WITH BANGLADESH leaning on India for support on the Rohingya issue, New Delhi has moved a step forward and, for the first time, called for “safe, speedy and sustainable” return of the refugees to Rakhine State in Myanmar.
This assumes significance since Bangladesh is expected to go for elections later this year, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina are scheduled to meet in Shantiniketan in West Bengal later this month.
India’s new and more robust position was conveyed to Myanmar’s top leadership by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj during her two-day visit to Myanmar that concluded on Friday. During her visit, Swaraj met Myanmar’s President U Win Myint and State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi.
In an official statement on Swaraj’s visit, the Ministry of External Affairs said, “The External Affairs Minister also reiterated India’s readiness and commitment to helping the Government of Myanmar (GOM) in addressing issues related to Rakhine State. She welcomed GOM’s continued commitment to implementing the Rakhine Advisory Commission’s recommendations and noted that, under the aegis of the bilateral Rakhine State Development Programme, India was already in the implementation stages of various projects that would respond to the needs of different sections of the Rakhine State population.”
“The first major project is the construction of prefabricated housing in Rakhine State to meet the needs of displaced persons. The Minister also underlined the need for safe, speedy and sustainable return of displaced persons to Rakhine State,” it said.
This has been the most emphatic statement by the Indian government on the Rohingya refugees since last September, and represents a nuanced evolution in India’s position. This is also a sharp, but gradual shift from what Prime Minister Modi had said last year. During his visit to Myanmar in September last year, Modi had referred to the “extremist violence in Rakhine State” in his prepared statement after a bilateral meeting with Suu Kyi. “We are partners in your concerns over the loss of lives of security forces and innocent people due to the extremist violence in Rakhine State,” he had said.
A joint statement issued on September 6 said, “India condemned the recent terrorist attacks in northern Rakhine State, wherein several members of the Myanmar security forces lost their lives.” That was perceived to be unsympathetic to the Rohingya refugees, which was condemned by many and prompted Bangladesh to raise the issue with the Indian government at various levels.
On September 9, New Delhi issued a statement in which it said, “India remains deeply concerned about the situation in Rakhine State in Myanmar and the outflow of refugees from that region.” Subsequently, Swaraj discussed the issue with Hasina on their flight to New York, and again on the sidelines of the UNGA meeting. On December 20, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar visited Myanmar and talked about the objective of restoration of normalcy in Rakhine State and “enable the return of displaced persons”. He had, under a pact, proposed a project to build prefabricated housing in Rakhine State so as to meet the immediate needs of “returning people”.
An estimated 7,00,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Rakhine State since the military crackdown, resulting in a major crisis in neighbouring Bangladesh. The UN and US have said the violence against Rohingya amounted to ethnic cleansing. Besides, the Rohingya issue, seven agreements/MOUs were signed during Swaraj’s visit, including an agreement on Land Border Crossing.
“The Agreement on Land Border Crossing is a landmark in bilateral relations between the two countries as it will enable people from both countries to cross the land border with passport and visa, including for accessing health and education services, pilgrimage and tourism,” the statement issued by the ministry said.