Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to India this month spotlighted the shared histories between the two nations and the need for a stronger alliance between them. A new reform agenda and Suu Kyi’s election to parliament offers New Delhi a chance to recalibrate its Burma policy to include greater focus on human rights, rule of law and democratic governance.
Burma is crucial to India’s stability in the Northeast. India’s decision to cooperate with Burma’s military regime, replacing its previous unequivocal support for Suu Kyi and her democracy movement, a choice that she said “saddened her,” was in a large part to ensure
that Northeast insurgent groups are denied a safe haven. The decision was also based on India’s need for energy resources and the competition with China for Burma’s oil and gas riches. It is thus in India’s interest to encourage and support Burma’s efforts to reconcile with its ethnic minorities and develop the border regions, currently some of the poorest in both countries. To this end, the plight of ethnic Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State in western Burma should worry Delhi.
Sectarian violence — in an area where Indian oil and gas firms have sizeable investments — has displaced more than one lakh people, mostly Rohingya. The violence between ethnic Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in June and again in October killed an unknown number and forced thousands of desperate Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh, which has sealed its borders. The Rohingya, effectively denied citizenship under Burma’s 1982 citizenship law, remain one of world’s most persecuted minorities.
Unfortunately, Suu Kyi has also failed to speak out on the abuses against the Rohingya. While in India, she reiterated her position that violence has been committed by both sides and she prefers not to “take sides.” But in reality, no one is asking her to take sides. Speaking out about the abuses and discrimination against the Rohingya, the killings, destruction of their property, of which there is hard evidence, is not taking sides. It is merely standing up for fundamental human rights. Sectarian violence has devastated both the Arakanese and Rohingya populations, but as Human Rights Watch and others have documented, it is the Rohingya who have been targeted by state security forces. The Rohingya are also in dire need of food, shelter and medical care after the government restricted humanitarian access to Arakan’s displaced Muslim communities.
Suu Kyi, during an interview to an Indian news channel, said that those entitled to citizenship should be given the “full rights of citizens.” At the same time, she called for an end to the illegal immigration of the Rohingya from Bangladesh. She has said nothing meaningful on Rohingya statelessness.
While the government and much of Burmese society rejects the claims of the Rohingya to Burmese citizenship, the fact remains that there have been Muslim inhabitants in western Burma for centuries. Suu Kyi also failed to put the current violence in context: Rohingya have faced decades of state-sponsored discrimination and abuses that encourages intolerance and violence from the general population.
Just before US President Barack Obama’s visit to Burma on November 19, the Burmese government announced measures toward more openness, including addressing the violence in Arakan. It said it will take decisive action to prevent violent attacks against civilians; hold accountable the perpetrators of such attacks; and work with the international community to meet the humanitarian needs of the people. Crucially, it promised to “address contentious political dimensions, ranging from resettlement of displaced populations to granting of citizenship.”
This is a welcome step toward improving human rights of everyone in Burma, and India should work to make sure that these promises of reform are implemented. India is in an enviable position, where it has good relations with the new government in Burma and strong emotional ties with Suu Kyi. It should use this wisely to push for a more democratic Burma where the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities can enjoy equal rights.
The writer is a Delhi-based South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.