Bilateral relationship between India and Myanmar
In maritime connectivity, the joint study group on shipping was set up to examine the commercial feasibility of direct shipping links. India’s...
PM Narendra Modi’s visit to Myanmar is significance for two reasons. First, this is his first visit to the country as Prime Minister (his earlier visit was in 2014 to attend the ASEAN-India summit meetings) and second, he debuts in the multilateral EAS. The visit gives Prime Minister an opportunity to spell out his vision on India-Myanmar bilateral relations as also India’s wider interests when he meets other regional leaders at the EAS.
• Earlier, despite India’s push to Look East policy with an Act East policy, PM did not visit Myanmar due to elections in Myanmar in November 2015 and in the U.S. in late 2016; the finalisation of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its assertiveness in the South China Sea; the India-China border stand-off; and Myanmar’s efforts over the peace process, the Rohingya issue and the economy.
• Now Prime Minister is visiting Myanmar after India-China Doklam stand-off and at a moment when there is a growing international concern about the sectarian violence in the country.
The Rohingya crisis
- The Rohingya refugee crisis refers to the mass migration of Rohingyas (Rohingya Muslim people) from Myanmar (Burma) to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.
- The conflict involving Buddhists and Muslims in the Rakhine province has been simmering for a few years. In the last week of August, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA, now designated as ‘terrorists’)launched a major attack on police posts, in Rakhine state, resulting in significant casualties.
Who are Rohingyas
- Rohingyas are indigenous to Rakhine state (also known as Arakan) in Myanmar settled since the 15th century.
- Collectively they fall under the Muslim Indo-Aryans, a mixture of pre-colonial and colonial immigrations.
- However, according to Myanmar government, they are illegal immigrants migrated to Rakhine following Burmese independence and Bangladesh liberation war.
- They are victims of an organized genocide and are one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
- The population of Rohingyas was around 1.1 to 1.3 million before the 2015 crisis.
- The crisis received international attention followed to Rakhine state riot in 2012, Rohingya crisis in 2015 and 2016-17 military crackdown.
- At present 40000 Rohingyas have their second home in India.
- The attacks and clearance operations against it have resulted in some 400 deaths, mostly Rohingya; widespread arson and burning of villages allegedly by both sides; displacement of thousands within Rakhine state and across the Naf river to Bangladesh; and severe disruption in food and humanitarian supplies
- The scale and coordinated nature of this attack have generated deep anxiety within Myanmar’s leadership, on the nature of the security threats they are encountering. The international community is worried about the reports of harsh response of the Myanmar security forces resulting in civilian casualties and forced migration.
- The Indian Prime Minister, during his visit, will have to navigate this complex and painful terrain of sectarian violence in the neighbouring country. There is a need for integrating both developmental as well as humanitarian aspects in response to the security situation in the Rakhine state.
Through the timeline of crisis 2012
- The crisis first started on June 10th of 2012 in northern Rakhine between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.
- This resulted in gang rape and murder of a Rakhine women by Rohingyas and killing of ten Burmese Muslims by Rakhines. In return, Rohingya burned a Rakhine’s Buddhist and their houses.
- As of August 22nd, 2012 it is officially estimated as the total of 88 causalities including 57 Muslims and 31 Buddhists. Nearly 90000 peoples lost their home and around 2500 houses were burned in the crisis.
- The government of Myanmar systematically isolates the ethnic minority.
- This resulted in the migration of thousands of Rohingyas to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand by rickety boats (hence called boat people).
- According to United Nations from January to March in 2015, approximately 25000 people have been taken by boats to different countries and many of them died.
- The Myanmar Military started exploitation against Rohingyas in 2016.
- In the initial attack, many of them died and many were arrested. This resulted in the migration of Rohingyas towards Bangladesh as refugees.
- In November, approximately 1500 refugee houses in border villages of Myanmar was burned by special forces.
- The scenarios after this were even worse. Many Rohingya women were gang raped, men and kids killed. The refugee boats in Naf river were under gun fire by Military.
- In March 2017, 423 detainees were put arrested which includes women and children.
- The crisis resulted in the displacement of nearly 92000 people from their home land.
The legal status of Rohingyas
- The Myanmar government never allowed a citizenship status to Rohingyas. Hence the majority of them do not have any legal documentations, making them stateless.
- Until recently, they have been able to register as temporary residents with identification cards known as white cards which began issuing in the 1990s.
- These cards gave some basic rights to Rohingyas such as the right to vote. But they were never recognized as a proof of citizenship.
- These cards get cancelled in 2015 which effectively put an end to their right to vote.
- In 2014, UN held a census, which was the first in Myanmar in 30 years. Initially, the Muslim minority were allowed to register as Rohingya. But after Buddhist threatened to boycott the census, the government issued a statement that Rohingyas can register only if they are identified as Bengalis.
What is being done to handle the refugee crisis?
- In November 2015, Myanmar’s first civilian government led by National League for Democracy (NLD) party were reluctant to talk for Rohingyas because of their interest to gain support from Buddhist nationalities.
The UN response
- In August 2016 UN established a nine-person commission led by former UN Secretary – general Kofi Annan to discuss the options to propose a solution.
- The committee submitted its final report to the Myanmar Government on Augst 23, 2017.
- The committee’s final report included recommendations to reduce communal tension and support much-needed development efforts in the impoverished state.
The ASEAN response
- There has been no coordinated response to the Rohingya problem from the ASEAN. The nature of the response indicates a divided region.
- Till now, there remains a notable lack of pressure on Myanmar from the ASEAN.
- Unlike the 1989 Comprehensive Plan of Action on Indochinese Refugees, which oversaw cooperation between recipient countries of 275000 Vietnamese refugees, no agreement has been made among the four largest destination countries of refugees from Myanmar.
- At first, Malaysia refused to provide any kind of refuge to the people reaching its shore but agreed to “provide provisions and send them away”. Later, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to provide temporary refuge to the Rohingya. Thailand said, it would provide humanitarian assistance and would not turn away boats that wish to enter its waters.
- Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called her own country’s economic migrants “mentally sick” and said that they could have better lives in Bangladesh, and complained they were discrediting Bangladesh by leaving.
- Shortly thereafter, the Bangladeshi Government announced plans to relocate the 32,000 registered Rohingya refugees who have spent years in camps near the Myanmar border.
- The 200,000 unregistered other refugees were not officially part of the government’s relocation plan.
- Initially, Thengar Char, an island 18 miles east of Hatiya Island was reportedly selected for the relocation. A subsequent report put the location as 200 hectares selected on Hatiya Island, a nine-hour, the land-and-sea journey from the camps.
The United States
- The State Department of United States expressed its intent to take in Rohingya refugees as part of international efforts.
- Since 2002 the United States has allowed 13,000 Myanmar refugees. Chicago, home to ‘RefugeeOne’, has one of the largest populations of Rohingyas in the United States.
India’s response towards Rohingyas
- Nearly 40000 Rohingyas have their home in India now. India has been receiving Rohingya refugees and allowing them to settle in the different parts of the country over the years, especially after the communal violence in the state of Rakhine in 2012.
- In 2012 December, India’s external affairs Minister visited Rakhine and donated 1 million dollars for relief.
- However, India considers the refugee crisis as an internal affair of Myanmar.
- On August 9, 2017, Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Gowda posed several questions to Union minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju. The questions pertained to the condition of Rohingya refugees in the country and were framed as follows: (a) whether the (home) ministry has framed a policy with regard to Rohingya refugees in India; (b) if so, whether it involves other stakeholders, such as our neighboring countries; (c) whether reports stating that government plans to deport the 40,000 Rohingya refugees are true; and (d) if so, the reasons for such plans?
- The minister’s response was to outline a plan to deport around 40,000 Rohingya, or “illegally staying foreign nationals”, from India. He said that the central government had directed the state governments to set up district task forces to “identify and deport” the foreign nationals.
- Since India is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees, refugee status granted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to the Rohingya was irrelevant to their deportation.
- According to the Government of India, there are no refugee camps established for either Bangladeshis or Rohingyas in India and there were only schemes of assistance for Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugees.
Why does India try to keep away from the issue?
- India considers the issue as an internal affair of Myanmar.
- Indian believes that ASEAN has an undeniable responsibility to resolve this crisis.
- India does not want a conflict of interests with the new regime in Myanmar-Myanmar has a key role in India’s Look East Policy.
- India already has several issues like poverty, unemployment etc for her own people.
- How the refugee crisis affects India’s interests and values
- India holds a strong history of welcoming refugees from Srilanka, Tibet, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and still they enjoy the freedom and rights here. The Rohingyas are now the most genocided community in recent past in South Asia, they are stateless and no place got to go.
- 16500 Rohingya refugees in India holds United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)’s identity card and India consider it as irrelevant, and as far as they are illegal immigrants to India, they will be subjected to deport.
- The refugees have to face the same situations like in the past if India sends them back, which will question India’s policies in the global front. It considered as will rather die in India than return to Myanmar for Rohingyans.
- Adding to this, recently an insurgent group – Haraquah Al-Yaqin formed in Saudi Arabia commanded by Rohingyas on the ground with tactical training and guerrilla operation skills. India had a history of Lankan refugee issue which eventually ended up in the Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
- Along with security issue, it may lead to political, governance and economic problems in the country.
Myanmar’s more dependence on China
- Given that the visit will be taking place after the Doklam crisis, there will be a temptation in India to see the visit of the prime minister as an attempt to build a robust relationship in the neighbourhood to counter the growing Chinese presence in the region.
- It should be noted that the Myanmar government today is more dependent on Chinese support than it was two or three years ago. Its dependence on China characterised by a largely extractive relationship focused on natural resources and access to the Bay of Bengal where it already has an oil and gas terminal, concession to build a Special Economic Zone and seeks a possibly controlling stake in a natural deep sea harbour at Kyaukpyu that could form part of its ambitious BRI.
- China has been a major player in the peace negotiations between the armed ethnic groups and the Myanmar government.
- Further, because of the on-going conflict in the Rakhine state, the Myanmar government will be dependent on the support from China on various human right platforms including the Security Council.
- Successive Indian prime ministers have refrained from assessing the relationship with Myanmar through the prism of China and instead focused on developing a comprehensive bilateral relationship.
Bilateral relationship between India and Myanmar
- In the economic realm, the bilateral trade between the two countries is around $ 2.2 billion, and there is scope for significant improvement. These cover large directly funded and executed connectivity infrastructure projects like
- Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport project and
- The India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway has picked up momentum in the recent past.
- High value capacity and human development projects like the Myanmar Institute of Information Technology in Mandalay. There is a possibility that new connectivity projects or cooperation on Special Economic Zones may be announced during the visit.
Small border area development projects in Chin and Naga areas of Myanmar
- Soft lines of credit for other infrastructure projects amounting to nearly $750 million
- When they are all completed and fully operational by about 2020, they will amount to a substantial mass and base for an expanded relationship.
- Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of commercial trade and investments. Both stand on narrow bases. Primary agricultural and forest products from Myanmar, and oil and gas need to expand in ways that also contribute to Myanmar’s development needs and meet India’s $3 billion trade target set in 2012.
- India and Myanmar have been promoting regional frameworks such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
- The Goa BIMSTEC summit, in October last year, stressed the importance of strengthening transit agreements and early conclusion of Free Trade Agreement (FTA).
- The first meeting of National Security Chiefs of the BIMSTEC countries was held in March this year.
- In the light of recent developments, Prime Minister and his counterparts in Myanmar may examine new frameworks to cooperate on regional security issues.
- In the political domain, India has scaled up its engagement with all the important power centres in Myanmar.
- In the recent past, President, State Counsellor (Aung San Suu Kyi) and Myanmar military Chief have visited India.
- In an interesting development, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh visited Myanmar in August this year. During his interactions, he referred to Myanmar as ‘Brahmadesh’ and updated his hosts on the improvements to the Buddhist circuits in India.
- The fact that a Chief Minister of the most populous state chose Myanmar for his first overseas visit suggests that this neighbour has acquired a prominent position in the cultural map of India.
- In line with such thinking, new nodes of cultural cooperation may receive significant attention during Prime Minister’s visit
- Trade has been the keystone of our post-Independence relationship.
- Indian imports of beans and pulses that play a vital part in our food security and Myanmar’s economy.
- Standing at around a million tonnes and $1 billion in value, over 90% of which is exported to India, it is vital to Myanmar’s farmers and foreign exchange earnings, greater even in the value of its exports of rice to China that are prone to periodic restrictions, tough inspections and crackdowns at the Myanmar-China border.
- Unfortunately, the recent decision to impose quantitative restrictions on the trade in pulses does exactly the opposite. In part, this is because of our own concerns vis-à-vis speculative global trade in pulses and in part on account of resistance to such a move in Myanmar.
PM’s visit should focus on
- Beyond these topical issues, and the issue of Indian insurgent groups in Myanmar, the visit will most likely be taken up by the fundamentals of the bilateral relationship. The two countries reached several agreements and Prime Minister should use his visit to review the progress of the various bilateral projects that was underway.
- The substantive development partnership, trade issues, and revival of cultural and people-to-people ties
- Defence relations too have been growing steadily, especially between the two armies and navies.
Security related talks have been taking place at the National Security Adviser (NSA) level
- Underlining our strong cultural, people-to-people and diaspora relationship, PM will also visit Bagan where the Archaeological Survey of India is in the final stages of a face-lift to the venerated Ananda Temple and where the Cabinet has approved Indian assistance for the restoration of pagodas damaged by the powerful 2016 earthquake;
- As part of his emphasis on re-connecting with the neighbourhood, bringing connectivity as the top priority during his meetings with Myanmar leaders is of urgent need.
- A recent positive development was the agreement to launch a weekly bus-service between Mandalay in central Myanmar and Imphal. There is need to push for operationalisation of the service at the earliest possible.
- India had earlier agreed to undertake the task of repair and upgradation of 71 bridges on the Tamu-Kalewa friendship road, the Kalewa-Yargyi road segment and the Yargyi-Monywa stretch. Progress in these segments is important as they form part of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway.
- In maritime connectivity, the joint study group on shipping was set up to examine the commercial feasibility of direct shipping links. India’s interest to strengthen maritime connectivity with Southeast Asia in the recent years is a good opportunity for India to involve itself the Dawei port in southern Myanmar, a port that might emerge as main sea link between India and Southeast Asia and the main point of proposed India-Mekong Economic Corridor.
In India, we often say Myanmar is our “gateway” to the East. Against the rhetoric, the existing connectivity between the two neighbours remains much to be desired. With long land and maritime boundaries, surely, the neighbours are yet to take full advantage of geography.
Historically, India has been a major player in Myanmar’s socio-economic landscape till the 1960s. The advent of military dictatorship and its economic policies reduced India’s interactions with Myanmar. As the political transition in Myanmar picks up momentum, it provides an excellent opportunity for Prime Minister to explore new avenues of cooperation.
By Gudipati Rajendera Kumar