Notwithstanding recent pleas by Dhaka, New Delhi on Thursday refrained from publicly nudging Aung San Suu Kyi’s government in Nay Pyi Taw to expeditiously take back nearly a million Rohingyas, who had fled ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and taken refuge in Bangladesh.
New Delhi, however, discussed with Nay Pyi Taw the development projects in Myanmar’s restive Rakhine State, where the Rohingyas fled from and sailed in small boats across the Bay of Bengal to take refuge in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.
Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla on Thursday had a virtual meeting with his counterpart in Myanmar Government, U Soe Han. They reviewed the entire gamut of bilateral relations, including border cooperation and upgradation of border infrastructure, status of India’s ongoing development projects in Myanmar, bilateral trade and investment ties as well as power and energy cooperation.
Shringla noted during his meeting with U Soe Han that New Delhi’s cooperation with Nay Pyi Taw under the Rakhine State Development Programme continued apace. He also noted that India and Myanmar had of late started trilateral cooperation with Japan to create “soft infrastructure” for 15 schools in the Rakhine State.
The Foreign Secretary also stated that New Delhi would continue efforts towards ensuring an early, safe and sustainable repatriation of the internally displaced persons in Myanmar.
He, however, did not directly refer to the issue of repatriation of nearly one million Rohingyas, who had fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh. The press-release issued by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) too did not have any mention of the return of the refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar.
“The progress in the Rakhine State Development Programme, which is being implemented under our development cooperation project, was discussed,” Anurag Srivastava, the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), said, when a journalist asked him if the repatriation of the return of the Rohingyas from Bangladesh to Myanmar had been touched upon during the virtual meeting between the Foreign Secretary and his counterpart in Nay Pyi Taw.
The India-Myanmar virtual Foreign Office Consultation on Thursday came just two days after External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and his counterpart in Bangladesh Government, A K Abdul Momen, had a video conference. A joint statement issued after Jaishankar-Momen video conference noted that the two ministers reiterated the importance of the “safe, speedy and sustainable return” of the “forcibly displaced” Rohingyas from Bangladesh to Myanmar. Momen also told Jaishankar that Bangladesh would expect India, which would start its two-year stint as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, to play during its stint on the horse-shoe table a “more meaningful role” to ensure safe and sustainable return of the Rohingyas from Bangladesh to Myanmar.
The minority Rohingyas have since long been victims of persecution in the Rakhine State, where Buddhists constitute the majority. They have been denied citizenship and most of them have been stateless, despite living for generations in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s armed forces launched the latest military crackdown against the Rohingyas on August 25, 2017 after a militant outfit killed 12 security personnel in Rakhine. With hundreds of them killed and villages burnt down, over 742,000 more Rohingyas, including women and children, fled Myanmar and took refuge in Bangladesh, taking the number of refugees to nearly one million.
New Delhi, however, stood by Aung San Suu Kyi’s Government and refrained from joining others in criticising her. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had in fact visited Nay Pyi Taw just a week after the violence against the Rohingyas started in Rakhine. He and Suu Kyi had agreed on the need for undertaking both infrastructure and socio-economic projects for overall development in the Rakhine State.
India, however, in 2017 committed financial assistance of $ 25 million (US $ 5 million per year) for undertaking projects in Rakhine State over a period of five years.
New Delhi completed construction of 250 prefabricated houses in the first phase of the Rakhine State Development Program for the Rohingyas, who were expected to return from Bangladesh to Myanmar. Though the prefabricated houses were already handed over to the Government of Myanmar by July 2019, the much-awaited repatriation of the refugees is yet to start.
Kyaw Tint Swe, a minister of Myanmar Government, earlier this week told the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) that the militant groups like Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and the Arakan Army (AA) had found a sanctuary in Bangladesh. He also said that the organisations like the ARSA and AA had resorted to intimidation and violence in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh to stall the repatriation and the Sheikh Hasina’s government in Dhaka should do more to stop them. His statement irked Bangladesh, which accused the Myanmar Government of resorting to disinformation campaign.
New Delhi has been treading cautiously on the issue, maintaining a delicate balance between the two neighbouring nations – Bangladesh and Myanmar, where India has been trying to resist China’s moves to expand strategic footprints.