During External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s recent visit to Myanmar, India categorically conveyed that it wants the “safe, secure sustainable” return of the Rohingya refugees. The statement crystallizes the Indian perspective on the Rohingya refugee crisis.
Up till now, India has been perceived as reticent to take any firm stance on the issue, and that reticence is substantially impacting India’s image as a regional leader. Considering India’s stature in the region, expectations were high that the country would take a proactive role in resolving the crisis. India’s dilly-dallying was a disappointment both in the global arena and in its neighborhood, particularly for Bangladesh. India’s recent shift arises out of its effort to reclaim its position in the region, particularly in Bangladesh where New Delhi’s image faced some jolts due to its hesitation over the Rohingya crisis. The present move highlights India’s commitment to Bangladesh first in its neighborhood.
In her two-day state visit to Myanmar on May 10 and 11, Swaraj held meetings with top leaders, including Myanmar’s Foreign Minister and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Apart from bilateral issues, the situation in Rakhine state, the home of the Rohingya bordering Bangladesh, came up in her discussions. Here, Swaraj’s stress on the safe and sustainable return of the Rohingya is most important.
A close analysis of the use of the word “sustainable” suggests India is echoing similar desires to Bangladesh. Bangladesh is insisting on the safe and sustainable return of the refugees, thus urging the long-term resolution of the problem. Swaraj also reiterated India’s support to Myanmar in addressing issues in Rakhine. Further, she expressed India’s readiness to help Myanmar in implementing the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission, an initiative by Suu Kyi and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to resolve the conflict in Rakhine state. To facilitate the sustainable return of the Rohingya, India had signed an agreement with Myanmar in December 2017, with construction of prefabricated housing in Rakhine state for the displaced persons as a key initiative.
Issues concerning citizenship are at the crux of the Rohingya problem. The Rohingya are an ethnic community in the Rakhine state of Myanmar having linguistic similarities with some regional dialects of Bangladesh. The Myanmar authorities do not recognize them as its citizens, but consider the Rohingya migrants from Bangladesh. This left the Rohingya in a stateless condition and subject to persecution in Myanmar.
Bangladesh has been receiving Rohingya migrants at regular intervals since the early 1980s. However, the flow of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar increased significantly starting in August 2017; around 700,000 have crossed the border, the largest influx of refugees in recent history. The problem in Rakhine began after armed groups connected to the ethnic community attacked security posts in Rakhine, resulting in a severe crackdown by Myanmar’s security forces.
The influx of Rohingya refugees is a major irritant between Bangladesh and Myanmar, which has intensified with the recent exodus of refugees. The recent violence had a spiraling impact in the popular psychology of both countries, resulting a rise in antagonism.
The recent Rohingya refugee crisis has been a test of India’s neighborhood diplomacy since it involved two of India’s close neighbors, Myanmar and Bangladesh. India has warm relationships with both the countries, and each desired India’s support. India was hesitant in taking any bold stance as it did not want to displease either neighbor.
India also faced the difficult choice of safeguarding national interests vis-a-vis its neighbors’ expectations. India shares borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh and the two countries are critical for the peace and stability of India’s conflict-prone northeast. Maintaining a friendly relationship with both Myanmar and Bangladesh is imperative for India. Hence, the issue required delicate handling.
Officially, India and Bangladesh maintained a cordial relationship, but there was a feeling of despair among the people in Bangladesh regarding India’s approach. People in Bangladesh expressed anguish after Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a statement during his Myanmar visit (which followed soon after the August violence) expressed concern over extremist violence in Rakhine without any mention of the exodus of refugees. Later India issued a statement expressing concern over the violence in Rakhine state and urged Myanmar to end the violence. Additionally, India was one of the first few countries to provide humanitarian assistance and relief for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Still, there is a feeling in Bangladesh that India could have contributed much more to helping the country deal with the crisis.
The present move by India might have come late, but certainly it is a force multiplier. Repatriation of the Rohingya is one of the burning issues facing Bangladesh and even more so for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is up for re-election later this year. Repatriation of the Rohingya is crucial for the stability of Bangladesh, as the refugees have often been targeted for recruiting by the various militant organization who oppose the idea of secular Bangladesh.
Considering the importance of the India factor in Bangladesh’s internal politics, India’s role in the Rohingya crisis will be under microscopic scrutiny in Bangladesh, and could decide the country’s election. It’s worth noting that Hasina is often accused by her opponents of favoring India. And in the short term, India’s upgraded stance will help to create a better atmosphere for Hasina’s scheduled visit to West Bengal later this month, where she is likely to meet Modi.
The present statement by India should not just be used to defuse sentiments in Bangladesh, however. Rather it should mark the beginning of a more active Indian stance. In November 2017, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement on the return of the Rohingya refugees and a two-year time frame has been fixed to complete the process. Yet there are apprehensions that the repatriation of the Rohingya might face challenges unless their safety is assured. Along with providing humanitarian assistance, India might consider providing policy advice in implementing the agreement, since it also has some experience with repatriating refugees, mainly after the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971.
India needs to work on a long-term policy on the Rohingya issue; however, its interests need to be factored in. Resolution of the Rohingya crisis will require continuous efforts.
Joyeeta Bhattacharjee works in the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi. The views expressed here are her own.