Given its rich mineral resources, historical and civilisational 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.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is currently in Myanmar (September 5-7). 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 and 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 and other sexual violence. Also, these people have been facing restrictions like freedom of movement, marriage, education, and employment.

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.

On Tuesday, a UN official was quoted as saying in Dhaka that at least 123,000 Rohingyas have crossed the border into Bangladesh in the past few days — 30,000 of them in a 24-hour period.

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 August 25, 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 this, the leadeship of the country’s military junta did not attend ASEAN meetings or summits. After the transition to civilian rule in 2011, Myanmar hosted an ASEAN Summit in 2014.

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 member-countries. The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) was drafted and unanimously adopted during the Phnom Penh ASEAN Summit in November 2012. The AHRD has 40 articles covering six categories: General principles; civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights; the right to development; the right to peace; and cooperation in the promotion and protection of human rights.

Myanmar is a signatory to the AHRD. It has committed to and reaffirmed cooperation for protection and promotion of human rights. And yet, the Rohinga issue festers.

India launched the Look East Policy in the 1990s to enhance multilateral engagements with Southeast Asia. The policy has been consistently pursued by the successive governments and has paid rich dividends.


An effigy depicting Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is pictured before the start of a protest rally against what the protesters say are killings of Rohingya people in Myanmar, near Myanmar consulate in Kolkata, India, September 4, 2017. REUTERS


Modi visited Myanmar in 2014, soon after assuming office. During the visit, he sharpened the focus on 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 AEP is to promote the three Cs — commerce, connectivity and culture — through bilateral, regional and multilateral engagements with countries in the Asia-Pacific region. India’s northeast has been given priority in the AEP. This policy has been paying rich dividends, raising the quantum of trade with ASEAN in 2016 to $70 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 and training et al have been taking place. Terrorism and radicalisation have been haunting the region and are a major challenge for regional security.

To seek the strategic cooperation of ASEAN countries in checking this twin scourge, India is planning to co-host a counter-radicalisation conference in October 2017.

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 the 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 made by both sides to find a solution. Modi’s visit provides a platform to resolve the issue.

Rohingya refugees had fled to different countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Bangladesh and India. According to reports, about 40,000 Rohingyas are residing in India. 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 has been criticised by Indian human rights agencies.

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, having engaged with the ASEAN at various levels, Modi may remind Myanmar of its commitment to AHRD and urge the leadership to find a reasonable resolution of the issue.

Bawa Singhis Assistant Professor at Central University, Punjab.

3 Responses to “India should take humane view of Rohingya refugees”

  1. Shelley Shahabuddin

    Modi is a good politician. But his party, being a Religious Nationalist, has a tunnel vision. Tunnel vision is a common problem with all such parties.

    So, present Indian rulers are probably oblivious of a greater danger to itself from Myanmar. Economic issue is nothing, compared to the security risks that India will suffer if the current Myanmar conspiracy is not checked and reversed.
    Myanmar conspiracy is to dump their entire (1.3 million) Rohingya population on Bangladesh. Another 1.5 million Rohingya diaspora (Wikipedia) from around the World will then want to join them. That will be nearly 3 million.

    Unless India and other powers do not prevent this, this population will definitely destabilise Bangladesh. By now, we know the sociopolitical character of Rohingya population. They avoid modern education. All Rohingya community has only Madrassas. ISI, IS and other religious extremists control them.

    We also know what ISI was doing to India from Bangladesh soil for 21 years, before the current Government came to power in Bangladesh.
    India is living in fool’s paradise, if it thinks that these millions of Rohingyas in Bangladesh will pose security threats only to Bangladesh and Myanmar, leaving India alone.

    India should know ISI better than us. But I doubt if they actually do. Because, they never actually suffered the pain in the hands of ISI that Bangladesh did.
    With the success of Myanmar conspiracy, ISI will have two objectives: 1. To see Bangladesh become a failed State; 2. To destabilise India with Rohingya terrorism and/or insurgency.

    So, my dear India, please understand, Rohingyas in Myanmar will only remain a marginalised population for unknown future if they are confined within Rakhaine State, where ISI does not have any hold.
    But in Bangladesh, ISI still has numerous sleeping cells, and a handsome supporting group (mainly Jamaat and all its militant offshoots).
    If millions of Rohngyas are allowed to settle in Bangladesh, ISI will be able to create hell in India, I think.
    I shall be very grateful if you can kindly dispel my fears.

    (If India is wondering as to why Bangladesh still has ISI influence? My answer is: We are trying to eliminate them, but we need more time. Adding more Rohingyas will only add fuel to fire).

  2. Sumit Mazumdar

    India has taken a shameful stance when it comes to the Rohingyas. India’s perspective is coloured entirely by the good relationship that China has with Myanmar, and that China is involved in building the infrastructure in Myanmar. India sees this as a threat and will do nothing that can harm its own good relationship with the Myanmar govt.
    Until and unless both China and India take up the issue of the Rohingyas simultaneously, there is nothing to hope for from either country. The UN remains the only resort.

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