“India has to do balancing between its values and its interests”- India’s former Ambassador to Myanmar on Rohingya Crisis.4 min read

February 7, 2017 3 min read

“India has to do balancing between its values and its interests”- India’s former Ambassador to Myanmar on Rohingya Crisis.4 min read

Reading Time: 3 minutes

While the Syrian refugee crisis dominates news and discussions in the strategic and academic community, another refugee crisis that continues to be ignored by the world is that of the Rohingyas of Burma.

Persecuted by the army in the Buddhist majority of Myanmar, huge chunks of the population have been leaving on boats from their native Rakhine state and fleeing to neighbouring countries, including India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc. There are over 15,000 such Rohingya Refugees in India according to UNHCR data from May, 2016.

In an exclusive interview with The Manipal Journal, India’s former Ambassador to Myanmar Rajiv Bhatia answers questions about the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar and the role India is expected to play in it.

Rajiv Bhatia is an expert on Myanmar and has authored India-Myanmar Relations: Changing contours. He has also served as the Director General of Indian Council for World Affairs. Bhatia was in Manipal for a series of lectures delivered at the Department of Geopolitics.

He calls himself a scholar-and-not-a-diplomat-anymore humorously as he gives insights from his experience in Myanmar to the students. When asked for an interview, he engaged with the reporter with a spirit characteristic of college debates.

You have sufficient expertise on Myanmar having served there as India’s Ambassador. Where do you think is Myanmar failing to deal with the Rohingya issue?

The Rohingya crisis is a very sensitive and complex issue for Myanmar. It is not a new subject. It has been there for several decades.

The complexity and sensitivity comes from the fact that large numbers of people in Myanmar refuse to regard the Muslims in the Rakhine state as an ethnic race of Myanmar (The Rohingyas have been denied Burmese citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship law). They regard them as Bengali. The community considers themselves as Rohingyas and indigenous to Myanmar.

Then there is a security problem. There is a perception in the security circles in Myanmar that the Rakhine Muslims are now getting support from foreign Islamist terrorist organizations. The military in Myanmar who handles these issues is quite firm that there cannot be compromise on security issues.

The third factor is Madame Aung San Suu  Kyi who is seen globally as human rights icon but is unable to reach any resolution on the matter mainly because of political limitations.

Hence at this stage, things are at an impasse. The Kofi Annan commission headed by the former UN Secretary-general himself is studying the matter and is due to release a report. Until that happens, there is not much anyone can say on the matter.

India has a respectable and ancient record in handling refugees. Anyone who had to face the misfortune of leaving their lands due to many reasons found home in India. This despite the fact that it is not party to the 1951 Geneva convention. 

Do you believe that India needs a definite framework for dealing with refugees? MP Shashi Tharoor came up with the Asylum act bill in the parliament in 2015 and it is still pending to be passed in the Parliament. Any comments?

Yes, I think it is a good Idea to develop an agreed national legal framework under which problems like these could be resolved. When we have a broad legal model, then everyone knows down the line how to deal with these issues.  But from there we should not develop an argument that India should open its doors to Rohingyas or Muslims from Myanmar.

Frankly, I do not see this as India’s problem. I see this as a problem essentially for Myanmar and some neighbouring countries who are excited about it. India has enough problems of its own and India needs to focus on them.

But don’t you think that it is India’s humanitarian duty to look out for a people that have no home around the world anymore?  The Tibetans, Hindu Pakistanis, Tamilians are not India’s problems. But India has taken them in and treated them well.

One can say that is because of India’s strategic interests or internal political reasons. Is India’s approach towards Rohingyas a reflection of it not seeing any strategic interests in the matter?

In fact, strategic interests compel you to take a low profile stand on this matter. What are the strategic interests? India is now on good track to develop cordial and co-operative relations with Myanmar. We do not want to disrupt this movement.

Look at what China is doing. It is keeping quiet on this issue. So while as a young man you may find it difficult to see someone like me to argue that we should be pragmatic in our approach, the fact remains that we have to do balancing between our values and our interests.

By all means we have been compassionate. Already 9,000-12,000 Rohingyas have found their way into India. And we are not turning them away. But I would not favour the idea of opening India’s doors at a time when we have plenty of problems at home.

Photograph by Varun Kukreja

Edited by Soumyajit Saha