By Bawa Singh
Given its rich mineral resources, historical and civilizational ties and strategic location, sharing maritime and land borders, Myanmar holds a pivotal position in India’s Act East Policy. However, Rohingya refugees (from Myanmar) have become a serious security concern not only for Myanmar, India and Bangladesh but for the entire region.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is making a bilateral visit to Myanmar on September 6 and 7, 2017. The Rohingya refugee issue is likely to be taken up during his discussions to resolve this shadow over bilateral and regional security.
Rohingya refugees have serious security implications for Southeast as well as South Asia given their vulnerabilities, allowing many to be picked up by terrorist groups. According to the Human Rights Watch Report 2017, the ethnic cleansing campaign in Myanmar has been on since June 2012. It has become the most serious and widespread form of violence against the Rohingyas. Operations carried out by government security forces against Rohingyas led to grave breaches of human rights, including mass killings, third-degree torture, ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests, rapes, other sexual violence and arson. Also, these people have been facing restrictions like freedom of movement, marriage, education, and employment. Some Rohingya villages have been set on fire, resulting in the destruction of 430 buildings in three villages of Maungdaw district. Given their critical food insecurity and malnutrition, the Rohingyas have been suffering from many diseases as the government does not allow humanitarian agencies to provide them necessities like food and medicines. Since the violence began in 2012, approximately 120,000 Rohingyas have been displaced in the various Rakhine state camps and to neighbouring countries.
After years of human rights violations against the Rohingyas, a militant group appeared under the banner of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in October 2016 in the remote May Yu mountain range bordering Bangladesh. On 25 August 2017, Rohingya militants attacked the border police, resulting in the deaths of 71 people, including 12 security personnel, in Rakhine state. Rohingyas have accused the security forces of shooting ‘indiscriminately’ and not sparing “even babies”.
Myanmar was included as a full member of ASEAN in 1997. Despite being a full member, the junta leadership of Myanmar did not attend ASEAN meetings or summits. After a gap of one decade, for the first time in 20106, it hosted the ASEAN Summit.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) established the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights in 2009, to focus on promoting human rights among the member countries. The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) was drafted and adopted unanimously during the ASEAN Summit (Phnom Penh) in November 2012. The AHRD has 40 articles covering six categories, like general principles under articles 1-9; civil and political rights articles 10-25; economic, social and cultural rights articles 26-34; the right to development articles 34-37; a right to peace article 38 and cooperation in the promotion and protection of human rights 39-40. Myanmar is a signatory to the AHRD. It has committed to and reaffirmed cooperation for protection and promotion of human rights. Can one see the Rohingya human rights in the light of AHRD 2012?
India launched the ‘Look East Policy’ in the 1990s to enhance multilateral engagements with the Southeast Asia. The policy has been consistently pursued by the successive governments and has paid rich dividends.
To attend the 14th India-ASEAN Summit, Modi paid a visit to Myanmar in 2014, soon after assuming charge of the new government. During the visit, he gave more focus to the Indo-Pacific region by enhancing and covering more areas of regional and multilateral engagements. The policy has been renamed the ‘Act East Policy,’ (AEP) raising its space and scope.
The main focus of ”Act East Policy” is to promote three Cs, through the bilateral, regional and multilateral engagements covering commerce, connectivity, and culture with countries in the Asia-Pacific region. The northeast of India has been given priority in the AEP. This policy has been paying rich dividends, raising the quantum of trade with ASEAN in 2016 to USD70 billion.
India became a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1996. Strategic cooperation covering joint military drills, meeting of defence ministers, exchange of defence officers visits, training, etc. have been taking place. Terrorism and radicalization has been haunting the region and is a major challenge for regional security.
To seek the strategic cooperation of ASEAN countries to check the menace of terrorism and radicalization, India is planning to co-host a counter-radicalization conference, in October 2017.
Connectivity is one of the important objectives of the AEP. The AEP links the Northeast India to the ASEAN region and Myanmar in particular. Some major connectivity projects involving Myanmar are the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project and the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project, and Rhi-Tiddim Road Project.
Myanmar is a link between India and ASEAN. India’s cordial relations with Myanmar are an essential pre-condition for the success of AEP. Though both countries share good relations and close geo-strategic ties, the problem of the Rohingyas may turn into a bilateral irritant. Therefore, the Rohingya refugee case may be taken as a humanitarian crisis and efforts should be made by both sides to find a solution. Modi’s visit provides a platform to resolve the issue.
Given the atrocities, restrictions, human rights violations heaped upon them, Rohingya refugees had fled to different countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines, Bangladesh, and India. Initially, the ASEAN countries refused to take these people. However, after floating at sea for many days, the ASEAN countries allowed them to land on their lands.
According to reports, about 40,000 Rohingyas are residing in India. India’s home ministry officials have met to discuss the identification, arrest, and deportation of “illegal” Rohingyas, under the Foreigners Act. The government’s decision to send back the world’s most persecuted community to Myanmar has been highly criticised by Indian human rights agencies.
Both countries share a long and porous border. Hence, security is their main concern. During Modi’s visit, he is expected to discuss the terrorism issue with his Myanmar interlocutors.
Though the Rohingya issue is an internal matter of Myanmar and has serious regional security implications, it needs to be looked at from the humanitarian perspective as well. Although India is not a signatory to the AHRD, but having engaged with the ASEAN at various levels through the AEP, Modi may remind Myanmar its commitment to AHRD and urge the leadership to find a reasonable resolution of the issue.
(The author is Assistant Professor at Central University of Punjab. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)