India, Australia and the Rohingyas

The two countries cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the Rohingya crisis, as they will feel its long-term repercussions

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:35 pm IST

Published - June 09, 2015 02:14 am IST

In May, the Thai police found dozens of bodies in an abandoned jungle camp in southern Thailand, which was used regularly to smuggle Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Later that month, around 139 suspected migrant graves were found, according to the Malaysian police, in a smuggler’s camp in Malaysia. Despite the escalating Rohingya crisis, India, which is making concerted efforts to build a strong relationship with Myanmar, and Australia, where the migrants are fleeing by boat, are not doing enough; only tentative temporary solutions are being proposed.

Since coming to office in 2013, the Tony Abbott government has been turning back boats carrying migrants from Indonesia, and has also refused settlement to earlier migrants who had arrived by boat. The recent crisis has exposed Australia’s deeply flawed immigration policy. Instead of addressing the root causes of people fleeing persecution, it only worsens the regional climate for asylum seekers.

Australia’s policy has given neighbouring states the licence to take tough measures of their own. In a summit in Bangkok, the Myanmar delegation cited Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishopin’s argument that the “boat people” are not fleeing persecution in Myanmar but are, in fact, “economic migrants”. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Abbott has said he will not rebuke any government for turning back boats carrying asylum seekers. The result of this is that thousands of starving men, women and children have been stranded for months at sea on fragile vessels.

The crisis shows that people facing persecution will flee borders, regardless of exogenous factors. This is most certainly true for the Rohingyas, an estimated 1 million of whom are stateless. According to the United Nations, 120,000 of them have been forced to flee Myanmar in the last three years. The Rohingyas, who have lived in poverty in Western Myanmar for decades, have no freedom of movement, access to healthcare facilities or education, and their right to vote was revoked earlier this year. Even to marry, they require permission from the authorities. In recent years, they have been subject to violence from nationalist groups. While ‘pull factors’ may change their destination, risking life at sea for a better life will always remain attractive. An effective policy would recognise this fact, and attempt to fix the problem at its source.

Instead, the Australian government is cutting resources aimed at stabilising the situation in Myanmar. In May, $28 million was cut from the aid to Myanmar programme. Two weeks later, in response to the crisis, the government committed $11 million in aid for international agencies around Rakhine State. This suggests an unwillingness to commit to a long-term regional solution. We must, therefore, conclude that this is a policy for a domestic audience, not a solution for reducing human trafficking regionally or saving lives globally on humanitarian grounds.

India has been trying to build a strong relationship with Myanmar in recent years, both on the economic and strategic fronts, by seeking to enhance connectivity through the Northeastern States. In addition, India has also been assisting Myanmar with capacity building in areas such as English language training and Information Technology. Further, under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme, 500 slots have been reserved for Myanmar nationals with the goal of strengthening human resource capacity. All these steps send out a clear message: that India would like to play a constructive role in Mynamar’s transition to a robust democracy.

What India can do

But New Delhi does not want to be seen as interfering in the Rohingya crisis, especially as the ties between both nations were strained for a long time, after New Delhi suspended relations when the military junta took over in Myanmar. During this period, China made tremendous inroads. It was only in the 1990s that India re-established links with Myanmar. Yet, it is surprising to see that not a single statement has been made by the Indian leadership in the context of the Rohingya crisis. This, despite the current government playing a constructive role in other crises such as the Yemen civil war, where it helped evacuate citizens from a number of countries including Pakistan, and the Nepal earthquake, where it sent relief supplies and assisted in rescue operations. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has, on more than one occasion, referred to the Indian ethos of tolerance and commitment to closer links with the outside world. He said at the United Nations General Assembly, for instance, that ‘Vasudhaiva Katumbakam’ — the whole world is one family — is India’s philosophy.

Beyond platitudes, what role can India play in this crisis? First, it can contribute to the rescue efforts of the International Organization for Migration, which has already collected $I million for rescue efforts. Second, it can express displeasure against the atrocities on the Rohingya community, especially since it believes in democracy, liberalism and pluralism. An unstable Myanmar is likely to have strong security implications for India. The country cannot afford to have an ostrich-like approach towards this growing crisis and nor can Australia. Both will feel the long-term repercussions.

(Tridivesh Singh Maini is a senior research associate with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat. He was a public policy scholar from November 2013 to March 2014 with The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. James T. Davies is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales.)

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