Current News

    Plight of the Rohingyas a challenge to Suu Kyi

    by Salman Haidar

    THE
    UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Mr Guterres, on a
    recent visit to India, was lavish in his praise for India’s
    treatment of refugees. In this season of discontent, where so much
    has gone wrong and only disgruntlement about public policy is being
    voiced, his words are a rare acknowledgement of something good in
    Indian practice.
     India
    has long been a haven for the displaced and threatened from its
    neighbourhood, many of whom have been assimilated and become a
    virtually indistinguishable part of the larger society, while others
    have retained their distinctiveness and historic way of life, in
    either case able to live here without anxiety about the morrow.


    India’s borders are famously porous, and many of those who have
    come under some form of duress have simply slipped through and lost
    themselves in the vast sea of humanity. But others have come through
    deliberate decisions of the Indian authorities, notably the
    asylum-seekers from Tibet, among many others, who have prospered and
    thrived in India. It is a record that gives India the right to
    encourage others to be no 
    less sensitive
    to the plight of those displaced from their homes.


    Currently,
    the most visible refugee issue in South Asia relates to the Rohingyas
    of Myanmar. They belong to the Arakan coastal strip which is
    relatively distant and not easily accessed from Myanmar’s
    heartland. Unlike the bulk of their compatriots, the Rohingyas are
    Muslim in religion and have their own language. Myanmar is
    linguistically and ethnically very diverse but it has shied away from
    accepting the Rohingyas, with their distinct ethnicity and language,
    as people of its own. Officially, the area is known as Rakhine, as is
    its language, and there is a disputed history about its origins and
    its inhabitants. British colonial rule had something to do with it,
    for immigration into the Arakan was encouraged in the colonial
    period, to promote settlement in relatively empty lands from more
    densely populated areas further west. World War II added to the
    complexity, for Japan conquered the Arakan, and later the British, in
    a hard fought campaign eloquently described by army commander Field
    Marshal Slim,
    took it back.

    The
    fluctuations in centralized authority encouraged ideas of local
    autonomy, which were fiercely resisted. From the early days of
    independent Myanmar there has been considerable unrest in the area
    with periodic rioting and strong repression of the locals. Many have
    felt obliged to leave and search for other places to live, some in
    Bangladesh and others in distant parts of Myanmar. The uncertainty
    about their status has made it difficult to promote the sort of
    development activities that are to be seen elsewhere in the country,
    these too regarded as woefully inadequate, so the Rohingya areas have
    been left ever further behind, and ethnic and religious issues have
    only added to their plight.


    There
    has been an overspill of the trouble into the neighbours’ lands,
    including India. Substantial numbers of Rohingyas have crossed over
    into Bangladesh in search of security and a better life. From there,
    some have kept moving and found their way to India, where many
    Bangladeshis are already resident ~ this has long been an issue
    between New Delhi
    and Dhaka. So a trickle of Rohingyas has reached as far as India,
    there to fend for themselves as best they can. Only recently, the
    UNHCR office in New Delhi was besieged by a group of Rohingyas in a
    peaceful but determined demonstration that went on for several days
    and served to highlight the situation of this unfortunate group.

    There
    is another escape route to India for some of the Rohingyas, the
    direct sea route to the Andamans. This is a hazardous way of escape,
    for those who choose to take it must launch themselves onto the open
    seas in fragile, barely serviceable rafts, not all of which are
    capable of making the journey. The Indian coast guard finds drifting
    rafts and does what it can to rescue the unfortunate passengers,
    though there is no reckoning of those who might be lost in the
    passage. A certain number get through nevertheless and by now there
    is a small colony of them in the Andamans. As they have no recognized
    status and cannot be reckoned as refugees in present circumstances,
    the local administration can do little more than treat them as
    humanely as possible and wait for a solution to be found by the
    higher authorities.

    Apart
    from this relatively small but nevertheless poignant issue, there are
    other reasons why India finds itself drawn into Arakan affairs.
    Sittwe, the chief town and port, has a strategic value that gave it
    importance during World War II when it provided a back door to
    India’s North-east, which was the scene of action against the
    Japanese army, and river borne traffic from Sittwe into what is now
    Mizoram was developed in order to supply the military front. After
    hostilities ended, this route was forgotten, as were others leading
    from India into Myanmar. Now as the region is, finally, opening up,
    and plans to develop its resources are taking shape, there is renewed
    interest in the area, both for the access it can provide and for the
    unexplored resources it contains.

    Nor
    is it India alone that is showing fresh interest in this land: China,
    with its penchant for dramatic, far-reaching infrastructure projects,
    is also believed to have ambitious ideas centred on the Arakan. A
    major oil terminal at Sittwe, refineries, and pipelines leading to
    oil consuming areas in China would transform the region and convert
    what is until now something of a backwater into a hive of activity.
    In Slim’s time, and for his XIV Army, Arakan was a dead-end, but it
    may not remain one for too long.

    Strategic
    questions involving India and China will have to be kept in mind and
    could tend to overshadow the humanitarian crisis that is currently in
    focus. However, the most urgent need is to address the refugee
    situation of the Rohingyas. Opinion in Myanmar is not sympathetic to
    them, for reasons already mentioned. Yet the matter cannot be wished
    away and will surely loom larger as international sentiment
    strengthens and humanitarian issues become more pressing.

    Within
    Myanmar, a great transition from authoritarian, military rule to
    genuine popular democracy is taking place. The democratic icon Aung
    San Suu Kyi has warned the world not to be complacent, for only small
    steps have been taken so far and major changes are yet to be put into
    effect. Yet what is happening appears to be irreversible and there is
    real expectation that before long public sentiment will propel her
    into power. Until now, for understandable reasons, she has responded
    cautiously when questioned about the Rohingyas. Yet the issue may
    well prove to be one of her early challenges. (The Statesman/ANN)

    The
    writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary

    Source The Island: