When Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj undertook a two-day visit to Myanmar on May 10-11, it had important implications for Bangladesh. The Rohingya repatriation issue came during Sushma's interactions with three main figures in Myanmar's power structure: President U Win Myint, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and army chief Min Aung Hlaing. In itself, this is nothing new. The issue had figured in earlier interactions between the two countries, notably when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had undertaken his maiden visit to Myanmar in September last year. Fast forward to May this year—and nine months are a long time in international politics—and how India's position on the Rohingya problem has changed during that time! And nothing summed up that change more tellingly than what Sushma told the Myanmar leadership during her visit to Naypyidaw.
The Indian external affairs minister conveyed to the Myanmar leaders the need for a “safe, speedy, and sustainable” return of the refugees to Rakhine province in Myanmar. Her remark is a marked movement forward from what had so far been India's evolving stand on the subject. True, India is still not officially using the word “Rohingya” in referring to the refugees, and rather described them as “displaced persons”. This is to keep in good humour a country that does not recognise Rohingyas as a separate ethnic group. But what should please Dhaka is that Sushma has outlined emphatically three main contours of the Rohingya repatriation issue: 1) speed, 2) safe, and 3) sustainable. In fact, the last two are inextricably related as the safety of Rohingyas in their homeland Rakhine is prerequisite to making the repatriation sustainable. This is the most unambiguous enunciation of India's stand so far.
Besides, Sushma Swaraj welcomed what she called the Myanmar government's commitment to implementing the recommendations of the Rakhine State Advisory Commission, a joint initiative of Suu Kyi and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan Foundation, to resolve the Rohingya problem.
Compare the latest Indian external affairs ministry statement after Sushma's visit with what was said by India during Modi's visit to Myanmar last year. The Indian prime minister had at that time referred only to the menace of “extremist violence” in Rakhine in his prepared public statement after a bilateral meeting with Suu Kyi. “We are partners in your concerns over the loss of lives of security forces and innocent people due to the extremist violence in Rakhine State,” he had said. A joint statement issued after the visit said, “India condemned the recent terrorist attacks in northern Rakhine State, wherein several members of the Myanmar security forces lost their lives.”
This caused widespread anger in Bangladesh as it was read as an unsympathetic remark even as almost the entire international community denounced the persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar. That it did not go down well with the Sheikh Hasina government was evident in the fact that just two days after Modi's visit, Bangladesh's High Commissioner to India Syed Muazzem Ali, obviously on instructions from Dhaka, met the then Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar in New Delhi. And the evolution of India's stand began to take a nuanced shift. On September 9, the Indian external affairs ministry came up with a statement saying “India remains deeply concerned about the situation in Rakhine State in Myanmar and the outflow of refugees from that region.” The issue later came up when Sushma Swaraj met Hasina on their way to New York and again on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in September.
Three to four months down the line, Jaishankar visited Myanmar and underlined the need for restoration of normalcy in Rakhine and to “enable the return of displaced persons”. India went further and entered into a memorandum of understanding with Myanmar for prefabricated houses in Rakhine so as to meet the immediate needs of Rohingyas so that the repatriation could take off as early as possible. In all interactions between Bangladesh and India at different levels thereafter and even outside the bilateral forums, Dhaka has repeatedly urged New Delhi to pressure Myanmar to take back its citizens at the earliest. On the sidelines of the OIC foreign ministers' meeting in Dhaka earlier in May, Hasina had urged India, Russia, Japan and China to prevail upon Myanmar to start taking back the Rohingyas. Her choice of the countries for the appeal is significant since these four countries have robust relations with Myanmar. Bangladesh's diplomacy with India on the Rohingya issue seems to be yielding results, even if slowly.
There are four main reasons behind Sushma Swaraj's latest articulation of India's stand on the Rohingya issue. First, general elections in Bangladesh are expected later this year and the start of Rohingya repatriation could be touted by the Hasina government as one of the successes of its foreign policy. India is conscious of the fact that the repatriation of Rohingyas has remained a non-starter even after four months since a deal was reached between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Secondly, it sets the ground for a meeting between Modi and Hasina in Santiniketan on May 25. Thirdly, India saw the risk of finding itself in a corner along with Russia and China on the Rohingya issue.
Fourth, India had seemingly missed out on an opportunity to play the leadership role in resolving an issue in its own backyard given that it had to do a delicate balancing act between its ties with Bangladesh and Myanmar. It is not without significance that a few days before Sushma's latest round of visit to Myanmar, the latest consignment of Indian relief materials meant to help Rohingya refugees cope with the coming monsoon reached Chittagong. India is the South Asian power and acts as a bridge with, and a strong link to, South East Asia. India, Myanmar and Bangladesh are among the key members of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation. For India, dealing with the Rohingya issue is a challenge but also an opportunity to take up a leadership role in tackling a problem with international implications.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent to The Daily Star.