Published:  01:33 AM, 11 November 2017

India, Myanmar and the Rohingyas

India, Myanmar and the Rohingyas

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's second official visit to Myanmar last September, even as Naypyidaw grappled with a festering ethnic crisis in the troubled Rakhine state, has given a much-needed impetus to the decades-old India-Myanmar bilateral relations.

Coming at a time when a negative impression has gained ground across the globe over Myanmar's iron-fisted handling of the sensitive Rohingya issue, Modi's very presence in Naypyidaw was undoubtedly reassuring to Myanmar's much criticized leadership, receiving global flak for failing to prevent reported persecution of innocent Rohingya people.

Amid legitimate concern over colonial-era ethnography baggage and post-colonial nativism feeding ethnic conflict and xenophobia in Myanmar, New Delhi stood by Naypyidaw solidly to hasten the Golden Land's march towards democracy, peace and economic integration with the outside world.

India, despite recognizing that Myanmar is standing at a very critical stage of its reform process initiated in 2011, has not, however, shied away from emphasizing the importance of inclusiveness in diverse societies for making democracy genuinely successful.

And very rightly Myanmar's former information minister Ye Htut wants New Delhi to share with his country the secrets of establishing and maintaining a robust democracy in a multi-ethnic context. "India can help Myanmar by sharing her experience of building a flourishing democracy in a religiously and ethnically diverse society" says Htut.

This is the 70th year of India-Myanmar diplomatic relations and the ties have grown multifaceted, driven not just by interactions between the governments but by institutions and more importantly its people, with Myanmar hosting a whopping 2.5 million persons of Indian origin. Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia, an eminent Indian diplomat who had served as the country's envoy to Myanmar previously, however feels, the areas in which India-Myanmar relations can be enhanced further are many.

"There is considerable scope for India's think tanks and civil society to expand their linkages with their counterparts through greater mutual exposure," observes Bhatia. Undoubtedly, Myanmar - India's only neighbor sitting in the economically dynamic Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] grouping - is of tremendous strategic importance for New Delhi.

In economic terms, bilateral trade has touched $2.17 billion (Dh8.01 billion) in 2016-17, excluding informal border trade that adds to the volume significantly. While Indian exports amounted to $1.11 billion, imports remained pegged at $1.06 billion.

Moreover, India, Myanmar's fifth-largest trading partner is now the tenth largest investor with an approved investment of $740.64 million. Most importantly, Naypyidaw's centrality in infrastructure initiatives like the Kaladan multimodal project and India-Myanmar-Thailand Asian Trilateral Highway, apart from the multilateral Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and Mekong-Ganga Cooperation forum, makes Myanmar the centerpiece of India's Act East Policy, designed to strengthen ties with Asean members and serve as a counterweight to China's influence in the region. Htut, however, visualizes his country to be a vital corridor for future India-China trade.

"China, India and Asean, all have crucial roles to play in Myanmar's integration with the regional and world economy" contends Htut, adding "India's western states can use Myanmar's territory as a transit route to Chinese market and conversely Beijing can also utilize Myanmar to reach India and Bangladesh's market." Indeed, there is much room for growth in India-Myanmar economic ties.

Bhatia feels India Inc. has been rather sluggish in exploiting Myanmar's liberalized economy. "Indian businesses should be bolder than it has been so far" says India's former Ambassador to Myanmar categorically.

Furthermore, with an eye to stabilizing the country's north-eastern periphery, gripped by age-old ethnic insurgency, New Delhi is keen to expand military cooperation with Myanmar, considered to be a vital pillar in India's strategic security architecture. In addition, there is huge scope for collaboration in Myanmar's nascent space program, energy issues, particularly civil nuclear and renewable, and connectivity projects.

For a flourishing democracy like India, maintaining a delicate balance between strategic national interest and democratic ideals has always been tricky. And New Delhi, having contemplated expelling the 40,000 Rohingya refugees settled in India, citing security concern, is hard-pressed to justify its stand of casting aspersion on the entire Rohingya populace arbitrarily.

Bhatia feels this maximalist posturing is part of an attempt to do a fine balancing act, while Htut believes terror groups capable of launching coordinated attacks, and possibly linked to Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), does pose a grave security challenge to India.

New Delhi, meanwhile, favors a nuanced practical approach for evolving an amicable colony to the Rohingya issue amid a realistic possibility of global terrorism finding a new base in Myanmar's backyard. Wakar Al Deen, director general of Arakan Rohingya Union - a global umbrella body of the Rohingya groups - advocates an incremental approach, starting with stabilization of Rakhine state, addressing human rights concern and finally looking into the citizenship aspect.

Besides, Al Deen wants India to forcefully support a framework for solving the Rohingya issue based on the Kofi Annan Commission's recommendations and also make positive public gestures vis-a-vis the Rohingya peoples' plight, without showing any partiality towards the Rohingya populace though.

"New Delhi displaying a more pronounced sympathy for Rohingyas publicly and discouraging domestic anti-Rohingya rhetoric will go a long way in sending a strong message," asserts the prominent Rohingya Rights activist.

The writer is a senior journalist and columnist based in Kolkata, India

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