The rise of Rohingya insurgency has serious security and identity implications for Myanmar and India, writes Pema Tseten Lachungpa for South Asia Monitor
By Pema Tseten Lachungpa
Myanmar, a country located at the junction of South Asia and Southeast Asia, saw a historic change when the democratically elected government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) assumed power from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in the historic election of 2015, ending 60 years of military junta rule.
Backed by the democratic principles of equality, accountability and transparency, the NLD emerged as the guarantor to ensure the aspirations of 50 million Myanmarese people. However, after their election, the NLD has failed to garner popular support because of various constitutional amendments, on top of which the Rohingya problem has emerged as a major challenge.
The Rohingyas, a Muslim minority community ethnically related to the Bengalis living for centuries in the northern Rakhine state (former Arakan) of Myanmar are considered among the most persecuted people on earth.
Notwithstanding their existence, Myanmar considers them as undocumented immigrants. According to the Burma Citizenship Law of 1982, which divided Burmese Citizenship into three parts; citizenship, associate citizenship and naturalized citizenship; effectively bars Rohingyas from acquiring Burmese citizenship as that government does not validate the history of the Rohingyas and their entity as a Burmese ethnic minority.
Being forced into statelessness, without citizenship and ethnic group recognition, the Rohingyas faced deep seated hatred and were subject to discrimination.
The aggression by the Myanmar military has led to an escalation of hostilities and spawned potent terror in Myanmar. The extensive aggression has led to the rise of extremist militant and insurgent groups amongst the Rohingya. One such group- Harakah al- Yaqin or the Arkan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has taken birth. The group is well connected with most Muslim countries and has bases in countries like Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, according to the International Crisis Group. The group issues fatwas to legitimize their violence and wants the Rohingyas to join them in their fight against the Myanmar forces. The first coordinated strike of the group was conducted in 2016 when it attacked Myanmar border posts along the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh.
In August 2017, the group mounted another coordinated attack on police checkposts and army bases in the townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung in Rakhine state. The government used the armed forces and aggressive tactics including rape, murder and burning their homesteads against them, leading to a mass exodus of Rohingyas to adjoining states including Bangladesh, Thailand and India. The UNHCR estimates that, in 2017, more than 240,000 Rohingyas have been displaced from their homeland.
This poses a significant challenge to Myanmar and India. For Myanmar, the Rohingya issue has resulted in a serious decline in her global stature. Coming soon after liberation from rule of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military), the Rohingya issue has brought a new challenge to the government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The counter offensive measures conducted by the Myanmar army against the Rohingyas significantly impacted Myanmar’s external relations, as the world community sympathised with the Rohingya and condemned the violent acts of Myanmar’s government. Also, counter offensive measures by the Myanmar government have created a space for the rise of the Islamic terror in Myanmar which can gravely complicate matters in the Rakhine state.
In the midst of the rise of Islamic jihadis and their appealing ideology in Southeast Asia, the ARSA may jockey for power within the framework of the Islamic State (ISIS) thereby raising the security dimension to a whole new level. As ISIS is gradually losing ground in West Asia from Russian and US forces, Southeast Asia has emerged as a new venue. Some Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia have opened up as an alternative theatre for ISIS and affiliated militants. Armed Rohingya militants, including ARSA, might infuse ISIS theology and collaborate with Southeast Asian terror groups, magnifying the issue.
For India, the Rohingya issue has not flared up as a national security issue. However, given the changing circumstances, New Delhi needs to act with caution. As India plans to deport around 40,000 Rohingya refugees staying in the country and refused to join the global condemnation of Myanmar for genocide and ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas at a recent conference in Bali, it might bring added challenges and risks.
The first emanates from the persistent instability along the border of India and Myanmar. This border region is home to various militant groups who use their cross-border affiliations to wage war against the Indian state. As India faces an uphill task in combating the terror threat, ARSA might add a new flavour to ongoing conflicts. Cooperation between the ARSA and the insurgent groups of Northeast India might open up new bases and territory (Rakhine for Northeast Militants and Northeast India for the ARSA) for both groups in their struggle for survival.
Second, India has huge investments at stake in Myanmar including the Kaladan Multi-Modal Project, the tri-lateral highway and others. In most cases, these projects pass through the Rakhine state, making stability of the region a crucial factor for India. The Kaladan Multi-Modal project, to connect Mizoram to Sittwe port in Myanmar passes through Rakhine. If India deports large numbers of Rohingyas, the ARSA could create serious problems in the long overdue projects and prevent their completion, hurting the Act East policy.
Clearly, the rise of Rohingya insurgency has serious implications for Myanmar and India. For Myanmar, the Rohingya issue has put the country in a dilemma. The recognition of Rohingyas as Myanmar’s citizens will seriously hurt the NLD, since Bamar or Burmans (the ethnic group) constitutes the majority in Myanmar and are predominantly Theravada Buddhists. This would hurt the NLD’s standing and support base among the majority group and create a crisis of governance, which could help the Tatmadaw, looking for an opportunity to return to power.
New Delhi must wisely deal with the Rohingya issue, keeping the security and strategic importance of the region and the importance of bilateral relations in mind.
(The author is a PhD Scholar, Department of International Relations, Sikkim University, India. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)