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Pieces of  the Rohingya puzzle

With China’s clout increasing in Myanmar, India should deepen ties with Naypyidaw. The Centre has rightly supported Suu Kyi over this issue 

Published: 19th September 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th September 2017 07:18 AM   |  A+A-

amit bandre

Afresh round of violence in the Rakhine state of Myanmar broke out on August 25 when 12 local police were killed in an attack by Rohingya Muslim militants, necessitating a massive crackdown by the Myanmar armed forces against the militants. At least 370 militants were killed.True, the Rohingya issue has not surfaced out of the blue in Myanmar. In fact, for decades there has been a political conflict between the Muslim-dominated Rohingya community and the country’s majority Buddhists. The prospect of reconciliation between the two sides went down significantly in 1982 when the Burmese government came up with a Citizenship Law that did not recognise the Rohingya as citizens. The Rohingya cannot also hold any office and cannot move freely, among other things. 

In 2012, the Rohingya burnt the houses of Rakhine’s Buddhists and other ethnic groups, forcing the military to take punitive action against them. This resulted in a huge number of Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh and India.Things started improving in Rakhine, and the prospect of a permanent solution appeared on the horizon, with a massive win for National League for Democracy led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi which nominally ended almost 50 years of military rule in Myanmar in 2015. But again the Islamic terrorists attacked the Myanmar security forces in October 2016.

This brought back violence to the region. While there is no sign of an early end to the ongoing turbulence in Myanmar, the UN and many more countries have vehemently criticised the Myanmar government over this issue. The UN has warned that at least 3,00,000 Rohingya could flee into Bangladesh.

The domestic unrest in Myanmar has caused huge concern for India. While India has always advocated for the use of peaceful means to resolve the issue, the attacks by the militants has forced the Centre to consider deporting the Rohingya illegal immigrants. India has also strongly condemned the attack on security forces in Rakhine. A Parliamentary delegation, led by Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, supported the Suu Kyi government by refusing to be part of the Bali Declaration at the World Parliamentary Forum on Sustainable Development held in Indonesia this month.

During PM Narendra Modi’s visit to Myanmar too, both sides agreed that terrorism violates human rights and, therefore, there should be no glorification of terrorists as martyrs. India’s focus on strengthening ties with Myanmar does not, however, lead us to believe that the government has turned a blind eye to the Rohingya issue. In fact, while the external affairs ministry has asked for restraint on the part of the Myanmar to end the violence in Rakhine, during his visit, Modi said that India would help Myanmar under the Rakhine State Development Programme. Both sides are expected to finalise its implementation plan in the coming months.

Certainly, the Modi government has its own reasons to follow the middle path. While thousands of Rohingya Muslims are staying in different parts of India, there are increasing concerns about the illegal inflow of Rohingya through Bangladesh into India. These illegal immigrants are an easy target for Islamic terror groups. On Monday, the government told the Supreme Court that some Rohingya Muslims have links with Pakistan’s ISI and the Islamic State.

Over the last three years, the Modi government has invested huge political capital to foster engagement with the Myanmar government. With an elected democratic government under the de facto leadership of Suu Kyi, it is natural for New Delhi to expand ties with Naypyidaw. Some experts also believe that enhanced engagement will help improve India’s relations with the Myanmar military establishment, which continues to play a vital role in the country’s domestic and foreign policies.The Modi government rightly feels that the active support of Naypyidaw is much needed for the success of its “Look East Policy,” as Myanmar connects India to the Southeast Asian countries including Laos and Thailand.


Meanwhile, China has since the 1990s expanded its military, economic and infrastructure engagements with Myanmar. In recent times, Myanmar has emerged a major importer of Chinese weapons and Beijing’s economic clout has also increased significantly. It has acquired a special economic zone at Rakhine’s Kyaukpyu among other projects. China also sees Myanmar as a major link to the Indian Ocean.So India should improve its ties with Myanmar to counter China’s rise. Myanmar is also at the centre of India’s Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the India–Myanmar–Thailand trilateral highway. India needs Myanmar’s help to eliminate the Naga and ULFA militants in the Northeast. 


Myanmar also has huge oil and gas reserves and deposits of various minerals. Several Indian companies including ONGC, GAIL and others have made huge investments in the country. This gives India another reason to foster engagement with Myanmar. With Myanmar being an important member of the ASEAN, New Delhi sees that engagement with Naypyidaw will fulfil India’s interests in this economically dynamic block. With the civilian government having a very limited role in addressing the Rakhine crisis in view of Myanmar’s constitution giving the armed forces control over the military budget and over ministries related to security issues, among other factors, India has taken a wise decision not to antagonise Myanmar. At the same time it has chosen to exercise diplomatic means to ensure the end of the violence in Rakhine.



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