In a first, the Bangladesh government has raised the issue of Rohingya refugees with the Government of India as the crisis continues to deepen, according to senior diplomatic sources. So far, New Delhi and Dhaka have resisted raising the Rohingya issue in bilateral discussions. But with mounting pressure on Bangladesh due to the influx of Rohingya refugees, its High Commissioner to India, Syed Muazzem Ali, mentioned it to India’s foreign secretary, S Jaishankar, at a recent meeting, urging New Delhi to intervene on the expanding crisis.
Bangladeshi diplomats have also privately expressed their disappointment with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for not “putting pressure on Myanmar” on the Rohingya issue during his recent trip to Myanmar. A senior Bangladeshi diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity told Asia Times that the Indian Prime Minister’s silence has not gone down well in Bangladesh.
“We are in a delicate situation right now with the general elections due late next year. The current Awami League government is known to be closely allied to India. This is being exploited by opposition parties who say that this close relationship has not yielded any support for Bangladesh from India on the Rohingya crisis,” the diplomat said.
An expanding crisis
Official Bangladeshi government estimates put the number of Rohingya refugees at close to 700,000. According to Bangladeshi diplomats, India’s failure to put pressure on Myanmar and address the “atrocities against Rohingyas” will lead to an exodus, creating a major security threat and a human rights challenge for Bangladesh. However, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that the number of Rohingya refugees are around 270,000, which Bangladeshi officials are quick to dismiss. They insist that the numbers are much larger, and a severe drain on Bangladesh’s limited resources, which is also battling major crisis due to floods this year.
Bangladeshi intelligence officials have also shared detailed assessments with their Indian counterparts on the Rohingyas and their possible links to militant outfits in the region. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has been at the forefront of retaliatory strikes against Myanmar security forces, and according to a December 2016 report by the think tank International Crisis Group, the group has links to Pakistan and Bangladesh. Its leader, Ata Ullah was born in Pakistan and grew up in Saudi Arabia. He is believed to have left Saudi Arabia in 2012, traveling to Pakistan to receive training in guerrilla warfare before taking up arms in Myanmar’s Rakhine province.
On August 25 this year, ARSA carried out one of its deadliest attacks, simultaneously targeting 30 police posts and an army base leaving 71 dead in its wake. The rising militancy could prove to be a major security threat for regional stability and has intelligence officials in Dhaka and New Delhi worried. “Our assessment is that the rising radicalization among the Rohingyas could further destabilize a volatile region, and India’s concerns and resolve to deport the 40,000 refugees currently living here stems from those concerns,” a senior Indian intelligence official told Asia Times. The ARSA has publicly declared a month-long ceasefire unilaterally, but intelligence officials believe this is a ruse to gain time and recoup its strength.
A delicate balance
For India, the crisis is a diplomatic challenge since it has traditionally enjoyed a close relationship with Myanmar. The Burmese military quietly allows Indian military units to occasionally operate in its territory against militant outfits inimical to India. In June 2015, Indian Special Forces carried out a major raid inside Myanmar, in retaliation to a deadly attack which killed 19 Indian soldiers carried out by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), a militant outfit operating in India’s northeast for decades.
India is also worried that antagonizing Myanmar will give the Chinese additional ground to develop its growing foothold in the country. New Delhi views Beijing’s expanding role in the region with great suspicion and believes that it is part of an effort to build a strategic “string of pearls” to isolate India’s influence in the region. However, Bangladesh, which has witnessed a steady influx of Rohingya refugees into Cox’s Bazaar since 1978 is worried that India’s failure to pressure Myanmar or condemn the persecution of the Rohingyas will deepen the crisis.
On September 11, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein issued a scathing statement criticizing India and Bangladesh for its record on the Rohingya refugees. “I deplore current measures in India to deport Rohingyas at a time of such violence against them in their country,” he said, adding, “India cannot carry out collective expulsions, or return people to a place where they risk torture or other serious violations.” However, India has repeatedly stated that it is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention and therefore has no obligation to protect the refugees indefinitely.