S Nihal Singh
DIPLOMACY sometimes presents unforeseen challenges. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent off icial visit to Myanmar with the laudable aim of winning friends in the neighbourhood was fixed before the Rohingya crisis reached its peak. That it coincided with his sojourn needed nimble diplomatic footwork and the verdict must be that he failed to strike the golden mean and chose to see only one side of the picture.
Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Laureate who shares power with the military, finally broke her silence on the problem by suggesting that it was unfair to hold her responsible for resolving a contentious issue during her 18 months of sharing power. The problem has a long history and is an evocative one.
Indeed, the Buddhists living in Rakhine state have contempt for Muslim Rohingya they call Bengalis and the long settled community has been deprived of citizenship and the rights and privileges that go with it. Apart from the misery and suffering this has caused the Rohingya, an element among them formed a militant organisation, which attacked and killed regime policemen and troops to work out their collective frustration.
The military and police answer was disproportionate, with most Rohingya homes set on fire and alleged atrocities committed on the civilian population. The militant group announced a unilateral ceasefire rejected by the authorities while the Rohingya answer was to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh trudging through mud or taking unsafe overloaded boats in their hundres of thousands, placing impossible demands on Dhaka.
Mr Modi chose only to berate the Rohingya militants without expressing sympathy for the terrible plight of civilian men, women and children uprooted from homes now destroyed. To compound the problem, the Modi government broadcast its intention of deporting some 40,000 Rohingyas who had come to India over time. This step invited the ire of a UN human rights panel to which the Indian response, citing security concerns, failed to convince the world. The obvious question asked was: deport to where? The refugees had no homes to go to and the Myanmar authorities made it clear they would be unwelcome, whether they have planted landmines along the border, as is alleged, or not.
Only the Dalai Lama made sense emphasising as he did the compassion and tolerance of the Buddhist faith even though it had been clear for some time that a fringe element in Buddhist ranks in Myanmar had given a militant twist to their faith. Indeed, the terror attacks and killing of policemen were provocative, but the decision to employ them to terrorise the civilian population and burn their homes was reprehensible. The world is unconvinced by the Myanmar authorities’ allegation that the Rohingya had set fire to their own homes.
Apart from the plight of the Rohingya refugees living in difficult conditions, mostly under open skies and Dhaka’s restrictions placed on international aid agencies, two consequences stand out. Ms Suu Kyi’s image, held in high esteem for her long struggle against her country’s military rulers before agreeing to share power with them, has taken a beating around the world. Probably, this is the reason she has decided not to attend the forthcoming session of the UN General Assembly to avoid blushes.
Second, and more importantly, where is Myanmar going in search for a nationalist identity? Myanmar is by no means alone in encouraging chauvinist forces for political ends. The Trump presidency itself is witness to a worldwide right-wing revolt that is taking place. It was indeed extraordinary that Myanmar should deprive more than a million people who have lived in their corner of their country for generations and centuries should find themselves disenfranchised. New Delhi’s belated call to Myanmar for restraint came after Dhaka’s envoy in New Delhi met the Foreign Secretary, Mr S Jaishankar. And after briefing from the Indian ambassador in Dhaka, New Delhi is sending a planeload of relief supplies to Bangladesh for the Rohingya refugees.
The question Ms Suu Kyi’s conduct raises is whether she has lost the will to fight the military authorities, who have retained power in the number of legislators they field in the national assembly and the vital portfolios they hold. In the past, she has taken an initiative in seeking to resolve the longstanding problem of reconciling numerous ethnic minorities with the Myanmar state. But she has chosen mostly to remain silent over the Rohingya, perhaps feeling that it was too much of a gut issue with deep fissures to tackle.
India has a deep attachment to Ms Suu Kyi because of her tragedy of losing her father, the independence hero, at a young age and having lived and studied in New Delhi where her mother was the ambassador. Besides, her determination to live a life of privation and suffering house arrest for years won the admiration of the world and secured the Nobel Prize.
However, judging by the suffering and exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas, the least that India can do, apart from assisting the Rohingya with relief supplies, is to let the 40,000 Rohingyas in India to stay until the picture is clear on the new mass migration and Myanmar's future policies on how to cope with a problem essentially of its own making.
The Rohingya crisis has wider implications for the region and the world. The biases of the ruling BJP and its RSS mentor towards minorities are an open book, but the region-wide tendencies towards highlighting chauvinistic claims on the basis of religion or ethnicity are a danger mark. If India cannot take the lead in view of the present ruling dispensation’s prejudices, it is for our neighbours to take the baton in the race for a better future.
Security has evolved into an omnibus term hiding many objectives. It should not be used to emphasise the biases of a ruling regime. Much is at stake in bringing harmony and peace to a region plagued by problems left over by history in such an obvious instance as the Indo-Pakistan equation. Let the Rohingya stay.
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