The New Dimensions of the Rohingya Crisis

As Myanmar, Bangladesh and India grapple with the Rohingya crisis, China and Pakistan play a role from the distance.

The large scale exodus of Rohingyas from Myanmar to Bangladesh since August 2017 “destabilized” the regional security environment to worrisome proportions. This caused substantial uproar in India despite the fact that India is not directly affected by the exodus. However, attendant tensions have cast a spell on bilateral relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar, exposing fault lines in their domestic political space.

It was a major test for Sheikh Hasina as it represented a serious challenge to her government in dealing with not only the exodus but also catering to the presence of a large population of Rohingya refugees, from Myanmar. Dhaka feared the extended security threats and challenges emanating from this development. To its immense credit, Dhaka has handled the issue with great wisdom and political acumen under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina. It would be recalled such large scale movements from Myanmar in the past were handled by military dominated governments in Dhaka, which often witnessed trans-border violence and exchange of fire between border-guarding forces of both country.

India, though not directly associated or involved with the trans-border developments on Bangladesh-Myanmar border, was drawn into the controversy, especially over the illegal presence of Rohingya refugees on its soil. The issue accentuated with reports of their collusion with anti-India elements.  This development has taken on a trajectory not witnessed earlier.

Following Beijing’s interlocutory efforts, both Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to a 3-point plan to repatriate the refugees to their original habitation after completion of due process.  For Bangladesh, the early repatriation of the refugees is a matter of national interest given the nature of political situation in the country especially with stakeholders focusing on the general elections due in late 2018. Observers say that an early solution to the refugee problem will weigh in favor of Sheikh Hasina’s ruling dispensation.

The refugee controversy did damage brand Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK), and raised many questions about the political transformation currently underway in Myanmar. While the bilateral deal between Myanmar and Bangladesh has cooled temperatures to an extent, there is growing expectation that Myanmar will need to step up to the plate by creating a congenial atmosphere for refugee return and resettlement. It needs to ensure that the repatriation process is both smooth and seamless, in keeping with the hopes and aspirations of not only the refugees but other stake-holders. There are hard realities ahead.

A school of thought says that while creation of suitable conditions for refugee resettlement is of prime importance, it is incumbent on the Myanmar authorities to ensure safety and security of the refugees as and when they return to the affected areas, and also importantly address the root cause of the exodus in the first place. Another body of opinion seeks “some” debate on constitutional guarantees to the people of the Rakhine state that could undo difficulties created by the Burma Citizenship Law.

The said law promulgated in 1982 by the then ruling regime of the Burma Socialist Progressive Party (BSPP) that placed obstacles for “Bengali originated inhabitants of Rakhine state to get full citizenship”. Whether Myanmar is ready to embrace a new policy on this subject is moot, especially in the light of the purported statement of the Myanmar military Chief, made on the Armed Forces Day Parade in March 2017. He stated that the military does not foresee any chance of the Rohingyas getting citizenship, which they lost in 1982.

China is obviously the major beneficiary of the results of its proactive efforts leading to the agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the return of the refugees to Myanmar.  The corner stone of Beijing’s bilateral relations is built around its Look South policy, which seeks to have access to the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean through Myanmar.  Beijing has invested of billions of dollars in this direction.  This strategic platform which was unveiled in 1986-87 has kept a constant vigil on developments in Myanmar and has intervened at the highest level, ensuring that the ruling military regime did not resort to high handed methods while dealing the opposition. There have been many instances of special envoys visiting Myanmar with advise and guidance. China has ensured that the National League for Democracy (NLD) and its leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (DASSK) during 1998 remained active in the political national area. China also recognizes the value of the National League of Democracy (NLD) and importance of its leader, DASSK in its strategic narrative.

Peace and stability in Rakhine state is of paramount interest to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In a sense the BRI is an extension of the Look South policy. It is also possible that Beijing has worked behind the scenes to get both the civil and military leadership of Myanmar to create conditions for rapprochement in the affected Rakhine state. Obviously, both of them required a face saving formula solution to close ranks in face of mounting international pressure. Beijing provided them with the platform. The reported removal of the military commander of the north-western command that supervises Rakhine state is a major change and points out to some more related developments ahead of the implementation of the bilateral agreement. This development would certainly not have gone un-noticed in ASEAN region and other observatories.

The jury is still out on India’s handling of the Rohingya problem. A majority feeling is that India has lost ground in responding to the developing situation in its immediate neighborhood. A sense among neutral observers is that the Rohingya issue is seen in India through the narrow prism of domestic politics without any “strategic thought” or “reflection”. The “popular” demand on deportation of the refugees has added to the confusion. Recently, the Director General of the Border Security Force (BSF) was quoted as saying that deportation of the refugees is not as easy as intended, since the onus is on Myanmar to accept them. India has a potential minefield to contend with on this aspect. The issue is exacerbated by the absence of New Delhi’s response to the PRC initiative. as also how India intends to participate in the refugee return program.

Further, there are questions over the efficacy of the Act East Policy to deal with such contentious issues as also its ability to safeguard national interests in this region. There is, it appears, existence of   substantial confusion in the Indian establishment in dealing with the issue. The concerns of the security establishment on the threats from Rohingya refugees currently in India is appreciated. It has placed the picture in its correct perspective so that there is no compromise on the subject.

India has excellent relations with Bangladesh and Myanmar on intelligence sharing and this provides them a degree of comfort in dealing with threats and challenges. The first and the foremost task is to deny inimical interests opportunities from exploiting the situation in Bangladesh and Myanmar. It is hoped that the sabre rattling by Pakistan based terror groups on the Rohingya issue has not gone unnoticed in Nay Pyi Taw or Dhaka. Hafiz Sayeed’s threats to wage “jihad” against Myanmar in support of the Rohingya refugees should have ordinarily evoked a strong protest from Yangon.

The agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar crafted by the Chinese has addressed one aspect of the Rohingya refugee problem. From a professional point of view, the emergence of hardcore Muslim insurgency in Rakhine state does not bode well for regional security especially for Myanmar, Bangladesh and India. The ferocity of attacks on Myanmar police and security forces personnel in October-Nov 2016 and again in mid-2017 is a worrisome development especially emphasizing sophistication, weaponry, tactics and impunity, something very unprecedented so far. It had the signature of foreign or extra-regional organizations such as ISIS or Al Qaeda or radical Filipino Muslim terror groups.

Myanmar, with several decades of counter-insurgency experience, will have to deal with a new dimension of threat to its national security. The implications for India and Bangladesh, of the presence of foreign elements operating not far from their borders, is indicative of present and clear dangers. Both have not witnessed such attacks in areas contiguous to south Myanmar. A recent report by the International Crisis Group  entitled “Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis enters a dangerous new phase” has examined this aspect in its perspective.

Pakistan based terror groups particularly the Lashkar e Tayiba (LeT) have publicly gone on record to wage Jihad on behalf of the Rohingyas. They have condemned Myanmar in no uncertain terms. Bangladesh too has not been spared of the consequences. It is surprising that such anti-Myanmar threats should emanate from Pakistan based terror groups, who till recently, were subject of sanctions by the Trump administration. It is even more surprising that Pakistani authorities allowed such threats to be made against Myanmar, with whom Pakistan enjoyed excellent relations in the past. It is intriguing that these statements were not condemned by the international community especially by China, which has protected LeT and its chief from being named in the UN. There are no reports of Myanmar making any public comment on it.

The three stakeholders namely India, Bangladesh and Myanmar have a serious responsibility to ensure that the Muslim rebellion is contained and prevented from becoming a serious regional threat and challenge. It is also the need of the hour to ensure that the humanitarian crisis is addressed to the mutual satisfaction of all concerned, especially the refugees. The ability of India to provide leadership is important and this is something the regional community desires. The ball is in India’s court.

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Also read: Nitin Pai and Pranay Kotrasthane on how India should respond to the Rohingya Crisis, and Pratap Heblikar’s earlier piece on why we should focus on border security rather than deportation.