In Shift, India Vows Full Support for Bangladesh on Rohingya Crisis

Kamran Reza Chowdhury and Akash Vashishtha
Dhaka and New Delhi
171023-BD-rohingya-620.jpg Rohingya refugees from Myanmar enter Bangladesh at the Kharangkhali border point in Teknaf, Oct. 23, 2017.
Abdur Rahman/BenarNews

India fully backs Bangladesh’s efforts to deal with an unprecedented influx of Rohingya refugees from neighboring Myanmar, the Indian High Commission in Dhaka said Monday, signaling an apparent policy shift on the issue.

New Delhi’s embassy came out with the statement a day after visiting Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj told Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that Myanmar must take back the Rohingya people.

“This is a big burden for Bangladesh. How long will Bangladesh bear it? There should be a permanent solution to this crisis,” Swaraj told Hasina on Sunday, the first day of a two-day trip to Bangladesh, according to a statement posted online by the Indian foreign ministry.

Just over 600,000 stateless Rohingya Muslims have fled to southeastern Bangladesh since late August, when Myanmar’s military launched a crackdown against suspected Rohingya militants in Rakhine state, which lies along the border.

“On the issue of displaced persons from Rakhine state, [the] External Affairs Minister reaffirmed India’s continued support in responding to the influx,” the Indian High Commission said without using the term “Rohingya.” Myanmar’s government does not recognize members of the minority group as citizens.

The statement marks a change in India’s stance toward the crisis in southeastern Bangladesh, which U.N. officials have described as the world’s fastest growing refugee emergency.

On Aug. 26, a day after Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents attacked about 30 police outposts in Rakhine, India said it stood by Myanmar in the hour of crisis while assuring Myanmar of its backing in the fight against terrorism.

But on Monday, as Swaraj inaugurated the chancery complex at the Indian High Commission, she said: “India is following a policy of neighbors first and among the neighbors Bangladesh is foremost.”

Following her meeting with Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood on Sunday, Swaraj said India was deeply concerned about the spate of violence in Rakhine.

‘We have urged that the situation be handled with restraint, keeping in mind the welfare of the population,” Swaraj told reporters in Dhaka. She, too, preferred not to use the word “Rohingya” to refer to the minority.

Myanmar, whose security forces have been accused of carrying out pogroms to drive the Rohingya people out of the country, blamed ARSA for the violence that has pushed refugees across the border since the last week of August.

“It is clear that the normalcy will only be restored with the return of displaced persons to Rakhine state. In our view, the only long-term solution in Rakhine state is rapid socio-economic and infrastructure development that would have a positive impact on all the communities living in the state,” she said.

India urged Myanmar to take back members of the Muslim minority even as the Indian government planned to deport an estimated 40,000 Rohingya refugees who are settled across the country. New Delhi cited national security issues as the reason for the plan that has drawn sharp criticism from human rights groups.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj (left) visits with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the prime minister’s residence in Dhaka, Oct. 22, 2017. [Focus Bangla]

‘Beating around the bush’

However, Indian and Bangladeshi analysts were skeptical about New Delhi’s promised support for Bangladesh.

“Given India’s economic and strategic interests in Myanmar, I think it will be difficult for India to support Bangladesh and put pressure [on Myanmar] to address the Rohingya problem,” Ameena Mohsin, an international relations professor at Dhaka University, told BenarNews.

“The Indian minister used diplomatic words such as ‘repatriation,’ and ‘displaced persons’ instead of addressing the refugees as Rohingya,” Mohsin said.

Bangladesh’s former foreign secretary, Mustafa Kamal, said that only time could tell if India would act on its promise of supporting Bangladesh and not Myanmar.

“Surely, this is a good development. But we have to wait and see its reflection at the grassroots,” Kamal told BenarNews.

The Hindu nationalist Indian government’s policy toward Rohingya refugees was motivated by politics of “religious antagonism,” another expert opined.

“Anti-Muslim politics is the main plank of the ruling [Bharatiya Janata Party] government, which nurtures the cause of turning India into a Hindu nation,” New Delhi-based political analyst Y.S. Gill told BenarNews.

“With her statements in Dhaka, Swaraj is merely beating around the bush. Genocide is taking place in Myanmar. Instead of giving refuge to people fleeing the violence, you are asking them to go back to the death and devastation they are trying to run from,” Gill said, adding that India’s stand was “abhorrent and condemnable.”

But another expert differed.

“What Swaraj has said must not be seen with political overtones. Her statement is in line with its foreign policy. It is absolutely right on India’s part to urge Myanmar to take back its nationals,” Dushyant Nagar, a political commentator from New Delhi, told BenarNews.

Shashi Tripathi, an expert on South Asian affairs, seconded Nagar’s view, saying that the government’s statement was welcome.

“India should in fact take up the matter directly with Myanmar, warning it that if it doesn’t act in a concrete manner and take its nationals back, India would snap trade ties with it. The international community should also exert pressure on Myanmar to take back Rohingya,” he told BenarNews.

‘An arc of suffering and rejection’

Meanwhile in Geneva, United Nations officials announced Monday that donors had pledged at least $340 million in money that needed to be raised urgently in responding to the humanitarian crisis in southeastern Bangladesh, where more than one million Rohingya refugees are now concentrated.

“In addition, several donors have committed more than $50 million in in-kind assistance to Bangladesh and Myanmar,” Mark Lowcock, the U.N.’s under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, told reporters covering an international pledging meeting in Geneva devoted to the crisis.

William Lacy Swing, the head of the International Organization for Migration – the U.N.’s migration agency – and other U.N. officials said the statelessness of Rohingyas made the crisis unique.

“These people are trapped in an arc of suffering and rejection from northern Rakhine state well into Bangladesh, at Cox’s Bazar,” Swing told reporters, according to a video posted by U.N. News.

“[A]midst eight or nine armed conflicts worldwide, it is the one that pulls at our heart strings the most because of what it represents in terms of total rejection of one of the most rejected people in the world,” he said, adding that the volume of the influx of refugees was “expected to exceed a million fairly shortly.”

U.N. officials in Geneva said they also supported Bangladesh’s efforts to negotiate with Myanmar over the safe repatriation of Rohingya refugees. However, it “must include a solution to the question of citizenship for Rohingya,” said Filippo Grandi, the U.N.’s high commissioner for refugees.

As the pledge-making meeting was happening in Geneva, Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal was traveling to Myanmar where he was to hold talks with government officials over the crisis.

“We believe this crisis must be addressed comprehensively by the international community …,” Shameem Ahsan, Bangladesh’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, told Monday’s meeting, according to a video recording released by the U.N.

“While humanitarian assistance – very, very essential – must continue, it is of paramount importance that Myanmar delivers on its recent promises and work toward safe, dignified, voluntary return of its nationals back to their homes in Myanmar.”

Jhumur Deb in Guwahati, India, and BenarNews staff in Washington contributed to this report.


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