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Should India give refuge to Rohingyas?

The flabbergasted Indian

After the military crackdown (the ethnic cleansing as described by the UN) in 2016, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have fled Myanmar. Today, there are more Rohingyas living in refugee camps in Bangladesh than in their home country Myanmar. Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand among others have provided refuge to the Rohingyas. India, however, plans to deport 40,000 Rohingyas it gave refuge to back in 2012 during a similar military crackdown. In this post, I will talk about the origins and the current Rohingya crisis, should India give refuge to Rohingyas and is India’s repulsive attitude towards Rohingyas justified.

Who are Rohingyas?

Rohingyas are a Sunni Muslim minority group and residents of Myanmar (well, sort of). Rohingyas never really had a state of their own. Historically, however, they have lived in Arakan - now Rakhine state of Myanmar (a Buddhist majority).

Why are Rohingyas stateless?

rohingya crisis

Rohingyas are residents of Arakan which was an independent kingdom for most of its History with exceptions of some Indian and Burmese rulers. In 1824, British colonised Myanmar. Until 1937, Arakan (and the rest of Myanmar) was considered to be an Indian state. During these times, many Rohingyas moved to Bangladesh (India back then) as labourers. In April 1937, Burma (Myanmar) become a separate colony and most of the Rohingyas moved back to Myanmar. In 1948, British left Myanmar and it became a democratic state. However, in the Union Citizenship act of Myanmar, Rohingyas were not included. This act was revised in 1982 in which 135 different ethnic groups were recognised but Rohingyas still didn't make the cut. Burmese government said that Rohingyas were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. When India became independent in 1947, Rohingyas were in their homeland and hence there was no scope of Rohingyas getting Indian citizenship. In 1971, Bangladesh was separated from Pakistan and residents of that area became Bangladeshi citizens. This is why Rohingyas neither has Indian/Bangladeshi nor Burmese citizenship.

Myanmar military coup and the beginning of ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas

A military coup led by General Ne Win took control of Myanmar from its civilian government.
The military conducted operation King Dragon in order to remove Rohingyas from the Rakhine state (formerly Arakan). This resulted in the exodus of about 200,000 Rohingyas fleeing to Bangladesh.  
An operation similar to King Dragon called Operation Clean and beautiful nation was conducted against Rohingyas. This time, about 250,000 Rohingyas had to flee from Myanmar.
Civilian government was restored however tensions were at an all-time high between Rohingyas and the rest of Myanmar. This was the direct result of an unremitting portrayal of Rohingyas as illegal immigrants and a national threat over the years. Criminal activities did increase but it was the direct result of oppression and lack of economic opportunities for Rohingyas.
Four Rohingyas were accused of raping and killing a Buddhist Women. Violence broke out in Rakhine state and many houses of many Rohingyas were burned. Many called this another of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing operation.
Arakan Rohingya salvation army - a Rohingya militant group started attacking border police stations.
An attack on a border police station by ARSA resulted in the death of 12 police officers. This is the core to the massive exodus of Rohingyas out of Myanmar as Myanmar’s state forces retaliated in full force. Since August, 400,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar.
rohingya crisis

What is India doing to help Rohingyas?


That’s right. Instead of helping Rohingyas by giving them refuge, India plans to deport 40,000 Rohingyas back to Myanmar. But why does a country like India that unceasingly holds moral high ground when it comes to international affairs stepping away from doing what seems morally right? The answer is simple.

To counter China’s growing influence in Asia.

China has great ambitions to become the powerhouse of Asia and for obvious reasons, India does not want this to happen.
Similar to China, India has its own ambitions to become a powerhouse and it's making great efforts to achieve that by improving strategic relationships with its neighbours and Southeast Asian countries. One of the first things the BJP government did after coming to power is attempt to better the relationships with Neighbours by inviting all the SAARC members to PM Modi and by launching Neighbourhood first policy. Along with this, BJP govt also launched act east policy in order to improve economic and strategic ties with east Asian countries. India is working on SASEC road belt connecting India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar to counter China’s OBOR albeit on a much smaller scale.

Myanmar is important to India to counter China’s influence in the area. Apart from improving road connectivity between Myanmar and India, India is investing heavily in infrastructure projects (like building a port) in Myanmar. India also plans to train Myanmar military in special operations. This is primarily to counter militants in Northeast India.

When India is trying to build strong strategic friendship with Myanmar, it cannot support Rohingyas whom Myanmar government officially considers terrorists.

What does India say about Rohingyas?

It would be morally incorrect for India to say that we are deporting Rohingyas in order to develop better relations with Myanmar. Here is the Indian government defence against their idea of deporting the Rohingyas.

1. Rohingyas are a security threat. Rohingyas have ties with ISI, ISIS and other extremist groups.
2. Rohingyas might instigate violence against Buddhists living in India.

I was reading a Quora thread where the answers with highest upvotes were the ones who were supporting the government’s decision. Most of these answers were citing the violence of ARSA against the border police which we talked about earlier and calling them a security threat. Calling 40,000 Rohingyas terrorists is similar to saying every Muslim is a terrorist; generalising based on a few instances. These are the same quorans who were suggesting Europe take in the Syrian refuge a year back. What they fail to understand is that the Rohingyas are one of the most oppressed community in modern times. They have been denied citizenship and thus, economic opportunities, healthcare and education in their homeland. In such conditions, it is natural that the crime rates would increase. When British had colonised India and were oppressing Indians, Indians did retaliate using arms at first. By saying this, I do not advocate violence but only try to understand the reasoning behind it. Also, in case of Rohingyas, it comes after Myanmar military’s operations (which we talked about earlier) to drive them out of the country. This is almost similar to the ethnic cleansing of Jews out of Germany by Hitler.

Is India's stand justifiable?

In a way, this is very similar to the trolley problem.
Do you want to look out for yourself or want to help others?
India’s stand is natural since it cannot risk its strategic and economic relations with Myanmar. But this makes India a hypocrite in a way. It is sad that many Indians support deporting Rohingyas back to Myanmar where they’d most likely be killed. India that preaches about humanity in the international community cannot really make an anti-humanitarian decision. Instead of deporting 40,000 Rohingyas, India, in fact, should accept more Rohingyas.

Providing refuge to Rohingyas raises one more issue. India is not a developed and a rich country. Thousands of youth in India are unemployed. India is unable to provide education and healthcare to all of its citizens. What India lack is resources and this could prove to be major challenge in accepting Rohingyas. However, there are avenues that India can explore to solve this problem. India cannot be the only shoulder to support Rohingyas. A systematic approach of accepting a few thousands of Rohingyas on a year on year basis could be developed. India can provide the land but only with the financial aid provided by the international community. Also, they cannot be allowed to be concentrated only in one part of the nation as this will increase the burden on that particular state. Instead, refugee camps should be built across different locations and the entire budget to achieve this has to come from international aid.
This would be diplomatic win for India since it gets to maintain its moral high ground in front of the world. In the end, we have to understand that all of us are humans first and by neglecting the adversity of Rohingyas, neglecting the ethnic cleansing in our neighbourhood, we become no better than the ones carrying out this cleansing.

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