Solidarity with the beleaguered Rohingyas in the Rakhine province of Myanmar happens to be the flavour of the season among those in Western Europe who are forever in search of issues that provoke indignation. The cause of the Rohingyas is also deliciously appetising because it involves destroying the halo around Aung San Suu Kyi who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1991 for her doughty and dignified battle for the cause of democracy in Myanmar. Once an iconic figure in the West, Suu Kyi’s reputation as a modern-day Mahatma Gandhi has been punctured by her refusal to join the Rohingya bandwagon.
Suu Kyi has uneniably bolstered her Buddhist credentials and strengthened herself politically within Myanmar. However, this sensitivity to domestic public opinion has cost her dearly in the West. She is being perceived as a betrayer for putting her country’s interests above her personal image.
Had the impact of the Suu Kyi’s apparent betrayal been confined to the Readers of The Guardian, it would be an amusing sideshow. Unfortunately, thanks to the hyper-activism of human rights groups and United Nations bodies, the Rohingya issue has touched India.
Even before the August 25 attacks on the military that triggered the latest round of retaliation and refugee exodus from Rakhine province, the presence of Rohingyas in India had become a debating issue. The presence of an estimated 25,000 or so Rohingyas in Jammu and Ladakh (but, curiously, not in the Kashmir Valley) have become a cause of consternation not least because India’s northern-most state is a very long way from the Indo-Myanmar border. Some of them have flaunted their Aadhar and voter cards for photographers. How did they get there? Who brought them there?
The matter has come to a head following the Centre’s commitment to initiate deportation of these illegal residents. A public interest litigation has been filed in the Supreme Court by two Rohingyas and others calling on the government to desist. At the same time, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has appealed to the government to open the door for the entry of those Rohingyas fleeing from the post-August 25 violence in Myanmar. This appeal has secured the endorsement of some NGOs and politicians such as Congress MP Shashi Tharoor. In a tweet he asked: “Ancient humanitarian tradition being sacrificed purely because Rohingyas are Muslim?”
The question is sly and aimed at securing brownie points among the strange alliance of Islamists and liberals. India has offered sanctuary to many people from neighbouring countries. These include Tibetans, Chakmas, Sri Lankan Tamils, Afghans and Hindus from Pakistan and Bangladesh. This is not to mention persecuted individuals from Bangladesh and, in an earlier phase, Myanmar. Why then is there great hesitation in opening the floodgates of a Rohingya influx into India.
In Myanmar, the Rohingyas are regarded as settlers from neighbouring Bangladesh. The authorities label them Bengalis. Following the August 25 violence, it is claimed that anything between 60,000 and 87,000 Rohingyas have crossed over into Bangladesh. In normal circumstances, it would have been expected for Bangladesh to have made the greatest amount of noise and raised the Rohingya issue at an international level. Since Rohingyas speak a dialect of Bangla, they should also have been welcomed into the country, at least as kinsmen. On the contrary, Dhaka has been anything but welcoming to the Rohingyas. It has even tried, not very successfully, to push the Rohingyas back into Myanmar.
Since the Japanese occupation of Burma in 1942, the Buddhist-Muslim schism has increased. The Muslims were pro-British while the Burmese nationalists entered into an expedient alliance with the Japanese occupiers. Along with the larger war Japan fought against the Allies, the Arakans witnessed a parallel civil war. As documented in Azeem Ibrahim’s The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide (2016) the Rohingyas formed an army sought incorporation into East Pakistan in 1947, a demand that was repeated in the Burmese Constituent Assembly in 1948. Since then, the Rakhine province has witnessed a low intensity Muslim insurgency whose character became increasingly more religious with the involvement of Islamists in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and, of late, even India.
The International Crisis Group Report (2016) assessment of the November 9, 2016 attacks on the Myanmar army stated: “The insurgent group, which refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement, HaY), is led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingyas with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics. It benefits from the legitimacy provided by local and international fatwas in support of its cause and enjoys considerable sympathy and backing from Muslims in northern Rakhine State, including several hundred locally trained recruits.”
This is revealing and explains why a country such as Bangladesh is wary of taking in refugees, many of whom have been indoctrinated by religious extremists. The example of asylum seekers becoming terrorists in Western Europe is before the world. India cannot ignore the warnings in attempting to uphold lofty traditions.
Of course, this does not distract from the need to persuade the authorities in Myanmar to open the window for religio-ethnic reconciliation. The cancellation of the White Cards of Rohingyas in 2015 which led to their disenfranchisement was needless and gave succor to the Rohingya separatists. While recognizing that the issue is an internal matter of Myanmar and acknowledging the ferocity of feeling against those who have desecrated Buddhist shrines, Myanmar must be told that their unwanted non-citizens cannot be dumped on neighboring countries.
On its part, India cannot afford to be pressured by a minority of do-gooders into compromising its national security. The Rohingya insurgency in Myanmar wasn’t the creation of India and it must not become its problem.
The author is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a Presidential Nominee to the Rajya Sabha