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A Joint India-Indonesia Intervention on the Rohingya Issue

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
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  • December 15, 2016

    The problem of Myanmar’s displaced Rohingyas has of late assumed a special dimension in both South-East Asia and in India’s immediate periphery. Festering since 2011, the problem erupted once again in November 2016. After inter-community riots in Myanmar’s western Rakhine province in 2012, a large-scale displacement of approximately one million Rohingyas occurred. The problem has surfaced again after violence broke out in the area on October 9, 2016.

    For long, Rohingya Muslims have been at the receiving end of violence unleashed by Burman Buddhists, particularly by the Buddhist extremist group `969` led by the monk Wirathu. The displacement of Rohingyas from Rakhine province, where they have been domiciled for generations, to adjoining countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand has of late assumed a destabilising dimension in Myanmar’s bilateral relations with these countries.

    Rohingyas have also emigrated to India. According to authoritative reports including inputs from the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly a third of the 36,000 refugees registered with UNHCR in India are Rohingyas (more than 10,000). Some migrated as far back as 2005 (to Jaipur), while others are more recent arrivals housed in temporary make-shift conditions in states such as Assam, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Delhi and even Jammu & Kashmir.

    Indonesia’s Vice President, Muhammed Jusuf Kalia, had expressed deep concern with regard to Rohingya migration to his country. Inter-alia, he stated that even though the Rohingya issue is Myanmar’s domestic problem, Indonesia will give suggestions and inputs to help resolve it. And he further added that Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has been sent to Myanmar on November 6, 2016 in order to intercede with the government there on the Rohingya issue.

    Although initially the Rohingya refugee problem mainly affected Bangladesh, there were latent apprehensions in some quarters in India that eventually some of these refugees would spill over to this country. Despite the tolerant disposition of the Bangladesh government, conditions in Bangladeshi camps were not really ideal. The temporary settlement of a few thousand Rohingyas in Bangladesh after the ethnic riots in Meikhtila in Rakhine province in 2012 was also becoming a political issue among the country`s political parties to the extent that the Sheikh Hasina government could not afford to be seen as being very accommodative or deploying substantial financial resources on the settlement camps in Chittagong Division. Moreover, Bangladesh, after integrating the Buddhist Chakmas living in that part of the country, did not want a new problem in the form of Rohingyas. Consequently, it has been trying to send the Rohingyas back to Myanmar, albeit without much success. Given all this, it is but natural that some Rohingya refugees would flow into India as well as eastwards to places where they could live in reasonable conditions.

    Of late, some of the refugees from these camps as well as a large number affected by the recent ethnic violence in Rakhine have been migrating to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Thailand and Malaysia have given refuge to some, but have tried to thwart the disembarkation of many especially those who had reached their shores in illegally arranged boats by human trafficking mafias. Indonesia, while trying to maintain some control, has been more accommodative. However, it is not the policy of the Indonesian government to give the Rohingyas citizenship, integrate them within Indonesian society or settle them on a long-term basis. Interestingly, Rohingya refugees have been enthusiastically welcomed by the predominantly Muslim people of Indonesia’s western province of Aceh. This poses a challenge to the Indonesian government in terms of ensuring civic harmony without affecting internal cohesion or the balance among different ethno-religious communities. The various implications of these developments would have undoubtedly weighed with Djakarta when the Indonesian Vice President advised the Myanmar government to resort to politically accommodative measures for resolving the Rohingya issue.

    Radicalisation of the Rohingyas is another issue that looms large in the existing scenario. Though not attributable to any hostility of the Rohingya towards India per se, the footprint of some radicalised Rohingyas in setting off the 2013 blasts at the Buddhist pilgrim centre in Bodh Gaya in the backdrop of Burman Buddhist-Rohingya riots in Myanmar was not totally ruled out by authoritative government sources. Therefore, it is in India`s inherent interest to ensure that a further exacerbation of the Rohingya problem is prevented.

    Considering that both India and Indonesia have a common interest in preserving their respective democratic, multi-ethnic and multi-religious polities, they need to work together to induce Myanmar to be more assertive and control the violence against the Rohingya minority. Further, it is essential that New Delhi and Djakarta consider joint measures – with consensual support from ASEAN – to prevent the emergence of another source or cause of radical extremism by a persecuted minority in South and Southeast Asia. And they should also adopt a common approach to push for a better outcome with respect to the provision of refugee relief and rehabilitation of the Rohingyas.

    The pursuit of such an approach is feasible given India’s multi-faceted relations with ASEAN, of which both Indonesia and Myanmar are members. There is sufficient common ground between New Delhi and Djakarta to ensure the Rohingyas’ eventual repatriation to Myanmar, both on humanitarian grounds and with a view to curb the dangers of radicalisation among a population who are presently facing multi-dimensional socio-economic misery and political apartheid.

    Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD did not show much consideration or interest on the Rohingya issue in the run-up to the last national elections. Now, with the democratic process instituted, albeit with the military exercising some oversight from the sidelines, the time is ripe to initiate a process for addressing the Rohingya issue. There is a strong case to modify the Myanmarese law of 1982, which has stripped the Rohingyas of not only citizenship but also of their basic rights to livelihood. At least, the following need to be instituted in this regard: work permits in Rakhine province and civic rights like movement for trade and intercourse, possession of property and observance of socio-religious customs, the availing of state-funded health and educational benefits, etc.

    The Advisory Commission on the Settlement of Problem in Rakhine State (ACSPRS) set up on August 23, 2016 under the chairmanship of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan by the present Myanmar Government may be an instrument for resolution of the Rakhine-Rohingya problem provided it works impartially and with a modicum of international or at least ASEAN support. India and Indonesia could also act as facilitators in this respect. Notwithstanding the fact that the ACSPRS consists of three international persons of eminence including a Lebanese Muslim, the advisory body may not be able to push for a substantive outcome towards ameliorating the degraded condition of the Rohingyas unless some international pressure is brought to bear on Nay Pyi Taw. India has an inherent interest in acting on the Rohingya issue given its geopolitical and security interests. In the context of the interest evinced by President Widodo in developments in the Indian Ocean littoral, India, both as a littoral Indian Ocean country and as a neighbour with a near-similar political and socio-economic milieu, should forge an avenue of cooperation with Indonesia on the Rohingya issue.

    The author is a retired IDAS officer, who has served in senior positions with the Government of India and a State Government.

    The views expressed are the author`s own.