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From Rice to Rights: Potential for India and China to Resolve the Rohingya crisis; By Asma Masood

Updated: Feb 1, 2023


Image Courtesy: HT

C3S Paper No. 0169/2015



Courtesy: Mizzima Weekly, Issue 36, Vol. 4 September 3, 2015

Reports in July 2015 stated that minority groups in India are coming out to support the cause of the Rohingya settled in the country after fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Close to 10,565 Rohingya Muslims have entered India and are living in 11 states (maximum 6,684 are living in Jammu and Kashmir), according to the figures released by the Bureau of Immigration.[1] Simultaneously, the Centre at Delhi has decided to discuss the issue of Rohingya settled in India, fearing the group’s radicalization. On the other hand China is remaining largely silent on the Rohingya crisis. Its vague attempt at assistance was calling for an “Asian solution”, but no aid was offered. Simultaneously, there are ongoing reports of floods in Myanmar damaging huge tracts of precious rice paddy fields in Arakan state, the home of the Rohingya. This may have impact on rice prices and Myanmar’s future rice trade with China.

What is the ground reality of the Rohingya crisis vis-à-vis India? How is China connected to the Rohingya issue, especially via rice trade? How can both powers offer to resolve the debacle?


Finding Refuge in India: Towards Relief or Radicalization?

A large number of migrants are streaming into India due to the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. There are reportedly 30,000 registered Rohingya refugees in India. According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), 9000 Rohingya reside in camps in Delhi. Hyderabad and Jammu are home to thousands more. These numbers, alongside the figures given by the Bureau of Immigration, reflect the gravity of the situation. India is trying to keep a stricter vigil on the border with Myanmar and Bangladesh, to stop illegal entrants fleeing the Rohingya conflict. It is difficult for India to send back Rohingya who are held while crossing into the country, as they are not recognized by any state.


On one hand some Rohingya are trying to find solace in makeshift camps in Delhi. On the other, many are settling in cities including Kolkata, Hyderabad and Jammu. However they find that getting employment even as daily wage labourers is not easy, given the language gap. The Rohingya do not speak Urdu, Bengali or any other Indian dialect. Their lack of education is another detrimental factor. They cannot afford the trip to Delhi to obtain a UNHCR refugee card. These aspects may combine to put the Rohingya in the shadow of influence from radical outfits. Although the fear of their radicalization is not imposed by generalizing the entire group, India is worried that certain sections of the persecuted group in the country may fall prey to the bait of terrorism as a livelihood.


For instance, in November 2014, Khalid alias Khalid Mohammed, a Rohingya, from Hyderabad sparked debate about India’s role in tackling the issue. Khalid was reportedly suspected of being a member of the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) and ran terror camps in the bordering areas of Myanmar and Bangladesh.[2] According to a Times of India report, Khalid has apparently admitted that he underwent training with the Tehreek-e-Azadi Arakan. The report adds that the trainers were apparently from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Indian officials suspect that the Lakshar e Taiba (LeT) — as well as militant organizations like Jamaat-ud-Dawah and Jaish-e-Mohammad — are using the plight of the unwanted Rohingya Muslims migrants to stir up trouble between Bangladesh and both of its neighbours Myanmar and India.[3] There are also concerns of the JuD having linkages with the Harkat-ud-Jihad Islami, Arakan, and Noor Hussain Arakani (Rohinya Solidarity Organisation).[4] The Bodh Gaya blasts in 2013 also cast the light of suspicion on Rohingya migrants in India.


The question that arises by observing these dynamics is whether such isolated incidents are allowed to blanket India’s Rohingya policy. India is not openly exhorting against the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, not only due to concerns of radical elements, but that such appeals will attract a greater influx of migrants seeking asylum in the country. India recently disassociated itself from a UNHCR resolution on addressing the human rights situation of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar. Delhi’s stand was that the resolution was “highly prescriptive and not consistent with the broad ethos” of the work of the Council. Clearly, India is trying to delicately balance its diplomatic compulsons with the urge to deliver humanitarian assistance while dealing with Rohingya migrants.


While India grapples with this debate, China is keeping a safe distance from the Rohingya issue.


“An Asian Solution” – Does it include China?

Interestingly, China chooses to use the term ‘Rohingya’, unlike Myanmar which labels the group as ‘Bengalis’. However this is as far as China goes to acknowledge the issue, apart from calling for an “Asian solution” to the crisis. It is not apparent what China indicates by this statement. Conceivably it appeals to South Asian (Bangladeshi and Indian), Southeast Asian and West Asian countries to accept the Rohingya seeking asylum and grant them refugee status. Beijing has not offered to do the same. There are no recent reports of Rohingya settling in China.


Nevertheless there is a small community of Rohingya residing in Yunnan province. They had fled to Myanmar to escape the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Being persecuted even here, a handful made their way to Yunnan where they work as jade merchants. They claim to feel affinity with China’s Uighur Muslims. Perhaps this is the reason China is wary of welcoming new Rohingya migrants, and refuses to form a ‘Chinese solution’ to the challenge. This is despite Beijing enjoying heavy influence in Myanmar. Any overture on the Rohingya’s behalf could trigger an influx of migrants seeking relief within China’s borders. Besides, Myanmar would object to such developments as interference in its internal affairs.

It must be noted that China has invested heavily in a gas pipeline in Arakan, the Myanmar state where the Rohingya originate from. This project will further unbalance Rakhine for the Rohingya.[5]


There is another Chinese dimension to the Rohingya crisis, albeit an indirect one. In early 2014, China banned the import of Myanmarese rice pending new safety and quality control regulations, devastating Myanmar’s rice market and causing steep and sudden devaluation.[6] China – Myanmar rice trade dynamics may be causing domestic friction in Myanmar. There has been speculation on the impact of change in rice prices on the Rohingya conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Falling prices are said to possibly drive resource competition between the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhines in Rakhine state of Myanmar.[7] Hence China – Myanmar rice trade may have ripples cutting across commercial lines, extending upto ethnic borders.  Hence China bears a degree of responsibility to find a solution.


An Indian cum Chinese Exit to the Rohingya Maze

India and China will not pressurize the Myanmar government on the Rohingya issue, given political and economic concerns. Besides, the two powers will not get involved at a deeper level unless they are prepared to absorb a certain number of refugees. While China has welcomed Myanmar’s political transition, its Communist Party-run Global Times has also been candid in its view that democracy will not solve ethnic conflicts in Myanmar like that of the Rohingya. On the other hand India is gearing to tackle the threat of the Rohingya’s leaning towards extremism. In this light, Indian leaders will meet Myanmar’s army chief to flag how Pakistan’s espousing the cause of Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine state is set to boost efforts by Pakistan-sponsored terror groups like LeT to radicalise the community and impart them terror training in camps along the Indo-Bangladesh border.4


A black and white solution to the Rohingya crisis is not apparent. However India and China can indirectly come to the rescue of the persecuted group. China can lift its ban on importing rice from Myanmar. India can partner with Myanmar to setup rice research institutes to improve the quality of agricultural output, thereby helping to stabilize rice exports and prices.

India is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention; but its refugee laws are robust and even UN agencies have appreciated it. There have been criticism from some quarters but India will take time to further shape its refugee laws, given logistical and security concerns. Until then, it can continue to grant asylum to Rohingya seeking refuge in the country; given the fact that the UNHCR  in India is allowed to assist all refugees directly to resolve their issues if any.


The most profound aid which India can offer is education for the Rohingya youth. At present, even within camps, the UNHRC is allowed to provide only primary education and this small respite has no livelihood weightage.[8] India can move beyond these limitations and push for academic and vocational education for the Rohingya. If interpreters are roped in, the language gap can be closed for a few years at least. India’s help towards the Rohingya to be educated and earn sustenance will deplete the risk of radicalization.


Relief for the victimized Rohingya is yet to be seen on the horizon. Until then, India and China can don the cape of responsible Asian powers and hurry towards alleviating the impasse.


References:

[1] Arshad Ali, “Minority groups take up Rohingya Muslims’ cause, seek Centre’s help” The Indian Express, July 24 2015, http://indianexpress.com/article/cities/kolkata/minority-groups-take-up-rohingya-muslims-cause-seek-centres-help/

[2] Jayanta Gupta, “Khalid’s arrest sparks off debate on Rohingyas in India”, Times of India, November 20 2014, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Khalids-arrest-sparks-off-debate-on-Rohingyas-in-India/articleshow/45220794.cms

[3] Palash Ghosh, “Rohingya Muslim Migrants Caught In Limbo Between India And Bangladesh”, International Business Times, September 6 2013,

[4] Bharti Jain, “Myanmar Army chief to hold talks with Indian leaders”, Times of India, July 28 2015, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Myanmar-Army-chief-to-hold-talks-with-Indian-leaders/articleshow/48246652.cms

[5] Vanessa Thevathasan, “Interview: The Stateless Rohingya”, The Diplomat, October 25 2014, http://thediplomat.com/2014/10/interview-the-stateless-rohingya/

[6] Kyaw Hsu Mon and Thit Nay Moe, “ Burma, China Commit to Bilateral Trade”, The Irrawaddy, Novermber 13, 2014, http://www.irrawaddy.org/business/burma-china-commit-bilateral-trade.html

[7] Asma Masood, “Myanmar: Ethno – Resource Conflict in Rakhine State?”, Foreign Policy Journal, http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2013/08/05/myanmar-ethno-resource-conflict-in-rakhine-state/ (Accessed July 28, 2015)

[8] Asma Masood, “Myanmar: FDI, Local Economy and the Rohingya Conflict”, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, http://www.ipcs.org/article/southeast-asia/myanmar-fdi-local-economy-and-the-rohingya-conflict-4030.html, (Accessed July 28, 2015)


[Asma Masood is a Research Officer with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, India. Her areas of interest are China, South Asia and Dynamics of Foreign Policy. Email id : asma.masood11@gmail.com Twitter: @asmamasood11]

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