CHENNAI: On September 5, Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarked on his first trip to Myanmar. The visit comes amidst international outcry over the persecution of Rohingyas Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine region.
The Prime Minister engaged in substantive talks with his Myanmar counterpart on many bilateral issues and areas of cooperation, including energy security, transportation, healthcare, and education.
The Kaladan multi-modal project linking Kolkata to Sittwe in Myanmar and increasing road connectivity between the northeast and the western parts of Myanmar are some of the prominent collaborative efforts that have gathered pace over the past few years. The visit also saw the leaders of both countries discuss the Rohingya issue.
Rohingyas are an ethnic minority in Myanmar. They inhabit the Rakhine region in the western part of that country. Today, they are fleeing in large numbers as a result of the Myanmar Army’s assault on them.
The ongoing crackdown by the military is justified as a retaliation to Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s attack on army personnel with crude weapons like machetes and small arms that they had procured to defend themselves.
Some analysts say that the group consists of Rohingya migrants residing in Saudi Arabia. Over the last two months, the conflict has intensified and western countries like the UK, Turkey and the United States have condemned the atrocities and appealing for peace.
Leaders of both India and Myanmar agreed that the situation in Rakhine has a developmental as well as a security dimension.
“They agreed to bring about overall socio-economic development in the state by undertaking both infrastructure and socio-economic projects. Myanmar welcomed India’s offer of assistance under the Rakhine State Development Programme and the two sides agreed to finalise the implementation of modalities within the next few months,” a joint statement said.
Threat to our security?
Concerns about national security are raised by those who call for a deportation of Rohingyas.
Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju made a statement saying, “As per law, they stand to be deported because they are illegal immigrants. We (India) are a nation with great democratic tradition. India has absorbed the maximum number of refugees in the world so nobody should give India any lessons on how to deal with refugees”.
It must be noted that India is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, 1951 and the 1967 protocol on the convention.
According to the UNHCR statistics, around 40,000 Rohingya refugees live in India. They are scattered across the country from Jammu and Kashmir to Tamil Nadu.
Many of them feel that they are by far safer in India than in Myanmar.
Historically, the Rohingyas have migrated from present day Bangladesh to the fertile region of Rakhine in western Myanmar. In fact, they speak a dialect of Bengali language.
They have lived in Rakhine since early 15th century but are still not granted citizenship -- thanks to the 1982 Burmese citizenship law which barred them from holding Burmese citizenship. Further, the Act empowered the Myanmar army to use force against them.
The Myanmar government’s response has been wishy-washy on the topic with State Counsellor and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi terming the international response to the issue as an” iceberg of misinformation” while adding that they will not be going easy on ‘terrorists’.
The Rakhine Advisory Committee headed by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan tabled a 63-page report in August to the Myanmar government on the Rohingya issue and possible solutions to the long-standing problem.
The report states that Rohingya Muslims are the largest stateless people in the world, making up nearly 10 per cent of the world’s population with no permanent home. It noted that 78 per cent of the population in the Arakan region is poor. This is more than twice the 37.5 per cent national poverty average of Myanmar.
Also, the bulk of Rakhine economy is reliant on farming and fishing. However, wages in the agricultural sector are very low. Landlessness is more common in Rakhine than in other parts of the country. Nearly 60 percent of the households are landless in Rakhine.
Further, people of Rakhine have not been beneficiaries of the economic growth that transformed other parts of Myanmar over the last few years. To sum up, Myanmar is in a flux. The government’s response to the current crisis, though, leaves a lot to be desired.India, meanwhile, needs to ask itself whether the Rohingyas here could be sent back to Myanmar where their security could not guaranteed.