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Why is Modi backing Suu Kyi on Rohingya issue?

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FT ONLINE

Narendra Modi has kept mum on the plight of Rohingyas during his three-day Myanmar visit but said India shared Myanmar’s concern about “extremist violence” in its Rakhine state.

Indian observers say Modi’s announcement did not come as a surprise since it is only natural for India to prioritise business ties and strategy in its relations with Myanmar.

Modi visited Myanmar amid an army crackdown in the Rakhine that has so far forced an estimated 270,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing into Bangladesh.

Refugees and rights groups say hundreds of Rohingya have been killed in the military operation triggered by insurgents’ August 25 attack on dozens of police posts and an army base.

Myanmar denies the claims. Naypyitaw does not recognise the Rohingya, considered to be one of the most persecuted communities in the world, as its citizens, and sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Almost all the diplomats, researchers and analysts the Bangla Tribune interviewed in Delhi said that Modi did not speak a word about the Rohingya crisis as India was desperate to improve its economic ties with resource-rich Myanmar.

India also refused to sign a global declaration adopted at an international conclave on Thursday as it referred to the violence against Rohingya.

‘Act East’ policy

Myanmar is India’s first stoppage in its Act East policy. Delhi is also keen to strengthen business ties with ASEAN members and considers Naypyitaw its gateway to Southeast Asia.

Naypyitaw is also Delhi’s partner in BIMSTEC.

India’s bilateral trade with Myanmar has grown to about $2.2 billion and Delhi has invested heavily in connectivity projects through Myanmar – one of them is a trilateral highway passing through Myanmar to Thailand – but these projects have moved slowly.

Former Indian ambassador to Myanmar VS Seshadri explained that India has so much stake in Myanmar in business and connectivity that Delhi cannot afford bitterness with Naypyitaw at any cost.

“Good relations with Myanmar is the first and most important condition for the success of our Act East policy,” he said.

The Chinese factor

Myanmar’s relations with China has improved further since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy came to power. She travelled to Beijing after becoming the state counsellor.

China is also mediating peace talks between Myanmar and various armed communities. Beijing is also constructing Kyauk Pyu port and has set up gas pipelines up to Kunming.

Times of India’s Diplomatic Editor Indrani Bagchi said the situation has been gradually changing.

Myanmar is giving India a clear signal that it wants to maintain a balance between Delhi and Beijing because both are very important neighbours for Naypyitaw.

India sees this as an excellent opportunity to rekindle an old friendship, all the while pushing back against Chinese influence on Myanmar, she said.

Delhi will never want uncomfortable issues like violence against Rohingyas to cast a shadow on this scenario, Baghchi said.

Stability in the Rakhine

India is constructing the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project at a cost of nearly $500 million through Rakhine, to directly connect India’s northeast with the Bay of Bengal.

It involves developing a port, an inland waterways terminal and a road. It can also serve as an alternative if Bangladesh ever refuses to give India transit.

Geopolitical stability in the region is a must for realising this important project.

Delhi has nearly finished the Sittwe port work where the Kaladan project starts. But construction of the Mizoram road through thick forest at the end of the Kaladan river path is stuck.

Gautam Mukhopadhaya, who retired last year after serving as Indian ambassador to Myanmar, said the 2012 violence in Rakhine pushed back the Kaladan project.

Almost all the labourers or local engineers working in the project were local Muslims who were forced to flee after violence erupted.

So, India needs peace and stability in the Rakhine for the sake of the Kaladan project, he added.

Anti-militant operations

Four Indian states – Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Monipur, and Mizoram – share nearly 1,643km border with Myanmar.

Many northeastern extremist groups have hideouts in the deep forests along the border.

India has long been conducting anti-militant operations in these areas and at times, even struck the militants inside Myanmar. It is clear that such operations are not possible without Naypyitaw’s consent and assistance.

Delhi has no other option but to maintain this cooperation with Myanmar to maintain peace in its northeast.

Delhi-based strategic thinktank Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis’ researcher Gautam Sen pointed out that most of the insurgent groups like the NSCN or Ulfa, who are fighting against India, have hideouts or training camps in the Myanmar jungles.

“So, the assistance of Myanmar, and particularly of its army, is very important for India to eliminate these [insurgents],” he added.

  • Ranjan Basu; Delhi

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