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Cynical nationalism in Myanmar and India prolongs Rohingya suffering

India and Myanmar have managed to put aside their differences to tackle a common enemy. In his briefing to the security council, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last year that the situation in Myanmar was “one of the world’s worst humanitarian and human rights crises.” But there is one question that has gone unanswered in the entire discussion over the Rohingya issue so far: how have India and Myanmar forgotten their hostilities to rally behind the massacre of the Rohingya people? 

Human rights groups have termed the Rohingya issue a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.” A brief background of the geopolitics in the region will allow us to understand better how this bizarre alliance has unleashed such a terrible catastrophe. Since the Cold War era, when Myanmar and its junta faced international sanctions, China’s big-brotherly patronage transformed Myanmar into a virtual client-state of China. China was the economic and military bloodline, which made it possible for Myanmarese to breathe in an otherwise suffocating international environment.  The days of the Cold War have gone, however, and China’s influence in the country has only increased since. Thanks to China’s ever-increasing penchant for growth and influence, China has several massive ongoing economic and infrastructure projects in Myanmar, and Myanmar's military equipment is predominantly supplied by the Chinese Given this love affair, it is only natural that India, China’s biggest rival in the region that refused to join the Chinese-led project, the Belt and Road Initiative or the New Silk Road project, be very concerned.  India also shares a long border with Myanmar. The Indian side of the shared border with hosts the insurgency-ridden and heavily militarised northeastern states of India, which have added volatility to bilateral relations. The same logic that has kept India suspicious of Chinese influence on its borders should dictate that India would oppose Myanmar permitting the Chinese to build a seaport in the western coastal state of Arakan (official name was changed to Rakhine). However, India has not raised its voice on this issue.  Why? Well, the Answer lies in a shared enemy. India's populist Hindutva nationalism under the current BJP regime, which is centred around Bengali Muslims (e.g. the case of Assam), has overlapped with Theravada Buddhist-nationalism in Myanmar, which also identifies Bengali Muslims (in this case Rohingya) as its enemy.  Both the Buddhist-nationalists in Myanmar and the Hindu-nationalists in India stoke fears about Bengali Muslims having a sovereign nation in their backyard. Because of this overarching fear and a common enemy, they have foregone other differences. India has overcome the fear of the more distant enemy, China, and tried to address the proximate enemy.  In India, the ruling party has launched a so-called national registry program in the northeastern Assam state, which also borders Bangladesh. Three million people, mostly Bengali speaking Muslims, are facing potential statelessness.  The government’s efforts to label these Indian citizens as Bangladeshi, just because they speak Bengali and their religion is Islam, turned into a charade and was covered in international media when Mohammad Sana Ullah, who served in the Indian army for 30 years, was sent to a detention camp. Experts have opined that the deliberate crossing off of the names of Bengali Muslims from the national registry by the ruling party's cadres has already created a Rohingya-like refugee crisis in the making.  The BJP’s recent election victory makes the fear more real. While India undertakes its Bengali Muslim deportation mission at home, it seems to have no problem with the ethnic cleansing of Bengali Muslims next-door in Myanmar.  The scenario is bleak, and the threat is real. However, there is still hope. 

Turkey has been the only international actor who has cared to send high profile figures such as the first lady and foreign minister to see what hell has been unleashed on the Rohingya people. Later, Turkey continued to help Rohingya refugees in camps within Bangladesh. As I have argued previously, as the United States can capitalise on its NATO ally Turkey, and can work together to help alleviate the suffering of the Rohingya. Any intervention on a humanitarian basis in the Rohingya case is a win-win for the US as well as Turkey. A Turkey-led proposal through the UN for a Rohingya safe zone has the promise of a sustainable and long-term solution for one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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