India’s silence on Rohingya crisis

Published: February 22, 2017 - 15:53 Updated: February 24, 2017 - 17:57

Addressing the problems facing Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya community is an imperative for the success of India’s ‘Look East’ policy
Sucharita Sengupta Kolkata

The year 2015 was a landmark one for Myanmar. In the first half, the country made the news for all the wrong reasons; in the second half, for a supposedly positive change. The first half saw the tragic deaths of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, who, despite hailing from Rakhine state on the south-west coast of Myanmar, are denied citizenship and hence are ‘stateless’ and forced to flee to neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and India. Starvation deaths in border detention camps of countries like Thailand and Malaysia and images of overloaded boats capsizing in the Bay of Bengal evoked worldwide sympathy for the Rohingyas. The plight of Rohingyas received widespread coverage after international trafficking-smuggling rackets were exposed, making it difficult for states to feign ignorance.

Amidst criticism from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian agencies, all eyes were fixed on the election in Myanmar on November 8, 2015. It was believed that a solution would be attained if Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), came to power. On the contrary, however, even after securing a landslide victory, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Suu Kyi has till now refrained from taking any positive stance on the issue.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak urged Myanmar to stop the inhuman discrimination against Rohingyas. This comes after a fresh series of violence against the Rohingyas in Myanmar and Bangladesh. It is interesting to note how the government of Myanmar and Aung Suu Kyi has denied these allegations, terming many of them to be fabricated. According to the latest report published by the United Nations,, there has been a crescendo of violence against the community after the murder of a Muslim lawyer who was close to the ruling party. Can India still choose to remain silent or be strongly opinionated like Malaysia? Or does being silent spell benefit as far as India’s policy to integrate itself with Southeast Asia through the Northeast is concerned?

Migration in Northeast India

The concept of migration in Northeast India is fraught with inherent contradictions. While it is a region afflicted by certain challenges, rigorous attempts have been made in the past decade to change all that hinders development in the region. We thus see the emergence of a network of social institutions and communication entailing a newer technology of rule. The ‘Look East’—now ‘Act East’—policy adopted by the Indian government in 1991 had first opened up the Northeast to a foray by developmental policies. At the time, adopting the Look East policy following the fall of a superpower was an important strategy of India’s foreign policy in order to integrate itself economically and politically with the states of East and Southeast Asia.

For India, the Northeastern region has become extremely significant given its geographical proximity to China, and the Southeast through Myanmar and Bangladesh. So, while a new space is being built up logistically through expansion of railways, construction of roads, dams and highways are giving rise to a steady demand for labour. It also presupposes stability and peace in the region by monitoring and regulating population flows. Attention has been given to stricter border patrolling measures to curb illegal migration. In a deprived region torn by ethnic clashes, military insurgency, illegal infiltration, poor infrastructure and massive displacement, peace has remained either elusive or transient. What remains to be seen is what would be the implications of the sudden surge of ‘development’ on population flows across the fragile international and national borders—both legal and illegal—and the identity of a footloose population or migrant labour vis-à-vis indigenous communities.

The paradox is whether barrier-free integration of regions through trade and communication also entails the ‘free’ movement or influx of people. Do ethnic conflicts surrounding ‘outsiders’ or ‘alien bodies’ mitigate peacefully or unfold in a distinct pattern? The complex relation between the inflow of capital and outflow of labour poses some of the critical questions that crop up amidst new winds of change.

Migration, per se, was not initially viewed negatively in the Northeast. In fact, during the British era, labour migration from neighbouring states was encouraged to keep the tea and timber industries functional. It became a security concern only when it was related to resource politics. Proving one’s identity as an ‘insider’ thus becomes a relentless struggle. For instance, the Bru/Reangs in Mizoram were repeatedly targetted by the Mizos as ‘outsiders’ despite possessing valid documents. Around 37,000 were displaced and compelled to flee to Tripura following violent clashes in the late 1990s. The Nellie massacres in Assam and the Kokrajhar conflict in 2012 are some glaring instances when fear of the ‘other’ has witnessed its worst manifestations. The anti-foreigner agitation in Assam, displacing around two million persons in the post-colonial era, for the first time brought forth the issue of migration and citizenship that serves a crucial link between parliamentary and identity politics. Hence, ‘outsiders’ could stay to keep the tea and timber industries running, to generate revenue and production, but not to exercise any claim on citizenship, which remains an instrument for the survival of the indigenous.

Look East: Connecting with S-E Asia

Against the backdrop of these complex and contested situations, the government of India under its ambitious Look East Policy has undertaken a series of initiatives to pull out the Northeast from economic hibernation by restoring the centricity of its historic geo-strategic location, vis-à-vis China, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and other Southeast Asian nations. We can then say that through this strategy, two things could be made possible: one, boosting India’s trade and balancing China’s influence in the Southeast and, two, addressing lack of development in the Northeast. It was in all probability assumed that growth and development in the region would lower ethnic clashes and ensure peace. The increase in trade with neighbouring countries bordering the Northeast, like Myanmar and Bangladesh, is also a positive indicator that initiatives are being taken. But how far this increment has contributed in ‘developing’ the Northeast remains a debatable question. Trade with the Southeast has been through seaports as Northeast India geographically is a landlocked region. Road and rail expansions are being undertaken massively, but there is also a sense of caution in selecting the routes that might be opened up to connect the regions. Some of the trade routes, like the one connecting Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet, the Stillwell road and so on, are still closed. The point being made here is that ethnic clashes continue in pockets, ruckus over maintaining the Inner Line Permit as seen in Manipur and issues pertaining to reservation against ‘outsiders’ or ‘foreigners’ continue to cloud the region. It is therefore a pertinent question as to what a policy could dramatically mean or effect in a region that has remained secluded for almost 200 years.

Developmental infrastructure projects will also require skilled migrant labour from outside the region, thus depriving the locals of potential job opportunities. On the other hand, the recent trend of more and more people from the North-East moving to other parts of the country for jobs and education has further complicated the ‘outsider-local’ discord. This was amply demonstrated when the conflagration in the Bodoland Territorial Administrated Districts (BTAD) of Assam in 2012 found violent reverberations in Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and other cities, triggering an exodus of people from the North-East.

Indo-Myanmar Borders

For the Look East policy to succeed, mitigating border ‘problems’ with neighbouring states, especially Myanmar and Bangladesh, is a primary concern that plagues policymakers. The state boundaries have seen a huge number of border crossings, both formal and informal, between India, Bangladesh and Myanmar due to porosity. Both Bangladesh and Myanmar are crucial to India’s vision for engaging with Southeast Asia. On the one hand, increasing trade and cooperation with these countries has been the buzzword for India; on the other hand, fragile borders and mobility across them have always posed a threat for Indian policymakers. Illicit border trade is a much-discussed issue but more than the trade itself, what evokes concern is the network of traffickers and smugglers that develops as an outcome of this trade.

We are also aware of the fate of the Rohingyas whose first attempt to cross the Bay of Bengal to reach the shores of Thailand, Malaysia and Australia resulted in a boom in the trafficking industry connecting India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Australia. Demand for cheap labour in the rubber plantations of Malaysia and the Thai fishing industry were some of the reasons why trafficking of Rohingyas started in the first place. In 2007, a public meeting held in Myanmar, organised by the Mizoram Committee for Democracy in Burma and Campaign for Democratic Movement in Burma, appealed to the Indian government to snap all ties with Myanmar in order to restore peace and democracy there. The meeting also called for cooperation between India and the UN in combatting militancy from Myanmar in India’s Northeast. The participants in the meeting also urged the state government to take up the issue of growing violence against ethnic Mizos in Myanmar and to address the issue of a steady rise in influx of refugees “flooding” Mizoram due to persecution by the military junta. Dr Tint Swe, a member of the parliament of Myanmar and a leader of the NLD, highlighted that only through restoration of peace and democracy in Myanmar, an important neighbouring country, can the Look East policy of India succeed. The participants of the meeting were obviously hinting at the rise of the Rohingya influx in India through Mizoram, without naming it. It is an irony that even after an electoral change for restoring democracy in Myanmar, the issue of the Rohingyas as the most persecuted stateless community in the world still persists. It is still unaddressed and no direction towards a solution has come up. The new government, following its predecessor, has also expressed its reservation on using the nomenclature ‘Rohingya’, against which the NLD had called for a change worldwide.

Myanmar is important for India’s Look East policy since it connects Southeast Asia to India’s Northeast. Hence, in the third phase of the policy, termed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi the ‘Act East’ policy in 2014, he invited Asian interlocutors in Myanmar, Thailand and Fiji to invest in India and promised the region’s political leaders that his government “is ready to wrap up pending free-trade agreements with Asean and Australia”.

An absence of formal exchange of labour has also resulted in the presence of smugglers and traffickers in these border zones. In the context of India’s North-East, the border zones, like Moreh in Manipur, Champhai in Mizoram and Dawki in Meghalaya, have emerged as major routes for smuggling of arms and narcotics. A recent visit to Dawki showed that this centre of border trade suffers from tremendous ‘infrastructure deficit’ and the trade between Meghalaya and Bangladesh is not diversified. The large stretch of the border is unfenced and the boundary is largely vague—defined by a small stream, a river or an imaginary line between the two posts. This allows cross-border movement by villagers living on either side of the border, including illegal exchanges. There are also no floodlights or electronic barrier at the checkpoint through which an average of 500 trucks and other small cargo-carrying vehicles cross every day. Traders from either side cross the border legally and illegally on a regular basis. Improved infrastructure and trade linkages thus will not be sufficient to address the myriad problems confronting the region until and unless such measures are widely complemented by appropriate policies and regulations and participation of the vibrant private sector run by home-grown entrepreneurs. We need to also address problems facing stateless migrant communities like the Rohingyas in order to develop multilateral trade relations.


The writer is a researcher at the Calcutta Research Group (CRG), Kolkata. This research has been supported by CRG and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS).

Addressing the problems facing Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya community is an imperative for the success of India’s ‘Look East’ policy
Sucharita Sengupta Kolkata

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