For close to two months, there has been great ferment to India’s east.
On October 9, 2016, there were attacks on Myanmar’s border posts in the Northern Rakhine state. This region is home to the Rohingyas, who are not recognised by the Myanmar regime as citizens and have been facing long standing discrimination.
The attacks drew an iron-fisted response from the security forces. Various reports suggest that the forces engaged in shooting suspects arbitrarily, burning houses, looting property, destroying foodstocks, and even raping women, causing massive displacement.
Rohingyas - Muslims of the northern part of Rakhine state - see themselves as an indigenous minority of Myanmar, but the Buddhist-dominated government labels them as Bangladeshi migrants. There is a history of restrictions on citizenship, free movement, work opportunities, access to government services and the right to vote on Rohingyas. In June and October 2012, there was acute anti-Muslim violence in the state, causing major despair among Rohingyas and forcing them to migrate.
On the issue, both the Myanmar military and Aung San Suu Kyi, currently in a fragile partnership in Yangon, are on the same page. But events of the past few months indicate the crisis has entered a new phase.
Where does India stand on the issue?
K Yhome of the Observer Research Foundation who has studied India-Myanmar relations closely says, “India’s position is that this is an internal affair of Myanmar.”
But he points out that even as Delhi has maintained a cautious stance, it has been receiving Rohingya refugees and allowing them to settle in different parts of the country over the years particularly after the communal violence in Rakhine state in 2012. In December 2012, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid visited Rakhine state and donated $1 milion for relief in the violence hit state.
But since the renewed conflict in Rakhine over the past few months, Delhi has not made any official pronouncement.
Why this silence?
A former official who knows Myanmar well, but insisted on anonymity, explains that the Rohingya issue is very complex. “There are really strong emotions that are tied to it. There is a whole debate about the categorisation of Rohingyas itself. There is an information blackout. Any solution that treats it as only a Myanmar issue and does not bring in Bangladesh will not be acceptable to Yangon regime. To my mind, while it is not in our interest to see the problem fester, it seems almost seems irreconcilable and unresolvable. All that can be done is try to mitigate it.”
He argues that India should be wary of getting involved. “If you don’t have a solution or expertise to offer, it is a good reason to stay away. We also have to be invited by the relevant stakeholders and that is not the situation.”
He agreed that India may be in a ‘somewhat better position’ than the west and the UN which the regime would not trust to offer good offices. “But ASEAN is in a better position than us with their dense ties to Myanmar.”
Another official added it is not as if India had any great leverage to influence the regime’s behaviour. “Why will they listen to us in any case?”
But India’s caution is also driven by other reasons.
Constantino Xavier of Carnegie India, who has studied India’s policy dilemmas in Myanmar historically, says Delhi’s silence emanates from its focus on engaging with the new regime in Myanmar while letting Western governments, activists and OIC take the lead on pressuring Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Under the neighbourhood first and look East policies, Myanmar assumes a key role to connect with southeast Asia and cut off China from the Bay of Bengal. For Modi’s domestic audiences, the Rohingya issue is also less salient than, for example, the persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh.”
Yhome agrees and points to the fact that India’s criticism of the military junta for its suppression of the democracy movement in the 80s and 90s had an adverse impact on the bilateral relationship for years. “As Delhi invests in its eastward drive, as its rivalry with China grows in many theatres, upsetting the Myanmar regime is seen as a strategic mistake.” And given how strongly the entire Myanmar establishment feels about the issue, any criticism will be taken with great offence.
India has real security interests too, which depend on the goodwill of the Myanmar regime. In 2015, for instance, following an attack by Naga rebels on a security convoy in Manipur, Indian forces carried out a covert raid across the border - with the quiet nod from Yangon. Delhi does not want that trust to be eroded.
Yhome says India also wants to see the political transition succeed, and believes that as a nascent democracy, Myanmar be given ‘the benefit of doubt’.
And so it is on the cost-benefit scale that India has come to a conclusion that silence is preferable.
The security threat
But there’s realpolitik reason for India to consider the situation in its east, for the November attacks show Rohingya radicalisation is now real.
In a recent report, the well regarded International Crisis Group, based on primary research, flagged the emergence of a new insurgent group - Haraqah Al-Yaqin - led by Rohingya emigres in Saudi Arabia, commanded by Rohingyas on the ground with international training and abreast with modern guerrilla tactics.
The Crisis Group said, “The current violence is qualitatively different from anything in recent decades, seriously threatens the prospect of stability and development in the state and has serious implications for Myanmar as a whole.”
It added that while the government has a duty to maintain security and act against attackers of the November incidents, what is needed is a judicious use of force and focus on a political and policy approach that addresses the “sense of hopelessness and despair underlying the anger of many Muslims in the Rakhine state.” This is precisely what the Myanmar has not done.
Yhome points out that India is well aware of this risk, and after the 2013 Gaya terror attack targeting Buddhists, intelligence agencies drew a link with the atrocities against Rohingyas.
And this is where India’s approach of silent pragmatism may have its limits. Xavier argues, “A new Muslim militant minority across India’s eastern border poses a severe security threat to the stability in Bangladesh and, in turn, across Assam and northeast India. Several thousands of Rohingya refugees already reside in India and with support from activists they could disrupt Delhi’s relations with Myanmar in the same way Burmese pro-democracy activists in India irritated bilateral relations in the 1990s.”
He strongly advocates a policy that crafts a fine balance between keeping Myanmar engaged and nudging Aung San Suu Kyi to pursue credible conflict resolution mechanisms. For India, silence may not be sustainable.