Myanmar, a nation located at the junction of South Asia and Southeast Asia corridor saw a historic change when the democratic led government, National Leader for Democracy (NLD) overtook the power from the military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in the historic election of 2015 thus ending the 60 years of military junta rule.

Backed by the democratic principles of equality, accountability, transparency and control of power, the NLD emerged as the ultimate guarantor of ensuring the aspiration of 50 million Myanmarese people. However, in the event of post election, NLD has failed to garner any advantageous position in Myanmar due to various constitutional amendments and restrictions. On top of that Rohingya problem emerged as another challenge to the newly installed government.

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority ethnically related to the Bengali people living for centuries in the northern Rakhine state of Myanmar are considered as one of the most persecuted people on the earth. However, notwithstanding their existence, Myanmar considers them as undocumented immigrants who have been living in Rakhine state of Myanmar for centuries. According to the Burma Citizenship Law of 1982 which made a categorical distinction of Burmese Citizenship into three parts- Citizenship, associate citizenship and naturalized citizen effectively bars the Rohingya of acquiring the Burmese citizenship as the government doesn’t validate the history of Rohingya and their being a Burmese ethnic minority. In this regard of being stateless, without citizenship and ethnic group recognition, the Rohingya faced deep seated hatred and subject of being soft target and discrimination. The government employed different tactics including the proxy aggression and hybrid attack on the Rohingya leading to the mass outflow of Rohingya to the near adjoining states, including Bangladesh, Thailand and India. As of 2017 according to UNHCR more than 140,000 Rohingya has been displaced from their homeland.

In the recent years, the Myanmar military has sought a new strategy of driving out the illegal Bengali immigrants from their territory. In this regard, the military is using every available strategy including the killing, shooting and raping of the Rohingya to force them to leave the state. This has led to an escalation in hostilities and spawned a potent terror in Myanmar. The extensive offensive measures against what Myanmar government called illegal immigrants has preferably led to the rise of extremist militant and insurgent groups amongst the Rohingya. One such group- Harakah al- Yaqin now refers in English as the Arkan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has taken its birth. The group is well connected with most of the Muslim countries having the Rohingya connection and heritage with its base in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India according to the International Crisis Group report. The group issues fatwa to legitimize their violence and wants the Rohingya to join them in their fight against the Myanmar forces. The first coordinated strike of the group was conducted in 2016 when it attacked Myanmar border posts along the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh. Furthermore, in 2017 in the wee hour of August, the group mounted another coordinated attack on the police check posts and army bases in the townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung in the Rakhine state of Myanmar.  This led the Government to conduct clear out operation across the Rakhine state bringing reports of killings, clashes and vigilantism against the Rohingya.

As such, the development of these episodes poses a significant challenge to Myanmar and India. As for Myanmar, the Rohingya issue has seriously deteriorated her status in the global community. Fresh from the rule of Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) for more than a decade, the Rohingya issue has brought a new challenge to the new Government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The counter offensive measures conducted by the Myanmar army against the Rohingya significantly deteriorated the status of Myanmar in her external relations as the world community poured their sympathy and concern for the Rohingya and condemned the violent act of the Myanmar government. Furthermore, the counter offensive measures of the Myanmar government have created a space for the rise of the Islamic terror in Myanmar which can gravely complicate the matters of the Rohingya living in the Rakhine state.

In the midst of the rise of Islamic jihadis, their appealing ideology in the Southeast Asia, the ARSA may jockey for power within the framework of the Islamic State (ISIS) thereby increasing the domain of security to a whole new level. As ISIS is gradually losing its battleground in the Middle East from the coalition forces of Russia and the United States, Southeast Asia has emerged as a new venue. Some of the Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia have opened up as an alternative theatre for the ISIS and it affiliated militants. Whether it’s the Jemaah Islamiyah of Indonesia or the Khatibah Nusantara of Indonesia they aligned and support themselves with the theology of ISIS and provides great inspiration for the new born jihadi and extremists to wage violence in their struggle. This situation can develop a headache to Myanmar particularly looking at the present situation of Rohingya issue as the armed Rohingya militants including ARSA might infuse the ISIS theology and collaborate within the domain of Southeast Asia terror groups and make the issue a greater one.

As for India, the Rohingya issue has never flared up in its national security issue. However, in the changing circumstances, particularly in the globalised world of interconnectedness, New Delhi should be more cautious in the Rohingya issue. As India plans to deport around 40,000 Rohingya refugees who are staying in India and also refuses to join the declaration against Myanmar of genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya at the recently held conference in Bali, it might bring challenges and a risk factor to India. The first risk emanates from the persistent instability situation in the border region of India and Myanmar. The border region of India and Myanmar is a home for various militant groups who use the cross-border affiliations in waging war against the Indian state. These groups have established clandestine networks in the neighboring states of Myanmar. As India faces an uphill task in combating the terror threat, the ARSA might add a new flavor to the ongoing conflicts. As the ethnic militants of the Northeast India need new bases and cooperation in its fight, they might seek direct and indirect support of the ARSA. More so, a coordination and cooperation from the ARSA also looks possible when the Indian state has failed to provide Rohingya the basic necessity when they are facing genocide and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Furthermore, the cooperation between the ARSA and the insurgent groups of the Northeast India might open up new bases and territory (Rakhine for Northeast Militants and Northeast India for the ARSA) to both the groups in their survival and struggle.

Second, India has huge investments at stake in Myanmar including the Kaladan Multi-Modal Project, tri-lateral highway and Oil and Gas project. In most cases, these projects passes via the Rakhine state of Myanmar and the stability of the region is one of the crucial factors for India. The Kaladan Multi-Modal project that India is building to connect Mizoram to Sittwe port in Myanmar passes through the Rakhine state of Myanmar. In the event of deporting huge number of Rohingya and not condemning Myanmar for the atrocities, the Rohingya militants, including the ARSA might act as a hindrance in these projects and on overall India quest of looking and acting east.

From the above picture, it looks clear that the  rise of Rohingya insurgency has a serious implication to Myanmar and India. For Myanmar, the Rohingya issue has put Myanmar in the state of dilemma. The recognition of Rohingya as a Myanmar citizen will seriously deteriorate the status and fame of the NLD since Bamar or Burman (the ethnic group) constitutes the majority in Myanmar and are predominantly Theravada Buddhist. In the plight of recognizing Rohingya, it might deteriorate its support base amongst the majority groups and can even face a crisis mandate in the parliament and within the party. This will automatically please the Tatmadaw who are looking for an opportunity to come to power again by piercing and rupturing  the foundation of  NLD and its democratic conscience. As for India, it is in their interest to make a careful decision of the situation. New Delhi should wisely deal with the Rohingya issue keeping in context the security and the strategic importance of the region as well as the importance of the bilateral relations.  

Pema Tseten Lachungpa

PhD Scholar, Department of International Relations

Sikkim University, India

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