News reports coming in from Myanmar indicate a steadily worsening crisis, as an estimated 270,000 Rohingyas fled a crackdown by Myanmar security forces in the Rakhine state, that borders Bangladesh. The images tell of a human tragedy on an epic scale confounded by weather, sheer poverty, and the desperation of men, women and children with nowhere to go. This is a problem that has been festering for decades, particularly after the military government's Citizenship Act of 1982 that left out the Rohingyas altogether as its citizens.
Buddhist-Muslim tensions, however, date back to pre-independence days, when the former backed the incoming Japanese Army, and the latter remained loyal to the British. Later, an attempt at creating an independent Muslim state was defeated by the then Burmese State forces, leading to the first flood of refugees into neighbouring states.
Refugee movement into Bangladesh began with a few hundred, and increased sharply after 2012 to reach more than 27,000 in 2016. This movement is facilitated by the fact that refugees can easily cross the river Naf, and into Teknaf town, thereafter, more often than not, spilling over into India. The India route is operated through lucrative human smuggling cartels that send desperate refugees into dubious trades, including prostitution. For most, India is seen as a land of milk and honey, and there are many who finally manage to make a modest living. Within India such refugees usually spread outwards where ever cheap labour is required. Thus concentrations are in Delhi, Jammu, Nuh in Haryana, Jaipur and other areas. Less than a quarter are 'recognised' as refugees by the UNHCR ( United Nations High Commission for Refugees ) who at any rate is only able to offer a pittance.
The issue has raised four important issues for India's consideration.
First, the initial stirrings of jihadi group activity is more than apparent in violence hit areas of Myanmar. The Harqah al Yaqin (HaY) also know as the ARSA ( Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) appears to be commanded by Rohingya migrants in Saudi Arabia, and 'officered' very capably by locals and refugees from Bangladesh. Its leader, according to the International Crisis Group, is a Rohingya born in Karachi where there has long been a large Burmese refugee population, and educated in Saudi Arabia. Its first acts of violence were in late 2016.
Thereafter, it has been able to execute some serious attacks, the most recent being coordinated attacks on police posts and an attempted attack on an army base in August 2017. This led to heavy reprisals by Myanmar Armed Forces, leading to the present mass exodus. ARSA has now called for a ceasefire and is said to be assisting the fleeing refugees in camps in Bangladesh. ARSA clearly has a large support base, unlike its earlier incarnations like the Rohingya Solidarity Front and others like it who rose in the mid 1980's. This support could be attributed to the rising levels of insecurity among Rohingyas, as well as the fact that ARSA has strong support from local maulvis, in particular a Mufti from Maungdaw, the core centre of the rebellion.
It is also far better organised than its predecessors, with its own Twitter handle and effective communication strategies. For India, the problem is that ARSA has a definite Pakistani link, with some reports noting that the group may have been trained there, or even in Afghanistan. Second, there have been reports of the entry of Lashkar e Tayyba /Jamaat ud Dawa cadres into Myanmar since the last several years.
Third, the Falah-e-Insaniyat, the so-called charitable arm of the core jihadi group has been claiming relief activities for fleeing Rohingyas. It's leaders have been active in refugee camps in Indonesia in Langsaah and Louk Samawa. Fourth, Hafeez Saeed, the undisputed terrorist prima donna in Pakistan, has been actively involved in supporting the Rohingya cause with workshops and related activities among refugees in Karachi in particular. This connection is enough to cause India to pause, even though the ARSA itself has shown on extremist religious tendencies at all.
The second issue for India, arises from the first. The movement of Rohingyas across the subcontinent underlines that the community is well-networked throughout the region. This raises serious fears about ingress of terrorists in the guise of refugees. This trend is already apparent in Europe where Islamic State terrorists hid among refugees fleeing to the Greek Island of Leros, to enter the continent, and launch attacks in Paris that killed more than a hundred and thirty.
In Germany, at least three attacks in July last year were committed by refugees. This has led to a worldwide suspicion on refugees, even though the actual numbers are extremely low, relative to the numbers of refugees moving out of conflict zones. For India, however, there is an added caution.
Fear of radicalisation by an extremist group is certainly a problem, particularly after the call of support to Rohingyas by Zakir Musa, who is said to lead the Al Qaeda faction Ansar Ghazwat ul Hind in Kashmir. The greater threat, however, is the use of the Rohingya population by Pakistan's state intelligence, the Inter Services Intelligence, which has a four decade experience in sponsoring terror. With Rohingyas well-established across India and in the national capital, the fear that these could host well trained terrorists is not without foundation, particularly at this juncture.
The third issue for India is the stability of Bangladesh.
Coping with nearly a quarter of a million refugees is a difficult task for even the most advanced economies. For Bangladesh, the human catastrophe is a nightmare. Yet the country has courageously stepped up to deal with the unprecedented crisis. Medicines, water and food are in short supply, and the UNHCR has sent out an appeal for help. The issue has already become a cause for internal politicking, with the opposition BNP ( Bangladesh Nationalist Party) accusing the government of fudging the figures.
Bangladesh has unsurprisingly backed the call for a Commission of Enquiry by Yanghee Lee, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, on the same lines as those set up for Syria among others. As Dhaka struggles with a growing crisis, aid on the ground has been provided by Malaysia and Denmark. India could have very well sent a planeload of relief goods as a humanitarian gesture, that would have done well for its overall South East Asian policy. While India did step up with aid after the severe cyclone attack in May, a helping hand at this juncture is vital in terms of its public diplomacy efforts.
The fourth issue is overall relations with Myanmar at a time when it is being wooed by China and Russia. India has not backed the call for a Commission of Enquiry, reasonably noting that the present Myanmar government has hardly had a year in office, and needs time to work through a problem that is more than four decades old. During the recent prime ministerial visit, the joint statement while calling for peace and communal harmony, expressed concern at both civilian and security forces casualties, indicating a very even-handed response. An earlier press briefing hardly mentioned the crisis.
China, on the other hand, has condemned the terrorist attacks, and has not hesitated to offer mediation between Myanmar and Bangladesh. China and Russia had earlier blocked a UN Security Council statement expressing concern at the humanitarian crisis. Recent statements by Myanmar's officials indicate that they would be again seeking support from these countries, as well as Turkey. With India still grappling with north east insurgent camps based in Myanmar, the room for maneuver seems limited.
A country with great power aspirations cannot, however, conduct its diplomacy fearful of interference by neighbours on myriad issues. Fear of China increasing its influence on North East insurgents, or Pakistan getting its claws on Rohingya's in India are not reason enough to hamstring Indian options, particularly when it comes to doing what we are best at , taking the high moral ground of providing sustenance to the poor and needy.
A hefty dose of humanitarian assistance will provide the underbelly for strengthening the much talked about 'soft power' of the Indian state. Just being soft will however hardly draw results. In the longer term, it is useful to remember that the Rakhine State was once a hub of commercial trade with natural links to the subcontinent. At a time of a search for connectivity across the continent, this should be a thrust for both stabilisation efforts and commercial outreach by Indian institutions and Ministries alike.