Given its rich mineral resources, historical and civilizational 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 from Sept. 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 neighboring countries.
On Sept. 5, a U.N. 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 in October 2016 in the remote May Yu mountain range bordering Bangladesh.
On Aug. 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 leadership 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 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 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 Rohingya 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.
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, 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 in 1996. Strategic cooperation covering joint military drills, meeting of defense ministers, exchange of defense officer visits and training have been taking place. Terrorism and radicalization 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-radicalization 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 criticized 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.
(Dr. Bawa Singh is Assistant Professor at Central University, Punjab. The views expressed are personal. The article is in special arrangement with South Asia Monitor)