G Parthasarathy

India must not turn back Myanmar refugees

G Parthasarathy | Updated on April 05, 2021

A demonstrator attends a protest in Launglone, Dawei district, Myanmar on March 26, 2021.   -  DAWEI WATCH VIA REUTERS

Rejecting them will not only be objected to by people in bordering Manipur and Mizoram, but will also dent India’s image globally

Though an immediate neighbour, Myanmar receives relatively little media attention in India, despite the two countries sharing a 1,640 km land border and a long maritime boundary across the Bay of Bengal. Both the land and maritime frontiers have been fully demarcated and the two neighbours have no territorial problems.

India’s martine boundary with Myanmar becomes a tri-junction as it also extends into Thailand’s territorial waters. More importantly, the devoutly Buddhist people of Myanmar look upon the Buddhist shrines in India with awe and reverence. A pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya is a lifetime ambition for the vast majority of people in Myanmar. The idyllic surroundings of Myanmar remain tense, primarily because of its ethnic diversity which keeps the country engrossed in continuing ethnic conflicts.

Myanmar has been torn apart by civil wars between the Myanmar Army and around 30 well-armed minority militias, ever since its independence. It is this continuing civil unrest which has kept the country tied up in internal conflicts, extending across its land borders with China, India and Thailand.

Except for brief periods of democratic governance, Myanmar has been ruled by the Majority Bamar (Burmese) Army, since its independence in 1948. The country’s ethnic insurgencies have spread beyond its borders, to China, Thailand and the north-eastern States of India. Myanmar’s first ruler, General Aung San (who was Aung San Suu Kyi’s father), was a military man. The last brief period of less than a decade of democracy, ended on February 1, 2021, when the army rejected the results of countrywide elections and took over charge, yet again.

The reaction against the recent army takeover has, however, been much stronger than in the past. Tanks have appeared on city roads and an estimated 550 protesters have been killed by bullet wounds. There are also signs that many of the armed groups of ethnic minorities will increasingly join hands in the growing unrest.

China, which is very comfortable with military rule in Myanmar, will restrain armed groups from operating across its borders with Myanmar. India has urged a return to civilian rule in Myanmar at meetings of the United Nations Security Council. Resolutions seeking international action against the military government will inevitably continue to fail to get the requisite support from abroad, in the face of vetoes by China and Russia.

Growing ties

India’s ties with Myanmar have been steadily growing closer over the past three decades. Major projects undertaken by India include the construction of the Bay of Bengal Port of Sittwe. This port will serve as the gateway to the sea for India’s landlocked north-eastern States for both transit and export of goods. India provides scholarships for hundreds of students, scholars and experts from Myanmar in various fields, including promoting the development of IT skills in the country. The ONGC has done well in Myanmar on offshore gas exploration, off the coast of Myanmar.

Relations between the armed forces of the two countries are warm and India recently provided Myanmar with a submarine for its maritime security. The armies of the two countries have cooperated closely in dealing with separatist groups operating across their borders. The violence and the brutal suppression of all dissent by the Myanmar army has already led to the loss of over 550 lives. India has worked hard to no avail, while seeking agreement on measures to end the violence. With China, Russia and the majority of Myanmar’s ASEAN neighbours opposed to any interference in Myanmar’s internal affairs, the stage appears set for continuing internal conflict.

India has also faced the problem of Myanmar nationals close to the border, including police personnel, crossing over and seeking asylum in States like Mizoram and Manipur. New Delhi blundered badly recently when the Home Ministry insisted that all such people seeking asylum should be sent back across the border, not realising that the refugees enjoyed kinship and sympathy in States like Mizoram and Manipur.

Rejecting the influx of refugees from areas in Myanmar bordering India will not only be strongly objected to by people in Manipur and Mizoram, but also dent India’s image, globally. Myanmar’s ASEAN neighbours are hopelessly divided on how to deal with the situation in Myanmar, while China is insisting that interference in any form should be avoided.

It is India and Japan alone that are making consistent efforts to evolve a political consensus to end violence. Given Myanmar’s history of prolonged ethnic violence, the prospects of any early solution to the problem appear dim. But India would ruin its image internationally if it turned back refugees who are seeking safe haven from persecution, or prosecution, in Myanmar. The sooner the Mandarins in our Home Ministry realise this, the better.

Reaction to crisis

The US and European reaction to this crisis is predictable. The Western powers instinctively favour the imposition of mandatory UN sanctions. Quite predictably, such moves are objected to strongly by China, Russia and regional powers like India, Japan, and a number of Myanmar’s ASEAN neighbours.

As in most regional crises in the past, the lack of any effective or imaginative action to deal with crisis situations is an indictment of the ineffectiveness of ASEAN. The ASEAN Chairman’s statements of February 1 and March 2 were too weak for Western critics. Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore were the most forceful ASEAN members in condemning the use of force against peaceful protestors.

All ASEAN leaders, however, agree on the need to engage with Myanmar’s Generals to pull back from their excessive use of force. Indonesia’s President, Joko Widodo, has been at the forefront of this effort. On balance, ASEAN remains the best placed forum to look for imaginative potential solutions to Myanmar’s present crisis, despite its present indecision. India and Japan would obviously back such efforts to restore peace and harmony in Myanmar.

The writer is a former

High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on April 05, 2021

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