Exclusive: Public Anger Brews in Bangladesh Over India's Stance on Rohingya Crisis

Rohingya refugees having been crossing over to Bangladesh in large numbers, but Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not bring up this issue on his recent trip to Myanmar.

New Delhi had to modify its position on the Rohingya issue, to also acknowledge that there is now a refugee crisis. Credit: PTI/Reuters

New Delhi had to modify its position on the Rohingya issue, to also acknowledge that there is now a refugee crisis. Credit: PTI/Reuters

New Delhi: The dissatisfaction in Dhaka has been building up steadily. While India had given its full backing to the internationally-isolated Myanmar government on the Rohingya crisis, it had to face the reality that those statements are putting the Sheikh Hasina government in an impossible situation. Bangladesh has faced the political and security fallout of the largest influx of refugees ever since its independence.

Rising public anger in Bangladesh about India’s position and Dhaka’s diplomatic overdrive was largely the reason why New Delhi had to modify its position on the Rohingya issue, to also acknowledge that there is now a refugee crisis.

Four days ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stood next to Myanmar’s de-facto leader in Nyay Pyi Taw and described India and Myanmar as “partners” in their concern over the loss of lives due to “extremist violence” in Rakhine State.

The India-Myanmar joint statement issued a day later also reflected this position, mentioning only the violence by Rohingya militants. “India condemned the recent terrorist attacks in northern Rakhine State, wherein several members of the Myanmar security forces lost their lives,” said the bilateral document.

The Indian prime minister’s remarks were arguably in line with the previous Indian foreign policy position on the Rohingya issue – which has become so aligned with Myanmar that they do not even use the term ‘Rohingya’.

However, Indian statements made in Myanmar – while Bangladesh had to face the fallout of thousands of refugees across the border – led to complications.

On Saturday afternoon, Bangladesh high commissioner to India, Syed Muazzem Ali, met with Indian foreign secretary S. Jaishankar at his South Block office to specifically raise the Rohingya issue.

“I discussed bilateral issues and also apprised him of the latest situation regarding the influx of Rohingya refugees that have taken shelter in Bangladesh,” the veteran Bangladeshi diplomat told The Wire.

S. Jaishankar. Credit: PTI

S. Jaishankar. Credit: PTI

Per UN estimates, 300,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed over into Bangladesh in the last two weeks.

The latest round of the refugee influx resulted from a security crackdown after Rohingya insurgents attacked 30 police posts and an army base in Myanmar’s restive Rakhine province.

“These people are the citizens of Myanmar. Myanmar will have to make arrangements for their return to their home, where they could live in peace and dignity and with full democratic rights. The refugees can take shelter in any neighbouring country, but only temporarily. Long-term solution will always be settlement in Myanmar,” Ali said.

He added that regional neighbours should “use their good offices to emphasise this point to the Myanmarese government, about the ground reality”.

When asked whether Bangladesh had taken note of Indian statements in support of Myanmar, Ali indicated that New Delhi should modify its position. “When the [India-Myanmar] joint statement was issued… the situation since then had taken a different turn in terms of influx of refugees. When the visit took place, the security situation was the main focus. Since then, the number of refugees have increased at an alarmingly fast pace. In the last two days, 100,000 people took shelter in Bangladesh,” Ali said.

Speaking a few hours after his afternoon meeting with Jaishankar, he told The Wire that he hoped to see India review its public position. “I hope that India can issue another statement updating their position on this issue,” said the Bangladesh high commissioner.

Later on Saturday night, India issued a new statement on the “situation in Rakhine State in Myanmar”.

For the first time, India acknowledged that there is an ongoing refugee crisis, rather than just talk about violence perpetrated by Rohingya militants.

“India remains deeply concerned about the situation in Rakhine State in Myanmar and the outflow of refugees from that region.”

The next three paragraphs of the press release issued by the Ministry of External Affairs recalled the Indian prime minister’s visit to Myanmar and the condemnation of the attack on the security forces in Rakhine State.

“During Prime Minister’s recent visit to Myanmar, he had expressed his concern at the casualties of security forces as well as other innocent lives. He had also urged a solution based on respect for peace, communal harmony, justice, dignity and democratic values,” the release said. There was also a reiteration that India and Myanmar had agreed that there would be “no justification under any pretext” for terrorism.

Going beyond previous remarks, the latest Indian statement called for “restraint and maturity” and also stressed the need to focus on the “welfare of the civilian population”:

“We would urge that the situation in Rakhine State be handled with restraint and maturity, focussing on the welfare of the civilian population alongside those of the security forces. It is imperative that violence is ended and normalcy in the State restored expeditiously.”

Modi’s visit and his statements in Myanmar had received wide coverage in Bangladesh, with a largely negative slant. The sudden torrent of refugees, coupled with the reports of human rights violations and the burning of entire villages, had put the Hasina government under pressure.

A Rohingya camp in Rakhine State, Myanmar. Credit: DYKT Mohigan/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A Rohingya camp in Rakhine State, Myanmar. Credit: DYKT Mohigan/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Over the last two days, the message received in South Block was that “very strong” public opinion was building up in Bangladesh on the Rohingya issue, which was spilling over into New Delhi-Dhaka ties.

According to sources, during the South Block meeting in Delhi, the Bangladesh high commissioner did not make a specific demand from India – but the subtext was clear. “We are addressing those concerns. The statement is the first step,” sources told The Wire.

The Rohingya issue has always cast a shadow on relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh, who share a 271-km-long border over the provinces of Chin and Rakhine. Bangladesh has seen the influx of Rohingya refugees before, but the current numbers were perhaps last seen only in the early 1990s.

Watch: Why Is India Turning Its Back On Rohingya Refugees?

M. Humayun Kabir, a former Bangladeshi diplomat and vice-president of the Dhaka-based think tank Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, said that his country’s standard position had been that the Rohingya had to return to Myanmar, but that they could get temporary shelter with them.

“We always ask Myanmar to create a congenial atmosphere so that they can be returned with dignity. This has been our position since independence, especially since 1978 when the first lot of Rohingya refugees came to Bangladesh,” he said.

The Rohingyas were stripped of their Burmese nationality by the 1974 Emergency Immigration Act and then the 1982 Citizenship Act.

In 1978, more than 200,000 Rohingya fled into Bangladesh following a security crackdown prior to a national census. Most of them returned home after a bilateral pact was signed under pressure from China, the US and the UN.

The next major exodus was in 1991, after another military operation, which led over 250,000 people to cross the border. Again faced with intense international pressure, Myanmar was forced to accept a repatriation arrangement, with most of the refugees returning by 1997.

For the Bangladesh state, the perennial Rohingya issue is viewed through a lens of multiple threats, said Major General Abdur Rashid, executive director of the Institute of Conflict, Law and Development Studies in Dhaka. He listed them as concerns over terrorism, disquiet over vulnerability to entrenchment of foreign terror groups and domestic political equations being influenced by the Rohingya issue. “There is also a risk of merging with local populations, which poses a high degree of hidden threats to communities,” he said.

The location of Rakhine State in Myanmar. Credit: TUBS/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The location of Rakhine State in Myanmar. Credit: TUBS/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Bangladesh high commissioner also pointed out that Dhaka wanted for “our friends to help us for the sake of peace and security in our region”. He implied that the security situation could worsen due to the refugees becoming ground zero for Islamist groups looking for fresh recruits.

“The refugees sometimes fall in the wrong hands and it becomes worse. We have, of course, seen this kind of situation happen in other parts of the world,” Ali said.

The Bangladesh government is already grappling with a rise in the number of terror attacks, with ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the subcontinent already holding the riverine South Asian state in its cross-hairs. Therefore, hosting a large community that could be a pool for potential terror recruits, for an indefinite period, is not an attractive proposition from Dhaka’s perspective.

“We talk about destroying the ISIS infrastructure, which is possible, but you will not be able to destroy the idea of ISIS. The arc starting in Afghanistan to Philippines – the non-Arab muslim periphery – contains around 80 percent of the Muslim population. Whatever spills out from the wiping out of ISIS infrastructure is going to come and settle here,” said Tariq Karim, former diplomat and Bangladesh’s envoy to India from 2009 to 2014.

He felt that, apart from the security aspect, there was also a more emotional reason for Bangladeshis to be disturbed about the plight of the Rohingya refugees.

“Bangladesh cannot forget that it itself emerged as the culmination of a huge refugee crisis created by a Pakistan army crackdown – something not dissimilar to the Myanmar army crackdown on the innocents, which forced them to flee. We cannot forget the moral ground on which we stand,” stated Karim, who is based in Delhi as advisor to the World Bank for regional integration in South Asia.

He noted that while there was a security facet to the Rohingya refugee crisis, it has grown mainly as a response to their living conditions and the security crackdown. “There is an insurgency that has grown there – like the mukti bahini grew in Bangladesh in reaction to the oppression by the Pakistani military. It is a natural phenomenon,” said Karim.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which claimed responsibility for the latest attack on Myanmar security personnel, was also behind the October 2016 attack on the Myanmar border police. According to the International Crisis Group, ARSA, which was previously known as Harakah al-Yaqin, was formed in the aftermath of the 2012 Rakhine riots.

“We have to see this in the broader context. It will not just remain a problem for Bangladesh. But it will become a problem for India sooner rather than later,” he said.

As the scale of the recent Rohingya exodus became apparent, the murmurs in Bangladesh against India’s Rohingya position were growing louder and louder.

“I had been hearing a lot of voices from Bangladesh that India was not taking into consideration the problems that Bangladesh was facing – humanitarian as well as security, the twin-headed beast that we have to deal with,” said Karim.

He pointed out that a particular belief – that India was “privileging” its strategic goals in Myanmar – was gaining ground in Bangladesh. “In a sense, Bangladesh’s strategic problems are being sacrificed for the meeting of those goals. So people are saying that we have done so much for India in terms of meeting its security concerns but now that we have a security problem, India is shying away and focusing only on its security,” said Karim, who is a distinguished fellow at the Vivekananda India Foundation.

The joint statement issued during Modi’s visit to Bangladesh in April this year singled out the “robust bilateral security cooperation” and also lauded “exemplary cooperation” on checking smuggling and circulation of fake currency notes and narcotics.

“I will not be surprised if groups in Bangladesh will start saying, ‘well Indians are not going to be sympathetic to us, lets us try to get China to do something’,” Karim added. “So China may say, ‘we will help, but we have a price tag’. Bangladesh should not be forced into that corner. That would be my message to friends in India.”

India has been keen not to give more diplomatic capital to China than it already has with Myanmar over the Rohingya issue. Earlier this year, China had offered to mediate between Myanmar and Bangladesh. In its August 31 statement, China had expressed “support” for Myanmar’s “efforts in maintaining peace and stability” in Rakhine and condemned “violent attacks”.

Photo Feature: Rohingya in Delhi Live in Fear of Deportation

Myanmar has had a love-hate relationship with Beijing, but the former cannot be indifferent to China as it has consistently extended the protection of its veto in the UN Security Council. In March this year, China, along with Russia, had stopped the introduction of a UNSC resolution against Myanmar. There is an expectation that similar events may take place again.

But the sense of disappointment with India is higher. “India’s silence has shocked the people of Bangladesh. They believe the engagement of India – and China – would bring in positive impact rapidly, but this is not likely to be availed as both the countries have placed strategic interest preference over democratic and humanitarian values,” said Rashid.

A Rohingya girl in Sittwe, Myanmar. Credit: DYKT Mohigan/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A Rohingya girl in Sittwe, Myanmar. Credit: DYKT Mohigan/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

In the Bangladeshi media, statements by NDA ministers to deport 14,000 Rohingya were also referenced in articles about India’s Myanmar policy.

Kabir felt that there is “clearly a sense of frustration”. “India is a special friend of Bangladesh, because of our history, because of India’s contribution in our time of distress, because of the fact that Bangladesh has given hand when India needed support to manage its insurgency. Now suddenly, we are in distress, a real difficulty, and we were not feeling reassured [by India],” he said.

Echoing the words of other Bangladeshi experts, Kabir said that while India’s strategic compulsions were understandable, there was a higher “expectation” from New Delhi. “India being a regional power, our expectation was that we would hear some support for the humanitarian crisis that we are dealing with, something about the atrocities, the ethnic cleansing that was going on… Some words of comfort were expected,” he said.

The Observer Research Foundation’s Joyeeta Bhattacharjee noted that India was in a “catch-22 situation” on the Rohingya issue. BBoth Myanmar and Bangladesh are crucial for fighting insurgency in the northeast, as well as for India’s ‘Look East’ policy and connectivity projects. She pointed out that, faced with India’s support for Myanmar, Bangladesh could grow closer to the Islamic bloc of countries.

Rashid agreed that there was a shift in Bangladesh – though there is still a mixed response from the Muslim countries. “Bangladesh’s reliance is shifting towards UN, the West and Muslim members of ASEAN. Bangladesh expected quick and effective response from [the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation]. Turkey, Iran, Iraq responded but Saudi Arabia and its allies are still silent.” Turkey’s First Lady Emine Erdogan flew down in a special flight to take a look at the makeshift camps at Cox’s Bazar on Friday.

The “disregarding” of the Rohingyas’ plight was “reinforcing Islamic and anti-Indian rhetoric in Bangladesh,” added Rashid.

Karim hoped that India will use its “good relations” to “bear down” on Myanmar. “You can argue for security to say that this has impact for India’s own security. So what is happening there will spill over for India,” he said. Kabir also noted that as long as Myanmar was “in denial”, there could be no solution – and the international community, including India, had to show the mirror to Nay Pyi Taw.

Referring to India’s latest statement, Karim said that it was “even-handed”, but also that he was not sure if it would go far enough to assuage Bangladeshi sentiments.

“Maybe I am being partisan, but I would emphasise the humanitarian aspect. This cannot be pure politics for personal advancement. There has to be some level of statesmanship and I see this statesmanship lacking solely worldwide,” he said.

The former diplomat cautioned that the Rohingya crisis could “also have an impact on the election scenario in Bangladesh, which will be the hot potato now”. Parliamentary polls are scheduled for 2018, which according to indications will not likely be a one-party election, like in 2013.

The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party has been slamming the ruling coalitionas well as India – on the Rohingya issue for the past week. The civil society movement Gonojagoron Mancha announced that it will be organising a protest before the Myanmar embassy on Monday. On the other end of the spectrum, the Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam announced that they will lay siege on the Myanmar embassy from September 19 if there was no end to the violence against the Rohingya.

BNP leader Khaleda Zia. Credit: UK FCO/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

BNP leader Khaleda Zia. Credit: UK FCO/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The rumblings were gathering momentum as the Bangladesh government had remained relatively quiet, publicly, in the first ten days after the Rohingya started to stream across the border. The buzz in Dhaka was that the Bangladesh government was waiting to see the results of Modi’s Myanmar trip.

The start of Bangladesh’s diplomatic outreach seem to have coincided with Dhaka taking stock of the outcome of Modi’s visit.

“Bangladesh government has been trying over last few decades to solve the issue bilaterally with Myanmar… Bangladesh has no choice but to go to the international community, particularly the UN and our friends in the region. We cannot afford to have an additional burden, to keep and feed. We need international support for that,” said Kabir.

On Saturday, the UN sent out an appeal for $77 million for immediate humanitarian assistance to “scale up” response to the Rohingya refugees. According to another Bangladesh media report, this will barely scratch the surface, with an economist calculating a cost of $1 billion per year to provide “basic amenities” to the refugees. Even if a repatriation pact is reached, the process to send back over 300,000 refugees to a safe environment in Myanmar could stretch for years.

The signs of the Bangladesh government’s foreign policy shift towards internationalising the Rohingya issue has become clearer over the last few days. On Saturday evening, the ruling party, Awami League, affirmed that the government was planning to launch an international appeal.

On September 8, India disassociated itself from the Bali declaration of the World Parliamentary Forum of Sustainable Development after clauses were introduced on the Rohingya crisis. While the last-minute clauses were introduced by Turkey, it was further seconded by Bangladesh.

A day earlier, on September 7, the outgoing secretary general of BIMSTEC, a regional group, called on the Bangladesh prime minister for a farewell call. The nascent group, on which India has pinned a lot of hope as an alternate to SAARC, is seen as a platform for economic cooperation or connectivity. But unusually, Hasina chose to raise the political issue of the Rohingya crisis at this meeting.

Speaking to The Wire, Ali, the Bangladeshi envoy, said that the prime minister raising the Rohingya issue with the BIMSTEC secretary general was in the context of a review of the region.

When asked whether the Rohingya issue could cast a shadow on the group, Ali said, “BIMSTEC summit is going to be held in Kathmandu in November. So I hope that by then, we would be in a position to take certain concrete steps to diffuse the current steps”.

Also read: In Jaipur, Rohingya Refugees Forced Into Hiding as Police Begins Crackdown

In a Rohingya area in Sittwe, Myanmar. Credit: DYKT Mohigan/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

In a Rohingya area in Sittwe, Myanmar. Credit: DYKT Mohigan/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

There was no doubt in the minds of diplomatic observers that Hasina had deliberately used the BIMSTEC platform to raise the Rohingya issue to signal the seriousness of the problem.

“BIMSTEC has remained focused on economics. This was also the route that SAARC took. It was also one of the reasons SAARC could not succeed,” Karim said on the prohibition of not discussing bilateral political issues in regional groups in South Asia.

“If leaders cannot talk of issues that disturb or stir up disturbing currents in their relationship, then that organisation is useless. You are just spending a lot of money and time and energy on these tamashas,” he added.

Kabir was “not surprised” that Hasina raised the Rohingya issue in a BIMSTEC context, especially when the matter had been dominating all forums in Bangladesh.

“Whatever forum Bangladesh gets, Bangladesh has a right to raise the Rohingya issue. … We shouldn’t always talk just about cooperation, but also ensure that there is sensitivity about the needs of the member states,” said the former diplomat.

One of the solutions apparently drafted by Bangladesh is to create a ‘safe zone’ for the Rohingya within Myanmar. According to Bangladeshi media reports, Dhaka wants India, Germany, the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross to set up this zone.

Indian government sources, however, indicated that Bangladesh has not yet made this proposal to New Delhi formally.

Bangladesh’s high commissioner to India implicitly confirmed that this specific proposal had not been submitted. However, he added that there were “other initiatives that we are thinking about”.

“The UN [General Assembly] session is going to begin from the third week of this month and naturally, we coordinate closely with the Indian delegation at UNGA,” Ali said, adding that both India and Bangladesh remained in close diplomatic contact over the issue.

And New York is likely to become the stage for international diplomacy on the Rohingya issue, with Bangladesh and OIC countries lobbying for a strong signal on behalf of the UN. Aung San Suu Kyi is also likely to return to the UNGA for the second consecutive year. Meanwhile, the campaign by human rights groups targeting her for her “silence” and the international community’s pressure on Myanmar will keep building up.