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The plight of the Rohingyas is a challenge for Aung San Suu Kyi

Ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar wait for registration after being rescued, at an Immigration Detention center in Sadao, Songkhla province, southern Thailand, 11 January 2013.//EPA

Ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar wait for registration after being rescued, at an Immigration Detention center in Sadao, Songkhla province, southern Thailand, 11 January 2013.//EPA

The UN's High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres, on a recent visit to India, was lavish in his praise for India's treatment of refugees. In this season of discontent, where so much has gone wrong and only disgruntlement about public policy is being voiced, his words are a rare acknowledgement of something good in Indian practice.

India has long been a haven for the displaced and threatened from its neighbourhood, many of whom have been assimilated and become a virtually indistinguishable part of the larger society, while others have retained their distinctiveness and way of life, in either case able to live here without anxiety. India's borders are famously porous, and many of those who have come under some form of duress have simply slipped through and lost themselves in the vast sea of humanity.

But others have come through deliberate decisions of the Indian authorities, notably asylum-seekers from Tibet, among many others, who have prospered and thrived in India. It is a record that gives India the right to encourage others to be no less sensitive to the plight of those displaced from their homes.

Currently, the most visible refugee issue in South Asia relates to the Rohingyas of Myanmar. They belong to the Arakan coastal strip, which is relatively distant and not easily accessed from Myanmar's heartland. Unlike the bulk of their compatriots, the Rohingyas are Muslim and have their own language.

Myanmar is linguistically and ethnically very diverse but it has shied away from accepting the Rohingyas, with their distinct ethnicity and language, as people of its own. Officially, the area is known as Rakhine, as is its language, and there is a disputed history about its origins and inhabitants.

British colonial rule had something to do with it, for immigration into the Arakan was encouraged in the colonial period, to promote settlement in relatively empty lands from more densely populated areas further west. The Second World War added to the complexity, for Japan conquered the Arakan, and later the British took it back.

The fluctuations in centralised authority encouraged ideas of local autonomy, which were fiercely resisted. From the early days of independent Myanmar there has been considerable unrest in the area, with periodic rioting and strong repression of locals.

Many have felt obliged to leave and search for other places to live, some in Bangladesh and others in distant parts of Myanmar. The uncertainty about their status has made it difficult to promote the sort of development activities seen elsewhere in the country, these too regarded as woefully inadequate, so the Rohingya areas have been left ever further behind, and ethnic and religious issues have only added to their plight.

There has been an overspill of the trouble into neighbours' lands, including India. Substantial numbers of Rohingyas have crossed into Bangladesh in search of security and a better life. From there, some have kept moving and found their way to India, where many Bangladeshis are already resident - this has long been an issue between New Delhi and Dhaka.

So a trickle of Rohingyas has reached as far as India, there to fend for themselves as best they can. Only recently, the UNHCR in New Delhi was besieged by a group of Rohingyas in a peaceful but determined demonstration that went on for several days and served to highlight the situation of this unfortunate group.

There is another escape route to India for some of the Rohingyas, the direct sea route to the Andamans. This is hazardous, for those who choose to take it must launch themselves onto the open seas in fragile, barely serviceable rafts, not all of which are capable of making the journey.

The Indian coast guard finds drifting rafts and does what it can to rescue the unfortunate passengers, though there is no reckoning of those who might be lost in the passage. A certain number get through nevertheless, and now there is a small colony of them in the Andamans. As they have no recognized status and cannot be reckoned as refugees in present circumstances, the local administration can do little more than treat them as humanely as possible and wait for a solution to be found by higher authorities.

Apart from this relatively small but nevertheless poignant issue, there are other reasons why India finds itself drawn into Arakan affairs.

Sittwe, the chief town and port, has a strategic value that gave it importance during the Second World War when it provided a back door to India's northeast, which was the scene of action against the Japanese, and river-borne traffic from Sittwe into what is now Mizoram was developed in order to supply the military front. After hostilities ended, this route was forgotten, as were others leading from India into Myanmar. Now, as the region is opening up, and plans to develop its resources are taking shape, there is renewed interest in the area, both for the access it can provide and for the resources it contains.

Nor is it India alone that is showing fresh interest: China, with its penchant for dramatic, far-reaching infrastructure projects, is also believed to have ambitious ideas centred on the Arakan. A major oil terminal at Sittwe, refineries, and pipelines leading to China would transform the region and convert what is now something of a backwater into a hive of activity.

Strategic questions involving India and China will have to be kept in mind and could tend to overshadow the humanitarian crisis that is currently in focus. However, the most urgent need is to address the refugee situation of the Rohingyas. Opinion in Myanmar is not sympathetic to them, for reasons already mentioned. Yet the matter cannot be wished away and will loom larger as international sentiment strengthens and humanitarian issues become more pressing.

Within Myanmar, a great transition from authoritarian, military rule to genuine popular democracy is taking place. The democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi has warned the world not to be complacent, for only small steps have been taken so far and major changes are yet to be put into effect.

Yet what is happening appears to be irreversible and there is real expectation that before long public sentiment will propel her into power. Until now, for understandable reasons, she has responded cautiously when questioned about the Rohingyas. Yet the issue may well prove to be one of her early challenges.

Salman Haidar is India's former foreign secretary


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