Modern communication and the relative ease of travel have made the refugee crisis a worldwide phenomenon.
People don’t necessarily recognise modern frontiers. When war, brutal suppression or starvation forces them to leave their homes they often do so as did the citizens of Syria or Afghanistan or more recently the Rohingyas living on the northern coast of Myanmar. Their displacement from their homes is not extraordinary in recent modern history, or even in the region they come from. It happened in Bangladesh when the birth of that nation was accompanied by the murder of lakhs of people and the temporary moving of millions of desperate people to sanctuary in next-door India.
As a civilisation we have given sanctuary to many people who have sought refuge on our shores, from Parsees who left Iran centuries ago to more recently Tibetans, Afghans, Sri Lankan Tamils and Bangladeshis seeking an end to repression. In the latest flareup of violence, when nearly half a million have sought refuge in Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia, less than a tenth have sought refuge in India.
The Narendra Modi government’s attitude towards refugees has, not surprisingly, been callous. It has overturned all previous notions of caring for those driven from their homes despite the strain it puts on our resources. Former RSS ideologue K.N. Govindacharya filed a plea in the Supreme Court seeking deportation of Rohingya Muslims, claiming they are being used by “Al Qaeda for terror and jihad”. The minister of state for home affairs informed Parliament that 40,000 Rohingyas were to be deported. This attitude has to do with the religion followed by the Rohingya people and has nothing to do with any dangers the helpless refugees may pose.
Modern communication and the relative ease of travel have made the refugee crisis a worldwide phenomenon. Witness how refugees fled the devastated Arab world, specially countries like Syria and Libya, where the US was trying to force a “regime change”. Most of those fleeing their bombed-out homelands are willing to return once the terror ends. Meanwhile, Europe has to put up with the refugees at their doorstep. But it never had to deal with the crisis in the way Asian countries like India have had to.
Behind every refugee crisis is a larger political crisis. The annexation of Tibet by the Chinese led to the Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers seeking refuge in India. Similarly, the breakup of East Bengal from Pakistan and the reign of terror they unleashed led to over a million Bangladeshis seeking temporary shelter in India. Something similar happened during the chaos in Afghanistan in the 1990s when there were over a million refugees in Pakistan.
Rohingyas are considered by the United Nations as the “most persecuted minority group in the world”. They have faced persecution for several decades, the latest being in 2016 and 2017. While Human Rights Watch has called the military crackdown on Myanmar a case of “ethnic cleansing”, the UN’s office of human rights has declared that the crisis in Myanmar “could tantamount to crimes against humanity”.
In 1982, the Government of Myanmar passed a citizenship law that gave national citizenship to only those people of Myanmar who could prove they had ancestors residing in the country before British colonial rule. The Rohingyas found themselves classified as “associate” citizens and were deprived of holding any government office and denied several other citizenship rights. A further confusion with their status in Myanmar is the denial of their ethnic Burmese identity and are considered “stateless entities” by the government.
The problem is accentuated by the extreme poverty of Rakhine state — the least developed region in Myanmar. Though Myanmar is changing after decades of stagnation, opportunities are still limited. All the neighbouring countries — Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia — offer a better life and even Bangladesh has grown remarkably fast in the past decade or so. Coupled with the government repression are opportunities elsewhere that offer a better life. So together with a demand to get a better political deal for the Rohingya population in Rakhine province there needs to be greater emphasis on economic development there.
The most recent clashes in Rakhine broke out again in August 2017 after a militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for attacks on police and Army posts. More than 100 people died. The ARSA was declared a terrorist organisation as many such groups are in other parts of the world as well. The comparison with Kashmir, with militants there being labelled terrorists to sway public opinion, is inevitable. So also the reaction of majoritarian organisations, like the BJP and RSS, that are eager to dub any armed resistance to government misrule as terrorist.
What is more surprising is the reaction of Aung San Suu Kyi — the tallest leader in Myanmar. After she led Myanmar’s first democratically elected government last year, the first after the military coup in 1962 came to power, people expected her to change the style of governance. But with her grip on power still weak, she has been reluctant to battle for Rohingyas and other Muslims for fear of alienating Buddhist nationalists and threatening the still fragile leadership.
Myanmar’s de facto leader has denied that ethnic cleansing is taking place and dismissed international criticism of her handling the crisis. In doing so she has weakened her own position as a leader who fought for decades to restore democratic rights in Myanmar. She accused critics of fuelling resentment between Buddhists and Muslims and the Nobel Peace Prize laureate said her government had “already started defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible”. She has to restore rights of Rohingyas if democracy has to survive in Myanmar.