2017 saw some of the most dramatic and ominous unravelings of the delicate human condition, and the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh sits right at the top. The scale of the violence and physical displacement that unfolded after the 25 August militant attack in Myanmar’s Northern Rakhine State remains unlike anything else in recent memory.
Perhaps most remarkable is the geopolitical whirlpool that the crisis has created in the region, drawing in peering state and non-state actors in a complex, and often clashing, interplay of agendas, interests, and anxieties. In a way, the crisis has opened up Myanmar, currently undergoing democratic transition under the much-scrutinised leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, to the subsuming throes of big power politics and regional contestation for strategic leverage. India, owing to its proximity to ground zero and concomitant regional dynamics, too remains in this sphere of geopolitical churning.
But, the question is whether India has been able to respond in a manner that is not just effective in restoring stability in the short-term or providing comprehensive assistance to the direct stakeholders of the crisis, but also that consolidates its own standing as a reliable power in this volatile region.
The Indian Response
India has obviously had to articulate a position on the crisis, thanks to strategic realities, domestic sentiments, and regional geopolitical compulsions. But, this has been a far-from-consistent position, with the establishment in New Delhi fumbling to make sense of the rapidly evolving (or devolving) situation on the ground and get the geopolitical arithmetic right. The constant struggle for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been to showcase and build upon a framework of neutrality by assisting both Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Modi, during his early-September visit to Myanmar, used the term ‘extremist violence’ to describe the instability and centred the bulk of his remarks on terrorism and the deepening partnership between India and Myanmar. The absence of any reference to allegations of human rights abuses and use of excessive force against Rohingya civilians by Burmese security forces not only drew sharp criticism from commentators, but also stoked the hearth in Dhaka, which blames Myanmar for triggering the refugee situation. Less than a week after the tour, the Modi government had to do damage control by issuing a call for ‘restraint and maturity’ from Burmese authorities.
A week hence, the Indian Air Force airlifted material aid, intended for the refugees, to Chittagong as part of ‘Operation Insaniyat’. Following this, New Delhi sent another 900 tonnes of relief aid via the naval route. Further, India’s Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar recently signed an MoU with the Suu Kyi government on “long-term socio-economic development of [Rakhine] state,” including construction of pre-fabricated houses for returning refugees.
One could argue that India, quickly realising the difficult geopolitics of the situation, ultimately forwarded a balanced and mature diplomatic prognosis in the face of sensational - often precipitate - global rhetoric. After all, the Modi government chose to water the roots (read: infuse relief assistance at the source points) rather than prune the leaves (read: engage in abstract verbosity against the Suu Kyi government).
But, in reality, what good has come out of this diplomatic calibration?
Balanced Diplomacy or Timidity?
In effect, all of the above are nominal measures that neither resolve the refugee crisis, nor add any significant value to India’s footprint in South and Southeast Asia. New Delhi must note that it is an extended stakeholder in the crisis, simply because Rohingyas are also crossing over to India, albeit in much lesser numbers to Bangladesh. While keeping the borders open to refugees in distress is a fair and precedent-based policy position, actively engaging in crisis-management is a far more concrete and sustainable design - even from a ‘national security’ point of view. There is little doubt that existing Islamist extremist networks in the region would exploit the crisis to recruit and mobilise, and India then is a natural target.
But, the Modi government has done little to act from the front. Beyond abstaining from critical UN resolutions and sending limited aid that barely even scratches at the surface of the mammoth humanitarian demand, India has remained largely passive. Such a lukewarm and rather shaky response to an enormous regional crisis is counterintuitive to India’s bulging aspirations of establishing itself as South Asia’s prime security guarantor and in general, a responsible global power. Simply put, if regional assertion is an intention, then India cannot afford to sit by as a backbencher.
Even at home, the BJP-led government could not drive home a rational agenda on this issue. The noise over the intended deportation of the 40,000 odd Rohingya refugees in India drowned most voices of empathy in the initial phase of the crisis. Yet, the government ultimately ended up not actually carrying out the deportation, thus stoking the impatience of its rabble-rousing domestic electorate. What more, influential party voices kept the conversation confined to the apparent ‘national security threat’ that Rohingyas posed to India while censoring the significant human rights aspect of the whole crisis.
For India, the most stark outcome of weak action has come in the form of corresponding strong-willed action from its most ambitious regional nemesis, China.
Geopolitical Consequences of Inaction
The Chinese have displayed impressive diplomatic tact on the Rohingya issue. Departing from its longstanding policy of leveraging itself in the neighbourhood through proxy subversion or absolute neutrality in third-party disputes, Beijing stepped into the shoes of a core mediator this time. In November, China proposed a three-stage plan to Bangladesh and Myanmar to resolve the refugee crisis and in the longer term, the ‘Rohingya issue’. Less than a week later, Bangladesh and Myanmar announced the signing of a bilateral repatriation deal.
From the perspective of a regional hegemon, this was result-oriented diplomacy at its finest, despite the fact that the deal is as obscure as it can get. The caveat here is that China’s ‘Rohingya plan’ may not be in the best interests of the Rohingyas. But, it certainly is in its own interests.
However, it might not be all too late for New Delhi to move to the frontline and lead a comprehensive regional effort to find sustainable solutions to the crisis.
For an ambitious global power like India, this quest for hegemony starts with desire for greater legitimacy (and not just dominance) in the region, which in turn, is premised on good faith, engagement, understanding, and progressive diplomacy.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL).