During the build-up to the 1971 India-Pakistan war, lakhs of refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan and what later emerged as Bangladesh, streamed into India and were housed in refugee camps. They were fleeing from persecution and torture unleashed by Pakistani Army. Now Bangladesh is facing an exodus of Rohingya refugees who are being persecuted in neighbouring Myanmar.
Over 3,00,000 such refugees have crossed over to Bangladesh and there is daily addition to their numbers. Bangladesh government has set up several camps for them and has urged the international community to come to their aid as well ask Myanmar government to stop atrocities on Rohingyas. The UN, the US and several other countries have already issued appeals but that’s not enough for stemming the tide.
Ironically, Rohingyas are the world’s largest stateless ethnic group and belong to a particular sect of Muslims. While they are perceived in Myanmar as erstwhile migrants from what is now Bangladesh, the latter considers them as unwanted refugees from Myanmar. Thus the Rohingyas, numbering about one million, are nowhere people and without legal citizenship of any country.
Rohingyas claim that they had settled in the Rakhine area of Myanmar in the 15th century but that country treats only those as citizens who can prove or trace their residence in the country to before 1823, a task which is virtually impossible for anyone to prove. The year 1823 is taken as the cut off year because the government considers that they came to Rakhine as part of British East India’s expansion plan when the British defeated the then king in 1826.
Rohingyas had always faced hostilities from the Buddhists who dominate the area. There was a phase in which the government attempted to give them representation and accept their presence in the country. However, trouble started brewing in 2012 when a Buddhist woman was raped by two men allegedly belonging to Rohingya community.
A major clash took place between the majority Buddhists and Rohingyas leading to exodus of about 5,00,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh. Some later went back but many stayed in the refugee camps.
Another serious trouble began for them in 2015 when they were disenfranchised and not allowed to participate ironically in the first ever democratic elections in that country. It also triggered migration and the international community dubbed them as the “boat people”.
Besides the violence, including harassment by security forces, Rohingya are fleeing Myanmar because of the discrimination and restrictions imposed by the government. The restrictions include those on “marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement.” Almost all Rohingyas live in abject poverty and pathetic conditions.
Over the years, a section of Rohingyas turned to insurgency and began attacking Myanmar security forces as well as Buddhists. This resulted in retaliation leading to more miseries for the members of the ethnic group.
The latest trigger for the massive migration was a coordinated attack by the underground Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on police stations and an attempt to raid an army base on August 25 last. The organisation claimed responsibility for the attacks and that resulted in an aggressive retaliation from security forces culminating in the migration of over 3,00,000 refugees and counting.
Though India has also received about 40,000 such refugees, its policy towards them has remained ambivalent. The most shocking aspect was the virtual silence by prime minister Narendra Modi during his recent visit to Myanmar at the peak of migration. Everyone, including Bangladesh and the international community, was expecting India to take up the issue with the Myanmar government but it didn’t reflect in the joint statement after the visit.
India also came in for criticism for planning to deport the 40,000 migrants it has received. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, while calling the situation in Myanmar as “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, deplored a statement by Union minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju. Speaking at the UN Human Rights Council’s 36th session in Geneva, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said India cannot carry out “collective expulsions” and return people to a place where they face prosecution. He also said that “the Myanmar government should stop pretending that the Rohingya are setting fire to their own homes and laying waste to their own villages”.
Rijiju had in a statement said that because India was not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, it was not bound to the international law on the issue. He evidently forgot that India had been in the forefront to provide shelter to refugees be these were from Bangladesh or Tibet.
Ironically the atrocities being inflicted against the ethnic community are being done under the watch of Noble Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, considered to be holding reins of power. She defied Myanmar’s dictators and endured a total of 15 years of house arrest which had won her the Nobel prize and much admiration the world over.
The crisis, which some call genocide against the Rohingyas, has also attracted worldwide attention. Germany has halted several aid projects in Myanmar while Muslim countries like Iran has deplored the atrocities being committed against Rohingyas. There have been protests in various parts of the India too. Besides a lot of resentment had been brewing in Bangladesh against India which wants to take a strong stand.
The Ministry of External Affairs was finally forced to come out with a statement which said India is “deeply concerned” about what is happening in Rakhine state in Myanmar and urged that the situation should be handled with “restraint and maturity” focusing on the welfare of the civilian population alongside those of the security forces.
The statement said that Prime Minister Modi, during his recent visit to Myanmar had expressed concern at the causalities of security forces as well as other innocent lives. “….it is imperative that violence is ended and normalcy in the state restored expeditiously,” MEA statement said.
According to the statement, the PM had urged a solution based on respect for peace, communal harmony, justice, dignity and democratic values. It was agreed during the PM’s visit that India would provide assistance under the Rakhine State Development Programme in conjunction with the government of Myanmar, the statement said.
What may have finally forced the hand of government to take a stand was the adverse reaction building up in Bangladesh which is bearing the brunt of the migrants. Incidentally Bangladesh is one of the few countries in the neighbourhood with which India is having excellent relations. It needs to strengthen the relations all the more in view of threats by Chinese close to the area.