“The Rohingya refugee crisis is not mere a social problem but a socio-economic problem, and the fire can become wild in the future,” according to Col R Hariharan (retd), ex-Military Intelligence, Indian Army.
Initiating an interaction on “Rohingyas: Issues and dilemmas of nations” at the Chennai Chapter of Observer Research Foundation on October 14, he covered a wide range of attendant concerns from different perspectives, including the strategic aspects relating to the Government and humanitarian problems that are also for real.
Exxplaining the gravity of the problem, he said if the 40,000 Rohingyas now in the country are kept in one camp or many in the North-East, it could end up changing the local demography and can also become a threat to the nation’s sovereignty. Conversely, if they were given Indian citizenship, it could trigger an influx of Rohingyas living in the Myanmar and Bangladesh, again causing same or similar issues and dilemmas – including those between nations and governments. There are wheels- within-wheels and the decision of drawing the line is finer and thinner, he said.
Conflicts and crises
Col Hariharan pointed to the strategic importance of Myanmar, and has a lot of problems with the location itself as it opens itself into the Indian Ocean directly. It is of great importance for India’s ‘Act East’ policy and also China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. On the top of this, there are insurgent sanctuaries inside Myanmar, impacting on India’s internal security, and the arms, drugs and people trafficking thus becomes a bigger and immediate issue.
Myanmar’s multi-ethnic demography impacts the entire neighbourhood, Col Hariharan said. Rakhine State in the west of the country, which accounts for five per cent of Myanmar’s population, has a 52:48 Buddhist-Muslim as against the national spread of 88 per cent and 4.5 per cent, respectively. While the local Rakhine-Muslims, recognised by the Government, are called Kamein, the Rohingyas are also from the same state, but are considered of non-ethnic, non-Myanmarese origin, and have been rendered ‘state-less’. Then there are also the Panthay and Pashu Muslims, with origins in China and Malaysia, respectively.
Exploring the environment of Rakhine, Col Hariharan said that the state’s high Muslim population, unlike in other parts of the country, became the target for Buddhist fringe politics. For long, rule-of-law did not have a place in Rakhine, owing to Myanmar’s coercive response to insurgency conflicts. The Rohingya insurgency was kindled due to insecurity and ethno-resource crunch and backwardness in that area.
Over the past years and decades, the nation’s armed forces, Tatmadaw, responded brutally, and destroyed Rohingya villages. It forced the people to move to collective camps, and ‘encouraging’ these people to flee to Bangladesh and later to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and India, resulting in an ‘international crisis’ now. In turn, this has also encouraged Islamic jihadi groups to penetrate the desperate refugee population in the name of religion.
The jihadi terror-links of Rohingya insurgents has its roots in HUJI-A, which was initiated by Abdus Qadoos, a Pakistani national of Rohingya origin, with close links to Hafis Saeed, founder of the terror-group, Lashkar-e-Toiba. Qadoos founded the Aqa Mul Mujahideen (AMM) and also has links with the ‘Pakistan Taliban’. The 500-strong Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), led by Fata Ullahs, another Pakistan-born Rohingya supported by Rohingya expatriates in Saudi Arabia, is believed to be an offshoot of HUJI-A, and also has links with HUJI-B JMB terror groups of Bangladesh.
Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is at present the Foreign Minister and all-important State Counsellor, is handicapped by the Constitution, which has barred her from becoming President, as she has a foreigner-spouse. The Constitution has also conferred ‘controlling powers’ on the military, both in the Government and in Parliament.
This apart, fearing majority Buddhist backlash, the Suu Kyi leadership’s response to global concerns on the Rohingya crisis are conditioned by leveraging international power-play and hostile attitude to jihadi terrorism with the inherent limitations of international collective action. In a way, Suu Kyi is seen as proving that she is as much concerned as any other elected leader in any country, to having the majority on her side, Col Hariharan said.
In this background, a UN advisory committee, headed by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, has called for improving health, education and infrastructure in the Rakhine State, and to ensure local participation in these development projects. To create a path for conferring citizenship on the Rohingyas, the committee recommended the acceleration of citizenship verification process and also a review and upgrade of citizenship laws to international standards.
Pending progress on these fronts, the UN panel called for improving the conditions of the camps for the internally-displaced persons (IDPs). The committee also wanted freedom of movement for all, without discrimination, inside Myanmar. Despite such a visionary approach, nothing much has flowed from the recommendations of the UN committee, Col Hariharan pointed out.
As a refugee-recipient State, India is caught between the horns of a dilemma, of ‘real politics vs humanitarian considerations’, with both internal and external aspects. The strong reason to push back the 40,000 illegal Rohingya migrants in the country owes to the serious security implications as the militants among them are not only linked to Pakistan’s ISI, Islamic State and other extremist groups but are also procuring fake IDs and documents to indulge in hawala transactions and human- trafficking.
More importantly, the Rohingya militant spill-over may destabilise the fragile North-East political eco-system, with possibility of violence involving local Buddhist population in some of the States. There is no refugee law in the country and decisions are being made on an ad hoc basis. However, the Centre has promised assistances to neighbouring Bangladesh for taking care of the half a million Rohingya refugees who have fled to that nation from across the Myanmar border. Apart from funds and food for refugee relief works, India is also sharing intelligence with both Bangladesh and Myanmar on terrorists in the group.
Bangladesh being a small and densely-populated country, the demographic pressure of multiple kinds and the cost of maintaining an ever-increasing flow of refugees and accompanying fear of terrorism and insurgency, involving HUJI-B and JMB, have all forced Dhaka to call for international aid, and also assistance from nations such as India and the US, apart from the UN. Local backlash against the Rohingyas in existing refugee camps and the tribal backlash in the Chittagong Hill Tracks (CHT) area have all forced the Government to set a huge camp for all refugees.
Through coordination with India, Myanmar and UN agencies, Bangladesh has been able to manage the situation, with a hope of facilitating their early return to Myanmar. Col Hariharan concluded that the way nations perceive this issue, and the way they should perceive the issue alone will help bring about a solution. A ‘refugee’ in the western eyes and in the eyes of developing nations, for instance, is not the same. Likewise, ‘Statelessness’ has to be well defined before seeking to destroy it, he added.
This report was prepared by S Sivanesan, Associate, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai