Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first official visit to Myanmar close on the heels of his participation in the BRICS summit in China is aimed at discussing trade issues but also to counter-balance growing Chinese influence over Myanmar as borne out by the Chinese help in developing the Kyaukhphu port and gas pipeline running through Myanmar to Kunming. Additionally, on the agenda is the Rohingya issue wherein refugees from this Muslim minority in Myanmar are fleeing to neighbouring countries like India and Bangladesh.
While Modi was coming to grips with the problem of the Rohingyas, India’s minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju said in New Delhi that the process of identifying Rohingyas in India with the purpose of deporting them back to Myanmar had started because they are illegal immigrants. Rijiju had earlier said in Parliament on August 9 that 40,000 Rohingyas were to be deported.
Nearly 125,000 refugees belonging to the Rohingyas have fled Myanmar for neighbouring Bangladesh over a period of 10 days and have relayed testimony of indiscriminate executions, gunfire from helicopters and a scorched-earth campaign against them in Myanmar.
The most recent spate of violence in Myanmar’s southwestern Rakhine state broke out on August 25, when Rohingya militants attacked local security forces, killing at least 12. The attack mirrored a similar one in October that killed nine border police personnel and spurred almost 90,000 Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh, which has been a refuge for the group for decades, though increasingly reluctantly. The Myanmar military has acknowledged killing at least 370 Rohingyas in what it calls ‘clearance operations.’
The government maintains that all those killed belonged to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militant group that has been building up its ranks since last year’s violence.
It is unclear how much local and international support ARSA has, but videos of its training camps show only small numbers of shabbily dressed and ill-equipped fighters. Myanmarese officials, including Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi, argue that the Rohingya are migrants from Bangladesh who should not be considered Myanmarese citizens despite historical evidence of their presence in Myanmar.
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay seemed to imply recently that he viewed all Rohingya men as militants. The Muslim countries in South-East Asia are, on the other hand, rallying around the Rohingyas but are wary of admitting them as refugee immigrants.
It is indeed debatable whether it is right for India to deport the Rohingyas. It is well on the cards that these people would be butchered if they are forced to return. Should India not implore the Myanmar government to treat them with compassion and while not deporting the ones who have already come, put a bar on them to come in as illegal refugees with the rider that they would be pushed back? Throwing them to the wolves without adequate warning to the refugees may be too cruel a way of dealing with them and would be contrary to India’s record of dealing with refugees fighting oppression.