nambiar has just retired from the United Nations as special envoy on Myanmar to the secretary general. Mr Nambiar thanks very much for being on Wide Angle today.

You have actually had first hand experience of the crisis that the Rohingya face in Myanmar. Give us your perspective on why it has reached this situation today.

Vijay Nambiar: Well, let me say I was first involved with the Rohingya problem when the conflict sort of erupted in 2012. It got fairly serious and there was large-scale violence in Maungdaw particularly and Rathidong and Buthidaung, and I was perhaps among the first foreigners to reach the place almost within two days of it happening.

Now this was seen in the context of a kind of complicated problem which has been going on for generations. But during the military regime it had been more or less been contained to some extent. Of course it was also exploited by the military regime for their own purposes but a large part of the Muslim communal problem in Myanmar affecting basically the Muslims was under control and occasionally used by the army. But the process of democratisation in a sense released the worst stereotypes among the people of majoritarianism. In fact, that brought a whole kind of different attitude on the part of the Buddhist majority particularly in Rakhine. And, all kinds of developments came to place from 2012 onwards and erupted into almost a kind of a large-scale violence. In a sense it was controlled but it also spread and particularly the influence of the clergy, some elements of the clergy, also resulted in radicalisation of the Buddhist and in some ways it also spread to other parts of the country – in Meiktila in June of 2012 there were further problems – and the government suddenly took note of this and realised that it had to something. But politically it became very difficult for the government to take action to settle – basically it was not really a religious problem, it was a citizenship problem.

MM: Right.

VN: The Rohingya wanted citizenship and over the years, even during Ne Win’s time etc., the laws of citizenship were in a sense narrowed down effectively to exclude some of these Rohingya. And while I would not want to simplify the situation – it’s a very complex issue also because there are 135 races in the Myanmar and by giving the status of an additional 136th racial group to the Rohingya they would be entitled to virtually a state and things like that, and that in a sense was what the the Buddhist Rakhines in Rakhine State suspected the Rohingya were wanting to do. See even the nature of the nomenclature etc are complicated issues. But the fact of the matter is, even those who were citizens were slowly being disenfranchised and now being declared non-citizens. There were some of course who had come from across the border from Bangladesh; there had been previous situations like this. Instead of looking at it in a sense with a view to tamping down the tensions, actually the tensions and the polarisation increased.

Then the government at that stage brought in certain religious laws and things like that which made matters worse. And then progressively been the elections that in fact brought the lady into power, the Muslims, many of the Muslims not just the Rohingya even others like the Kamein and others, were actually disenfranchised in the new elections. So this, over the years – my involvement as I said was from 2012 – and over the years we have been looking at the issue from the political point of view, from the humanitarian point of view, from the point of view of looking at the larger developmental issues.

Members of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) stops Rohingya people who are trying to enter Bangladesh in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, August 27, 2017. Credit: Reuters

Members of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) stops Rohingya people who are trying to enter Bangladesh in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, August 27, 2017. Credit: Reuters

MM: So you made the point after the 2012 elections as well when the lady Aung San Suu Kyi came in as the state counsellor, that many Muslims not just the Rohingya but even others were disenfranchised. So this brings to us a quandary in a sense because the international discourse today while it’s very much sort of concerned about the plight of these refugees and how they have no place to go, is also caught up in this reality that we talk about in terms of a security threat and radicalisation that might be taking place. But the third aspect of that is this argument, the radicalisation argument, is something Suu Kyi herself seems to have seized upon, when she is being questioned on why as an upholder of humanitarian values she is not taking a more empathetic approach to these people.

VN: It’s a point, at the UN we have been consistently telling the leadership even under the previous government that unless you resolve the problem the humanitarian problems, the problems of the status of the Rohingya in Rakhine State itself, this is bound to radicalise. We have been raising this issue with them time and again, and though the situation since last October has been quite different – in a sense it’s not a situation of the Rohingya people you know in a sense facing an obdurate government which is not yielding at least the basic humanitarian dignity and things like that. Now this has it has  become actually violent struggle by some organisations in a sense which have used this issue – I think in the late 40s there was a movement like this. But this is now radicalised to a degree where its going to be very difficult. On the one hand we, obviously the international community has condemned the attacked on the security forces and you can understand the security forces need to able to address the security threat. But this is more than just a security threat and it was a thing that was waiting to happen. The government, and even the new government, should have known. We have been telling them, the international community has been telling them.

Addressing the question of the dignity of the individuals who were there, providing certain basic amenities to them, moving them away from the refugee camps and internal IDP camps would have preempted them from this from actually running away and creating a sense of desperation. In a sense these groups have actually exploited the sense of desperation of the Rohingya over the last 4-5 years and it has radicalised, with the result some of them say these organisations like what is called now the the Arakhan Rohingya Solidarity Army may have to some extent compelled local population to join. But these were people who were desperate in any case.

MM: The images we see out there are indeed images of absolute desperation and deprivation. On both counts.

VN: Yes. It is clear. While on the one hand you can say of course the Lady, Daw Suu has talked about the what she calls the iceberg of misinformation. Now, it is true there is a lot of misinformation that happens – but it happens on both sides. But while admitting that there is a lot of misinformation, the facts can be seen easily in terms of the large numbers of people, the refugees, were pouring out into Bangladesh.

Now the current estimation is almost 300,000. So it’s huge, it’s almost a quarter of the population of Rohingya.

MM: So two questions. In fact one of the last statements you made as an UN envoy to Myanmar was an appeal to Aung San Suu Kyi as well as to speak on behalf of these people…


MM: It did no go down very well with her.

VN: I asked her to listen to her own inner voice – I suppose that seemed a little too grandiloquent. I didn’t mean it to be that. But I also asked that in this kind of situation if she were to visit – because many of them were citizens of the place. They were residents and 95% of Maungdaw is Muslim, whether they call them Rohingya or not, even if you call them Bengalis. They are local inhabitants who have lived there for generations. Irrespective of the security implications, you need to stand with the people, and if you were to reassure them then dignity would be given. And that’s the reason why I suggested that she should visit the place and reassure the population.

MM: Did you expect the backlash when you said that?

VN: Well, in a sense, I thought that it would be difficult for her for many reasons. But at least she could have a public statement saying that I am willing to go and said that I stand by the dignity of all citizens – which she has said in many ways now.

MM: So what do you think prevents her? You have had several interactions with her, you have a sense of what she stands for. Why do you think she is so resistant?

VN: I think if there is anyone who can solve the problem it is she, in terms of the political problem. Of course the radicalisation problem will have to be solved by the security forces. But the political problem I think thing even at this stage – it is rather late, but I think she can do it. She has the moral authority and the political clout to be able to go there and in fact what she needs to do is stand for the dignity of every citizen, irrespective of religion, irrespective of race. If she were to say that I think even the majority community who are being driven in some respects by a fairly radical sense of being pushed out etc, they will also be able to adopt a much more reasonable stand. I think she can still do it, and in some ways international community could help her. I was hopeful; by appointing the Kofi Annan commission it looked as if she was looking for that kind of a way.

Vijay Nambiar, former UN special envoy to Myanmar. Credit: The Wire

MM: Right. In fact she asked for Mr Annan as well, to be…

VN: Yes. But the information from Mizzima and other places was thatthey would launch their attack virtually immediately after the report was submitted to Daw Suu. And that again, I suppose authorities can take the view that they were preempted from trying to follow in good faith the report by this security problem which they have now. But I think any government should stand up to this kind of a threat and be able to segregate the security issue from the larger political issue.

MM: So I am going to ask you to wear your old hat now, when you talk about any government standing up in a humanitarian crisis. The Indian government’s response or at least the statements that came out of from the home ministry, the minister of state for home affairs very unequivocally said that there was no space in India for these people and there was a security threat, they would be turned away. India is a signatory and a drafter of the Charter of UN human rights. You have a situation where there are people in India who have UN refugee cards as well. What happens to them now? We had the prime minister visit Myanmar as well in the midst of this crisis. What is the signalling from Delhi at this point?

VN: Well it’s not for me to be able to interpret that. But my own personal view is while there is clearly a need for the government to reassure the Myanmar government that India is with Myanmar and is addressing the security dimensions of this threat and that it is basically a question of sovereignty  and things like that, that’s fine. But you can separately also have – and as a country of India’s standing you have to take into account – the humanitarian dimensions, both of situation of inside Myanmar and the refugees who have come here into the country. I don’t think it can be reasonably expected for India to actually put into effect the kind of suggestions which have been made by the deputy home minister. But you also have the statement of foreign secretary. I think JS. aishankar did say that there is India would actually look at the humanitarian dimension and also I think…

MM:..and acknowledged the refugee crisis.

VN: And acknowledged the refugee crisis and I think that in a sense, there is a little bit of mixed signals but I think that’s partly politics and you the fact that you have to deal with these things. At the same time I think there is conscious there is pressure from Myanmar there is also pressure from Bangladesh. Both are important countries and in the neighbourhood for India to listen to and react to in a sensible, reasonable way.

MM: Because Bangladesh very clearly said it cannot take in any more refugees, it just doesn’t have the resources.

VN: Well its not that therefore India can become a natural haven or anything, but this has been the reality inside India and we have always been actually in a sense sensitive to the realities of the refugee situation and we have stood by our moral obligations. I don’t think that will change.

MM: So did you find the deputy home minister’s statement somewhat alarming then?

VN: It was a little extraordinary and it was different from what would have one expected in the normal course. But you know in these kind of situations damage limitation is often considered to be the first step. So, this could be seen as the first step not to in a sense by your statements sense increase the inflow – that is the normal kind of a reaction which political leaders have.

MM: And as you said, manage domestic political compulsions as well.

VN: Yes.

MM: Ambassador Nambiar, thanks very much for joining us.

VN: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.


MM: Well we just heard Ambassador Vijay Nambiar speak quite forcefully about the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi should actually come out and make a public empathetic statement about the plight of the Rohingya – perhaps go and meet them as well, go to the regions that are affected by this violence. That’s advice he had given her in the past but it hasn’t been heeded by the Myanmar government or by the lady herself. Taking the discussion on the Rohingya further and especially what India’s response has been, I am now being joined by Amy Kazmin of the Financial Times. Amy has just been to some of the Rohingya camps in Hyderabad. [We are also joined by] Kabir Taneja, associated fellow at the Observatory Research Foundation who has done extensive work on ISIS.

Thank you both for joining us on Wide Angle. Kabir, I actually want to start by asking you one of the things that the government of India has said when that deputy home minister made that statement saying Rohingya present in India will not going to be allowed to stay, they wanted to be sent back, there will be no more Rohingyas allowed in – raising the issue of security concern. Now you have done a lot of work on the threat of ISIS, the very real threat of ISIS in the subcontinent, and recruitment. What is the story of radicalisation among the Rohingya?

Kabir Taneja, Observer Research Foundation. Credit: The Wire

Kabir Taneja: Well, it has happened you know, there are credible reports and studies both from the ground where the cases of not necessarily international organisations – not ISIS not Al Qaeda – but local Bangladeshi groups trying to direct lives of Rohingya in the Bangladeshi camps on the Myanmar border. So that’s the concern you know, that’s the concern because beyond that section of Bangladesh if there is migration towards India, it’s not very difficult to cross over to the boundary into India. Now there are two cases I think that have flagged for this India at least. There is one blast in Burdwan in West Bengal, where I think it was at the regional congress of Trinamool Congress. And there was a lot of debate on who did it and why. You know the political situation in West Bengal is also quite edgy. But it was then found that it’s possible that it was done by a Rohingya militant and it has nothing to do with either the Trinamool Congress or any other political party. The second case…

Amy Kazmin: Can I ask you a question?

KT: Yes, sure.

AK: What would be the theory behind why a Rohingya militant would bomb a Trinamool Congress office?

KT: That is a good question because if you read all the reports that came out of it, no one answers that question, right? They say the probability is this. No one knows it’s done because of this cause, the probability is that. The case is not solved yet, it’s still ongoing.

Rohingya refugees walk on the muddy path after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 3, 2017. Credit: Reuters

Rohingya refugees walk on the muddy path after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 3, 2017. Credit: Reuters

MM: I think that’s an interesting thing and we will take this to you Amy now, because as Kabir is pointing out this is not a solved case by any stretch of the imagination and yet it’s a narrative that feeds into the larger discourse of security concerns that you are hearing coming out not just frankly of the Indian government but also the Myanmar regime has talked about security and terror and they have called the Rohingya many of them terrorists as well. And yet we are in this situation because – you have gone to these camps in Hyderabad – there is very very grave humanitarian crisis that is taking place and security concerns notwithstanding, there will be a conflict between security and a response to the refugees, and yet that response needs to be identified right now.

AK: Yes. I am not sure how many people here – of course the Indian government – but the general public has a very clear understanding of the kind of persecution the Rohingya have been subjected to for decades and decades, and obviously there have been all these kind of attacks now against the Myanmar government. There was a wave of attack in October last year and there’s now been these attacks on August 25. In some ways I think you know it’s perhaps surprising that these attacks haven’t taken place earlier, given the extent of the kind of persecution, discrimination and violence the Rohingya have been subjected to steadily over the decades. And now they will start to say, ‘Your family has been here for over 100 years but you don’t belong here’. It would be as if every Indian NRI in America whose parents have been there two generations were suddenly told you don’t belong here anymore, you have got to go. I mean migration has been happening through human history, you can’t dig back in the annuls of time to try to figure out where did people originally come from and try to derive some test of racial purity over who belongs here. But since the 1980s, the Rohingya have been steadily told you don’t really live here, you are not one of our national races…

MM: So disenfranchising in many ways.

AK: They have been disenfranchised. they have not been recognised as citizens. When Myanmar had it’s election, they were not permitted to vote and they were just considered some kind of permanent residents. So they have been restricted, their movements have been restricted, their ability to work has been restricted and that is something that has been going on for decades.

Amy Kazmin, Financial Times. Credit: The Wire

MM: Kabir I want to come back to what you were saying. I saw the tweets you had put out when the home ministry also made these statements and you very categorically are urging the government here particularly to make a distinction between who might or might not be a security threat, and who is a legitimate refugee, whose got a card from the United Nations to identify them as refugees saying that any responsible nation actually has a commitment towards these people and cannot turn them away.

KT: Yes absolutely. I mean if you have refugees under the ambit of United Nations, you cannot just tell them to go. You have an obligation as a country that is trying to become a member of the United Nations Security Council, you have big obligations. You portray yourself as South Asia’s big power, looking to become a powerful in Asia and the world, then you cannot have selective approach to how you deal with ‘a’ situation and a ‘b’ situation. Now there have to be some kind of commonalities over there. But you know as they say usually, foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy. If you see the domestic politics as we have it today, even if the Indian government says let’s say for the sake of discussion we are going to deport 10,000 refugees, I don’t think they are going to  face a lot of problems

MM: There is no pushback from the public.

KT: Yes. So when it comes to the government, whether they should do it or not, unfortunately the public discourse here is sort of tilting towards even if the deportation happens, I don’t think they are going to face any public outcry beyond the Delhi sphere, so to speak.

MM: And yet there was a statement by the Ministry of External Affairs that took cognisance of the refugee problem as well, so that was an interesting balancing act if you will between the MEA and the MHA on the issue of refugees. But Amy you made a very interesting point when you said you are right, that we cant go back to the annals of time and decide who came from where. But having said that if you look at the immigrant ban in the United States, for example, that took place as soon as Donald Trump took over the White House. that was also ‘We will not take these people as refugees because they come from places where there is security threat and they could be potential terrorists’. So in a sense, you can see that argument repeat itself across the globe.

AK: It is, but I think there was a few differences. And I am not defending the Trump policy at all; I was absolutely sickened by it.

MM: Yes, you have been very vocal about it as well.

AK: Yes, you know I was also heartened in fact to see that there was in fact in America a huge public outcry and kind of unbelievably, at a time when one is feeling rather about bleak developments in one’s country…

MM: There was a public pushback.

Rohingya refugees have a dinner at a makeshift shelter near Gundum in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 3, 2017. Credit: Reuters

Rohingya refugees have a dinner at a makeshift shelter near Gundum in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 3, 2017. Credit: Reuters

AK: There was a huge public pushback. People flocked to airports, lawyers went to airports to start giving their services for free for anyone who was expecting an arrival who somehow didn’t arrive, you know they were there giving legal services. Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google who was himself a refugee to the United States went to San Francisco airport to join the protests and of course finally the courts pushed back and said you cannot do this. But there is also a difference, I mean there were a few different things, there was one thing refugees can’t come and we are going to ban anybody who is going to come, but of course those people aren’t actually physically in your country yet. So not that you should, but it’s one thing to stop people from arriving who weren’t here…

MM: Than throw people out.

AK: But Trump tried to do that also right, that was the other part of the programme which said green card holders who are long-time legal residents in the country who are from these designated countries – if they leave, if they are outside the country, we are not going to let them back in. And I think that was an even bigger hue and cry in America because a lot of these people had jobs, they were a part of prominent institutions, they have spouses and kids. But yes, you are seeing this tendency in other countries, but yes in America there was a pushback, here I don’t think there would be any.

MM: And Kabir the thing is you are right. We all agree there might not be a domestic pushback on something like this. But the point being I was making is that security concerns have become the primary reason or excuse depending on what word you want to look for, for policy announcements like this. I mean we are seeing time after time. On the one hand there is a security concern and on the other hand there is a major humanitarian crisis. How do you reconcile this?

KT: That’s very difficult to do. As I said, what is your narrative going to be? There is always going to be a lot of disdain in India on Bangladeshi immigrants’ rights.

MM: We see that in the northeast all the time.

KT: We see that in the northeast all the time. This is now being seen as extra sort of responsibility on India that, according to the popular narrative if you talk to the people, they will say why should we take it anyway. I mean you already have so many people first, second we already have a lot of illegal migrants from Bangladesh anyway. So it is not technically India’s responsibility to take care of. This is even if Bangladesh has what 200,000 refugees right?

MM: Right. You made the point a little while ago and I agree that if India wants a seat at the high table of United Nations Security Council, it needs to also act as a responsible international player and regional player, and speak out on behalf of disenfranchised people, whether Indians or anywhere else in the region. That’s one part of the argument.

Amy, the UN has also condemned India’s position on this and has said that it’s deplorable. They are extremely concerned about where India is going with this argument. But we talked about the balancing act a little while ago, we’ve also seen the prime minister visit Myanmar. How is that being viewed by the West, because a lot of the narrative there is going to demanding Suu Kyi return her Nobel Prize not just speak out on this. There’s a huge hue and cry. When you see the Indian prime minister go and shake hands with Suu Kyi and in the midst of this crisis, what are the responses?

AK: Well first of all it is important to know that a lot of the talk that came out of the Indian government about deporting the Rohingya actually predates this the attack on August 25 and this huge wave of people that have come out. I mean, nearly 300,000 people have fled their homes in just two weeks. That is astonishing; that’s a massive flight of human beings. I would bet that the Indian government rhetoric about deporting the Rohingya that are here already may taper off, because in the wake of this huge movement of people India would be seen quite badly if they say ‘We’re going to push out the ones who are already here’.

India has always kind of tried to keep warm and friendly relations with the Myanmar government. Even when Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest and there was a reviled military dictatorship that was isolated by most of the Western world and under economic sanctions, India refused to play to that script. India said Myanmar is our neighbour, we have interests that overlap – it is easy for you in the West to condemn and make self-righteous statements, but we actually have to deal with this country and we need their help in certain issues. So India has always kind of drawn it’s own path. I don’t think that by Modi meeting Aung San Suu Kyi – I mean you know she is under pressure but she is still you know a person who commands a lot of respect in the West – and I don’t think that is somehow going to play badly. But I do think India, given the incidents in the last two weeks, may have to kind of look at the broader picture and what role it’s going to play. Bangladesh also must be struggling to cope with this huge charge of humanity…

MM: They have said, and now I think the figures are around three lakh – 300,000 – refugees who have fled in just two weeks.

AK: Adding to the 200,000 who are there already.

MM: And out of them India has roughly between 40,000-60,000.

AK: I mean these are all estimates I haven’t seen any good sourcing. Sixteen and a half thousand have been registered with the UN, they have told me that.

MM: Right, and we have reached a stage where given the sort of crisis, the courts have asked the government what their response is going to be on the refugee crisis. But Kabir, in conclusion tell me, India is not that a member of the convention on refugees but drafted the charter on human rights. We are obviously a nation and a polity of contradictions on issues like this. Where do we go from here? What do you think is going to be the way forward because this is the crisis pressing at our door and the one that we have to look at.

KT: I think when Modi was in Myanmar, he missed out an opportunity to publicly pressurise Aung San Suu Kyi to fix the situation within Myanmar. Because thats where it needs to happen, you know. You cannot tell Bangladesh to tell a wave people to stop coming – that’s not going to lead to a very good outcome in any way or form. And Bangladesh is a very poor country, we have to remember that. People will get very agitated very quickly there if there are suddenly 200,000 people there in the agriculture sector.

MM: Adding to the worries of radicalisation…

KT: Exactly. That and also India sort of cornered itself when it came to the Myanmar crisis because India has in the past five-six years the narrative of no good terrorism or bad terrorism, terrorism is terrorism. That’s what they play with. Now Aung San Suu Kyi has said that they are fighting terrorists in the Rakhine State. So when you have the Indian prime minister there, you are sort of between a stone and a wall because if you suddenly say – they are not, you need to take care of it, these are all innocent people who are running away – you are moving away from the narrative you are peddling in Afghanistan and your wider sort of foreign policy in the neighbourhood. So I think they found themselves in some sense a pickle in that sense. But they did miss an opportunity by not publicly pressurising Aung San Suu Kyi by saying you have to fix the situation within Myanmar. Refugees are fleeing because what’s happening in Myanmar. There is no external kind of factor…

MM: That is pulling them towards radicalisation

KT: Yes, because Aung San Suu Kyi is responsible for this.

AK: And I mean I think that when you know you have talked about India at the high table I do think that India hasn’t realised what was about to happen, I mean its happened very fast. But I do think that India wants to say that its this big power in the region and it’s a big power in Asia – and here comes a very big and complex crisis, and I think people will be looking at you know internationally how does India act and respond. Does it respond constructively? Because you know this is a true and major international crisis. The numbers are just like that and you know, Bangladesh is a friendly country to India, Myanmar is a friendly country to India. What role does India play to help solve this dilemma? You cannot just sit there and say these are all immigrants, illlegal immigrants, and not our problem.

MM: Illegal immigrants, security risk as the case may be, I think one of the biggest challenges is about reconciling security risks with this very real humanitarian crisis we have today. Amy and Kabir, thanks very much for being on Wide Angle today, thanks a lot.