Rohingya issue threatens stability in South Asia

By Subir Bhaumik AGARTALA and IMPHAL

Asia Times Online August 16, 2012

As a rising number of Rohingya Muslims flee sectarian conflict in Myanmar and take sanctuary in India’s northeastern states, the flow of refugees is putting a new strain on bilateral relations. New Delhi has called on Naypyidaw to stem the rising human tide, a diplomatic request that Indian officials say has so far gone unheeded.

Ongoing sporadic violence between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist Rakhines in western Myanmar has left more than 80 dead and displaced tens of thousands. The Myanmar government’s inability or unwillingness to stop the persecution of Rohingyas has provoked strong international reaction, raising calls for retribution in radical corners of the Islamic world, including a threat from the Pakistani Taliban to attack Myanmar’s diplomatic missions abroad.

Fears are now rising that Myanmar-borne instability is spreading to India’s northeastern frontier regions, threatening to spiral into a wider regional security dilemma. At the same time that Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines clashed in Myanmar, fighting erupted between Muslims and Hindus in India’s northeastern Assam State. As in Myanmar, where the Rohingyas are considered illegal Bangladeshi settlers, the Muslims targeted in Assam are accused of being ethnic Bengalis who have migrated illegally from Bangladesh.

“Unless checked firmly, the Rohingya influx could become a big headache in northeast India. The Rohingyas have nowhere to go after Bangladesh foiled their attempts to cross over from Myanmar by land and sea,” says Sabyasachi Basu Roy Choudhury, an expert in migration patterns on the India-Myanmar-Bangladesh frontier. “They are unwelcome in other countries of Southeast Asia like Thailand, so they will naturally turn towards India.”

Before the explosion of violence in Myanmar, over the past two years more than 1,400 Rohingyas had been intercepted in three northeastern Indian states – Tripura, Mizoram and Manipur – while trying to enter illegally, according to reports sent by the state police forces to the Indian home ministry.

While almost half of them were caught while trying to enter Indian territory from Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the rest were nabbed while trying to enter India from temporary shelters in Bangladesh’s Chittagong region. The shelters, supported by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), were first established in the late 1970s when Rohingyas started to flee persecution in Myanmar.

Bangladesh’s former military ruler General Zia ur Rahman was at one point of accused by Myanmar, then known as Burma, of supporting Rohingya insurgents. The number of these shelters had diminished in recent years as many Rohingyas either returned to Myanmar with UNHCR support or melted permanently into Bangladesh or further afield into South Asia, Southeast Asia or the Middle East.

“Those trying to enter through [the northeast Indian state of] Tripura came from Bangladesh [which border Tripura], where the Rohingyas are under considerable pressure to go back to their native [Rakhine] province in Myanmar. But those trying to enter directly to India [from Myanmar] ended up in Mizoram and Manipur, which have direct borders with Myanmar,” said a senior Indian federal intelligence official who requested anonymity.

He said that most of the Rohingyas arrested in Tripura had tried to flee Bangladesh after the country’s Awami League government started pressuring them to return to Myanmar two years ago. But many of them have been captured in the past two months in Manipur and Mizoram, trying to escape persecution in Rakhine.

Basu Roy Choudhury said many Rohingyas are moving from their temporary shelters in Bangladesh’s Chittagong region to settle down in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), where the Buddhist Chakma and Marma tribes resent Muslim settlements.

Militant history
Militants from these tribes fought a two-decade guerrilla war against the Bangladesh government (1976-1997), during which Bengali Muslim settlers were regularly attacked and killed in large numbers, provoking inevitable retaliation. In 1997, the Shanti Bahini (Peace Force) which ran the armed campaign for the Buddhist tribes in southeast Banglahdesh against government troops signed an accord with Dhaka.

Their fighters laid down arms and returned to normal life when Bangladesh promised to create an autonomous council to fulfill the tribal aspirations for self rule and also to stop Muslims from settling in the plains districts of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But because those autonomy promises were never fully fulfilled, the Buddhist tribespeople there remain restive and any large-scale settlement of Muslims, Rohingyas or Bengalis, some fear could reignite the conflict.

“So the Rohingyas will obviously be unwelcome in Chittagong Hill Tracts and that could create fresh tensions,” says Basu Roy Choudhury.

Islamist groups in Bangladesh are keen to undermine the demography of the Chittagong Hill Tracts by pushing more Muslims into the area, as this is the only region in Bangladesh with a non-Muslim majority. The Jamait-e-Islami, which joined the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led coalition that ruled the country between 2001 and 2006, continues to view such migration as favorable to bolstering its grass roots support base and “Islamizing” of the area.

Then, Jamait ministers encouraged Islamic non-governmental organizations supported by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to help Muslim settlers with settlement funds to move into the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Other smaller Islamic groups continue to support Muslim settlements in the area. The local Buddhist tribespeople, meanwhile, either support their own groups or the present ruling Awami League and its more secular agenda.

“A recent conference of [Chittagong Hill Tracts] groups in Thailand’s northern Chiang Mai city expressed apprehension about this trend,” says Mrinal Chakma, a researcher with Calcutta’s Maulana Azad Center for International Studies. “Islamist groups are backing the Rohingya settlements in the CHT, though the present government may not be encouraging it.”

The Rohingyas are also largely unwelcome in India’s northeastern region, where nativist groups angered by the illegal migration of settlers from Bangladesh periodically attack Muslim settlers. Most of the Rohingyas caught entering northeast India have told security officials during questioning that their destination was Assam, 35% of whose 25 million people are Muslims, mostly of Bengali origin.

“With a large Muslim population, Assam may be a natural attraction for the Rohingyas, because from there they can melt into other states of India,” says Samir Das, who has researched the nativist movements in Assam.

Muslims of Bengali origin have been the target of recent violence by indigenous Bodo tribespeople in western Assam. More than 80 people have died in the riots that erupted in late July and more than 250,000 people, both Bodos and Muslims, have been displaced. The Assam government was forced to call out the army to control the situation and was given shoot-at-sight orders to quell the violence.

“So for those Rohingyas headed for Assam, it would be a frying pan-to-fire situation. It could further complicate the fragile ethnic balance of Assam and the rest of India’s northeast, where there’s considerable angst over alleged illegal migration from Bangladesh,” said Samir Das.

India has asked its northeastern states and border guards to maintain a tight vigil on the country’s borders with Bangladesh and Myanmar to prevent a further influx of Rohingyas. Officials say they are worried over the growing arc of violence after Muslims in its financial capital Mumbai and in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh attacked natives of northeastern states, easily identifiable by their Mongoloid features, at the weekend in retaliation against the violence against Muslims in Assam.

Police opened fire in Mumbai on Saturday to control the rioting, in which two died and more than 50 others were injured, including several police. During their protests against the violence against their co-religionists in Assam, the Indian Muslim groups in Mumbai and elsewhere have also protested against Rohingya persecution in Myanmar, even calling for suspension of diplomatic ties with Myanmar.

Subir Bhaumik, a known specialist on Northeast India and Bangladesh, is a former BBC correspondent.

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