As international pressure mounts on Myanmar over the continuing ethnic violence directed against its Rohingya Muslim minority, India has found it necessary to take greater notice of what has turned into a major destabilising development in the region.
Foreign Ministry sources in Delhi agree that Bangladesh made no secret of its disappointment with India’s apparently non-committal stand on the Rohingya issue as outlined in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement after his Myanmar visit.
Bangladesh High Commissioner Syed Muazzem Ali had met Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishanker to make it clear that Dhaka wanted India to play a more positive and assertive role in the growing crisis.
Ali stressed that Dhaka was facing a critical situation with over 400,000 refugees already seeking refuge in Bangladesh, with more waiting to cross the border.
While there were platforms in South Asia such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), there was no reason why a single country was being made to suffer the negative consequences of developments occurring within its neighbour’s territory.
Sources in Delhi and Kolkata acknowledged that diplomatically, India found the situation delicate. It had fostered warm relations with both countries and it was not the done thing “to take sides” in sensitive disputes.
However, the extent of the Rohingya exodus and the enormity of the humanitarian challenge facing Bangladesh, together with certain other disturbing side issues, forced India to take a more decisive stand and step up its involvement in the situation.
For the first time, there were reports from Bangladesh that Myanmar troops had targeted Hindus during its anti-Muslim crackdown; their arrivals at Cox’s Bazar camps was confirmed by leaders of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian United Council of Minorities.
In Kolkata, Shantanu Sinha, who heads the State Bharatiya Janata Party’s legal cell and was visiting Bangladesh, said senior ministers and officials in Delhi were worried. They feared that unless a clear message was conveyed to Myanmar, an exodus of people of other communities may also begin.
Sinha added that BJP leaders had already taken up the issue with Myanmar “at the highest level,” urging upon Naypyitaw to take steps to defuse the situation “as early as possible.”
Furthermore, Bangladesh has alleged the violation of its airspace by Myanmar helicopters on Aug 27-28 and even later, while attacks on Muslim-inhabited villages had been reported from Mangdu across the border, too. Naturally, this caused a general concern among all BIMSTEC members.
Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj explained to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in a telephone call that PM Modi had pointedly asked Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi during his visit to ensure that the displaced Rohingya were taken back – although this part had not been mentioned in the joint statement because the timing was not right.
Suu Kyi, under additional pressure as the 1991 Nobel peace prize winner, is known to have reiterated her limitations – she had hardly any time during the last 18 months to address herself to the thorny Rohingya problem. With the army not under her control, she found it difficult to galvanise the administrative machinery into action at ground level.
Swaraj also pointed out that Modi had mentioned the need for Myanmar to take all stakeholders into confidence while preserving its territorial integrity and ensuring its own economic development. Delhi had also announced that it would deport 40,000 illegal Rohingya refugees.
Bangladesh and India were on the same page on this. There were fears among security analysts in India that militants among the Rohingya may set up links with Naxalites and insurgent groups.
Delhi-based analysts concede that Swaraj’s conciliatory message and India’s immediate decision to step up relief supplies to the Rohingya in Bangladeshi camps amounted to a “course correction,” under diplomatic prodding from Bangladesh. Delhi had urged Myanmar to control the flow of refugees immediately and stop all violence in Rakhine state.
However, the ruling NDA government in Delhi also agreed that Myanmar had every right to move against Rohingya militants who were instigating attacks on police outposts and troops. This should not worry Bangladesh, which had its own homegrown terrorists who sympathise with the Rohingya militants.
India started with an initial dispatch of 53 tons of relief items including rice, salt milk, sugar, mosquito nets and other items to Bangladesh. It plans to send at least 7,000 tons of materials. Khalsa-aid, a Sikh organisation, has also sent supplies for 50,000 refugees, but now plans to send more, seeing the size of the influx.
The UNHCR too has promised major relief supply shipments, but this will need some organising, say sources.