‘Rohingya’ has become a household word in India, after Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju proclaimed on September 5 that the Rohingyas are “illegal immigrants... who stand to be deported”. The outrage that accompanied the plight of the Rohingyas was not only seen in sections of people in India, but also across the western and Islamic world.

India has stood its ground, maintaining that recent events were triggered by attacks across the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by radical Islamic groups. But a number of questions remain on how we are going to deal with an estimated 45,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who have entered India since 2012. Moreover, the massacre of Hindu Rohingyas by Islamic Rohingya terrorists has further polarised Indian public opinion.

Who are they?

The Rohingyas maintain they are an indigenous community of western Myanmar, bordering Bangladesh. They largely migrated from what is now Bangladesh during British colonial rule. They are predominantly Muslim, with an estimated Muslim population of 1.2-1.3 million resident in the north of Myanmar’s Rakhine province, bordering Bangladesh. The southern part of Rakhine province bordering Mizoram is predominantly Buddhist, with a Hindu minority. Ever since independence and more so after the Ne Win dictatorship, Rohingyas have not been considered Myanmarese citizens. They have been subject to discrimination on issues of health, education and employment. The animosity of the army, which dominates national life in Myanmar, towards the Rohingyas, has increased ever since sections of Rohingyas formed armed groups to wage an ill-advised struggle, after indoctrination in Pakistan.

Myanmar’s army has continuously battled 22 ethnic insurgencies in the country on its borders with China and Thailand. But seldom, if ever, has the army undertaken the sort of scorched earth policy it has adopted against the Rohingya Muslims. And never has the Buddhist clergy reacted so strongly, as in what transpired in Rakhine, after recent coordinated cross-border attacks on police posts and the army by the Rohingya Solidarity Army. Myanmar has legitimate concerns about the radicalisation of its Muslim population in Rakhine.

The army’s actions resulted in over 4,00,000 Rohingya men, women and children fleeing to Bangladesh. India now houses an estimated 45,000 refugees. While India initially focussed largely on Rohingya terrorist attacks in Myanmar, it has now realised the extent of burden, damage and difficulties imposed on the friendly government of Sheikh Hasina Wajed by the huge inflow. While New Delhi has commenced airlifting relief supplies to Bangladesh, India should join Bangladesh and Myanmar bilaterally and even through tripartite meetings, for a coordinated effort to obtain international financial and diplomatic support to facilitate an early and time-bound process of repatriation of the refugees, with their safety guaranteed upon returning home.

Making India relevant

India-Myanmar relations have been looking up in recent years, even though much improvement is needed to implement Indian-aided projects there if we are to make any impression of our relevance in the face of some aggressive Chinese involvement. Myanmar has a crucial role in supplementing our efforts to deal with insurgencies backed by Pakistan and China, in our landlocked Northeastern States, notably Manipur and Nagaland.

India is currently building the Kaladan Corridor linking the North-East across Rakhine state, with the Bay of Bengal, through the deep-water Sittwe port in Myanmar. New Delhi has just completed construction of the port. India has also pledged resources for the development of Rakhine province in an effort that will be helpful in addressing Rohingya grievances. These are crucial projects strategically, as they are located alongside a massive Chinese transportation/energy corridor, linking China’s Yunnan province with Myanmar’s Bay of Bengal port of Kyaukpyu.

As global television networks and UN relief organisations focussed on the miseries of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, the Rohingya issue took centre-stage globally. The UN secretary-general bluntly labelled the Myanmar government’s actions “ethnic cleansing”. India has made it clear that Islamist terror groups triggered the present violence in Myanmar. China, while expressing support for Myanmar’s moves, was more nuanced in the Security Council. While backing Myanmar’s moves to protect its security, China also backed a Security Council resolution expressing concern at reports of Myanmar resorting to excessive violence and calling on it to take corrective action. Russia, while welcoming some steps taken by Myanmar, also took note of reports of violence. Not surprisingly, it was Myanmar’s former colonial rulers, the British, who took the lead in condemning Aung San Suu Kyi. Whitehall was quite obviously taken aback by Suu Kyi placing her country’s interests first, and not behaving, as it expected, like a pet poodle. American policy as enunciated by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was mercifully more balanced and rational.

In these circumstances, it is time New Delhi developed a more comprehensive approach to the crisis to enable the safe return of Rohingya refugees from both Bangladesh and India. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj assured Sheikh Hasina on September 15 of India’s support, even as Myanmar military actions have led to a continuing influx of refugees. At the same time, it is essential that India, Myanmar and Bangladesh join hands to see that radical Islamic groups are prevented from infiltrating Rakhine state through Bangladesh.

It would also be useful if India joined hands with donors like Japan, Germany and the US to ensure coordinated flow of economic assistance to ensure that Rohingyas receive better education, health and other facilities when they return home. We have to bear in mind that it would only be natural if diplomatic efforts to stabilise our Northeastern borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh were undertaken with the cooperation of powers that share our interests. Most importantly, India, Myanmar and Bangladesh share a common interest in combating radical Islamic groups, whose primary aim is to destabilise all three.

Imaginative solution

One of the success stories of Indian diplomacy has been that we have been able to isolate an obdurate and obstructive Pakistan through imaginative regional initiatives across our eastern land and maritime frontiers through organisations such as Bimstec. Addressing the Rohingya crisis imaginatively and successfully will give a boost to our ‘Act East’ policies. Even as Saarc languishes, Bimstec should remain the focus of India’s efforts for regional economic integration,

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan