Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to Myanmar last week glittered with omissions. Take the joint statement put out by Modi and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on September 6. After pleasantries on mutual development and “sab ka saath, sab ka vikaas”, Suu Kyi pledged not to let terror “take roots in our country, on our soil or in neighbouring countries”. Modi expressed concern about “extremist violence in Rakhine state and the violence against security forces”.
Was the Indian prime minister thinking of the hundreds of Rohingya Muslims who have been massacred as he made a passing mention of the “innocent lives” affected? The actual name of the minority group was never uttered in public as he flitted from temple to museum to presidential palace during one of the worst purges launched by the Myanmar army. The army’s rationale: weeding out the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a militant group that recently attacked police posts in Rakhine state.
India’s silence on the civilian killings in systematic state violence is even more pronounced at a time when the international community is finally waking up to the tragedy. On September 7, a bipartisan group of US senators introduced a resolution in Washington condemning the violence against Rohingyas and asking Suu Kyi to speak up. On the same day, the World Parliamentary Forum on Sustainable Development adopted the Bali Declaration, urging “self-restraint”, respect for human rights and humanitarian assistance.
India, which is preparing to deport thousands of Rohingya refugees, refused to sign the global declaration. On September 9, the ministry of external affairs put out a statement expressing concern about the situation in Rakhine, and revealed that Modi had urged for a solution based on “respect for peace, communal harmony, justice, dignity and democratic values”. But the word “Rohingya” was missing, as were words of condemnation on Myanmar’s policies.
But then, Modi may not have strayed from Indian foreign policy habits that have endured for decades now. On Myanmar, it has chosen a strategic pragmatism that aligns with the alleged demands of national interest. As a pragmatic India has grown increasingly focused on national security, terror has become its mainstay in most international conversations.
If India does not stand by Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingyas now, it did not distinguish itself with support to Suu Kyi when she was imprisoned by the military junta during her fight to bring democracy back to her country. Not, at least, since the late 1980s.
Post Independence, Nehru and his Burmese counterpart, U Nu, had closed ties, with shared ideals of democracy and positions on international issues such as Indonesian freedom from the Dutch and the Korean war. Then Burma became Myanmar, falling under military rule in 1962 and expelling a large number of Indians from its territory. Relations would be strained or distant for the next couple of decades, apparently because of India’s “commitment to democracy”. In 1988, the Rajiv Gandhi government even gave moral support to Suu Kyi’s “pro-democracy” movement and gave refuge to those fleeing military oppression.
After 1990, India began to move away from the Nehruvian notion of a principled foreign policy towards a pragmatic policy based on national and strategic interests. This meant it did business with some of the world’s most controversial leaderships, including the military junta. With the advent of the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre in the late 1990s, the rationale of “realpolitik” was pushed further and the Congress governments that succeeded it saw no reason to return to idealism.
Myanmar, which shares a 1,640 kilometres border along India’s troubled North East, is of strategic and material interest for three reasons. First, as militancies spread in the states of the North East, so did training camps across the border in Myanmar. The interests of national security, it was felt under this new foreign policy regime, meant that India had to warm up to Myanmar’s generals and gain room for manoeuvre.
Second, as Myanmar retreated further into isolation under the junta, China began to wield considerable influence in the country, leading to Indian fears about “encirclement” by territories friendly to the Chinese. Modi, visiting Myanmar after a trip to China and weeks of military tensions at Doklam, would have had Beijing very much on his mind.
Finally, India embarked on its “Look East” policy in 1991, eyeing markets and interests farther east. Myanmar became a gateway to the Far East and the focal point of several infrastructure, trade and energy projects. India has financed and constructed a deep sea port in Sittwe in Myanmar’s Rakhine province, which would connect landlocked Mizoram to the Bay of Bengal. Reportedly, Delhi also plans a special economic zone 60 kilometres upstream from Sittwe.
A report on India’s Myanmar policy, published in 2007, wonders if wholehearted support to the military junta was wise; if democracy were ever restored to that country, Delhi might find itself on the wrong side. It seems these fears were unfounded. Some form of democracy did come to Myanmar in 2011 and Suu Kyi, the country’s great hope, swept elections in 2015. But it was a half victory, with the military retaining significant powers. Suu Kyi in power is happy to play along with the junta she fought for decades.
The terror principle
As the policy of idealism was upturned in India, “security concerns” were prioritised over a moral commitment to human rights. India has raised terror threats at every international forum in the recent past, from the United Nations to the BRICS summit in China, as well as in bilateral talks with neighbours. The perceived threat of terror has now become a convenient rationale to expel Rohingya refugees.
With no legal obligations under global treaties, there is very little to keep India from deporting its refugees, apart from the principle of non-refoulement, recognised by international customary law. This principle states that refugees seeking asylum cannot be sent back to countries where their life and liberty may be threatened. As a petition against the Rohingya deportation goes to the Supreme Court, it has been argued that national security will trump abstract principles of non-refoulement.
Apart from punishing thousands of men, women and children who have no links with armed groups, India’s current approach is shortsighted. As Modi and Suu Kyi agreed on the perils of “extremism” emanating from Rakhine state, they were, no doubt, speaking of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and scattered intelligence reports that the community had become recruiting grounds for groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
But they failed to recognise the roots of such violence in a far greater violence: the systematic elimination of a minority by a state possessed by a brand of religious nationalism. For decades, Rohingyas have been a stateless people, targeted by pogroms in 1978, stripped of their citizenship rights and branded as illegal settlers from Bangladesh in 1982.
Within Rakhine state, communal tensions between local Buddhists and Rohingyas led to lethal riots in 2012. Reports indicate that Rakhine Buddhists were aided by state forces even then, though both sides suffered. Today, Rakhine State is out of bounds for journalists as the Myanmar army carries out raids classed under the chilling term, “area clearance operations”.
The Rohingya army and its previous iterations took birth in this context of persecution, no matter what its ideological leanings and who its benefactors may be now. Pushing Rohingyas to the edge, in both India and Myanmar, could only deepen the problem.
Arguably the best way to contain such violence is to strike at the roots of it, in Myanmar’s own policies. The language of idealism, urging respect for human rights, unequivocally condemning the state violence, would be more suited to this than the pragmatic calculations of national security.