The forced migration of refugees in different parts of the world has become a major international issue of our time. Dramatic scenes of vulnerable would-be migrants making a bid to slip across land and, especially, maritime borders have frequently been captured for television screens everywhere, and have disturbed the conscience of viewers.
The plight of the refugees was most vividly seen last year in the Mediterranean, where boatloads of ill-provided people in fragile vessels kept making the attempt to escape to a better life. Unhappily, there were many accidents, for the crossing can be treacherous, and seeing the hardship and loss endured by the travellers eventually stirred European countries into action: Germany took the lead in providing humane assistance and keeping open its gates rather than barring them against those clamouring to get in. This had a profound effect, not in Europe alone but everywhere, in places where the refugee traffic was on the increase.
The cause of the refugees thereby became an important item on the international agenda, with the UN, which is endowed with a separate agency for this issue, in the thick of it. It is in this changed international context that the Rohingya refugee issue now needs to be seen. The people affected live in a narrow strip of land at the margins of Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The numbers are relatively modest ~ at a time when millions are being displaced by war and other calamities and are forced to wander in exile, the displaced Rohingyas could perhaps be numbered in the thousands, though numbers are yet to be properly computed and in some accounts are believed to be in the range of a million.
As the flow of the dispossessed increases, the international focus has become sharper, and in some eyes the Rohingyas are the most oppressed among the cross-national refugees: having been driven into exile they have nowhere to go; Myanmar displaced them, Bangladesh will not acknowledge them, there are no camps to receive them, they cannot return from where they fled, and are victims of ethnic as well as religious persecution.
The underlying reasons for the developments that have devastated the Rohingyas are intractable ones of race and religion. Their Rakhine province is a border area between ethnicities and faiths, with Burmese Buddhists, who think of it as their domain, now finding themselves in uncomfortable proximity with Muslims who they consider culturally closer to Bangladesh.
Over the generations there has been considerable movement of diverse peoples to and fro across the land, though the Rohingya issue seems to be a more recent phenomenon. Unhappily for this group, nobody seems ready to make room for them or give them any sort of support and succour, so some of them have tried to take matters in their own hands and have started an insurgency to press their demands. One group of activists has attacked police posts and other government buildings in a mistaken effort to force their demands on the authorities.
More dangerously, they have tried to establish links with insurgent Islamic groups elsewhere, which has not at all served their cause, for being associated with identified terrorists elsewhere invites collective action against largely innocent refugee groups seeking a better deal for themselves. Within Myanmar, the Rohingya issue has become an important political challenge for the great human rights campaigner, Aung San Suu Kyi.
She is the outstanding personality of her country, with the aura conferred by years of holding firm despite being incarcerated by a tough military regime, and is admired and respected for her fortitude and devotion to principle in public life. She has emerged as the most significant of her country’s leaders, but may yet not have an entirely free hand, for the army remains formidable. Given her record as a fearless campaigner, her many admirers had hoped that she would lead her country to a humane and constructive solution of the Rohingya issue.
Until now, however, little has been heard from her about the human rights issue in Myanmar, and when she has spoken it is more on the subject of the terrorism of militant groups, with not much said about other aspects of the situation. This has disappointed her supporters who continue to see her as a beacon of noble endeavour in a dark world. India is not far away but has not hitherto been much drawn into the Rohingya issue.
When the ‘boat people’ set out from Rakhine, hapless refugees hoping to find somewhere to live, some of their packed and laden boats drifted to India’s Andaman Islands. There, according to some accounts, and to the credit of the local authorities in charge, they were not chased away but given shelter and help in meeting their minimum needs, though longer-term provision was not within local purview. Apart from the ‘boat people’, some refugees, taking advantage of the numerous holes in the administrative apparatus, have been able to find their way to the Andamans from West Bengal, where they have made some sort of a living. This movement has not amounted to anything much but is part of the larger picture. Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Myanmar came at the conclusion of his regional visits after the BRICS Summit.
Relations between the two countries have always been equable and cooperative, and Modi was a welcome visitor. But India’s studied refusal to show sympathy with the Rohingyas, either during the Modi visit or when a parliamentary delegation went there shortly thereafter, was not well received at home or abroad. In the present climate of opinion, the Rohingyas merit more careful consideration than to be assessed mainly in terms of their extremist links. Quite unusually for the government, it found it necessary after the earlier more critical observations on the subject, to issue a clarification putting a gloss on its earlier remarks, and has since adopted a more balanced position.
The Rohingya problem remains, however, and India may continue to be tangled in it. International concern is growing, with Australia now among the most active supporters of their cause, and for India to stand aside can hurt its own standing and reputation. India may not be ready to join the many others in the region who try to make demands on Myanmar but it can make an effort to work with that country to promote a more humane response to what has become a difficult humanitarian issue.
For reasons of their own, Myanmar’s leaders have shown little flexibility in responding to the matter. But they may consent to be drawn into a wider regional dialogue that could be a step towards easing the present tensions and advancing towards an acceptable solution.
(The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary)