Should those fleeing repression in Myanmar be sent back? or should humanity come before politics? Refugee crisis raises some big questions
We’re not in the business of democracy promotion. Our interests come first
Kanwar Sibal (FOR)
Not being party to the United Nations Refugee Convention, India is under no legal obligation internationally to accept the inflow of refugees from Myanmar. As a democracy committed to humanitarian principles India does not need adherence to an international convention to take humanitarian action where necessary. India has hosted refugees from Tibet, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bhutan and others (around 25 countries) numbering around 300,000 at present. Other than refugees per se, illegal migration into India has been huge, affecting our politics and society. India, with its porous borders, is vulnerable to refugee flows as the countries around it, share ethnic and religious ties with it, and are heavily populated and prone to sectarian and ethnic strife.
The refugee issue is a complex one as it involves serious security issues as well. Our Northeast already faces great economic challenges because geography has hindered its development and economic integration with the rest of the country. States like Mizoram and Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland as well, share borders with Myanmar.
Linking some of these states to Southeast Asia through Myanmar as part of our Act East policy can in many ways assist in giving a boost to the local economies. India has fought local insurgencies in these areas for years with the cooperation of the Myanmar military, which has been greatly strengthened in recent years. Without this cooperation our security issues in the Northeast will become grave, affecting not only peace but also the larger geo-political eastward ambitions of India. It is important therefore that we handle the refugee issue with sensitivity and preserve our capacity to engage the Myanmar military to cooperatively deal with the developments on the ground.
The issue is the scale of the potential influx of refugees. A limited number seeking temporary shelter in Mizoram, for instance, is a manageable issue, especially as, according to the existing Free Movement Regime, people on both sides within 16km of the border can move to and fro for trade and temporary stay of 14 days. Before this was suspended because of Covid-19, thousands of Myanmarese crossed the border regularly for work or to meet kinfolk.
For the moment, it seems the number is limited in Mizoram—about 1,000 —as the issue is sensitive because of the tribal affiliations on both sides of the border. While ethnic kinship is an emotional issue, it is not salient to Mizoram alone as ethnic groups straddle our border with some of our other neighbours too. It is helpful that the chief minister of Mizoram is in contact with the Myanmar foreign minister about the situation. We are no doubt in contact with the Myanmar military at the diplomatic level here and in Myanmar to stem the flow of refugees. An impression should be avoided that India will welcome refugees, and that arrangements have been made to host them as that can encourage the flow. It makes more sense to announce the sealing of the border so that an unnecessary influx is avoided.
In Thailand, for example, many refugees who out of fear and not any physical threat sought shelter across the border have been persuaded to go back.
Some arguments made in favour of India opening its doors to Myanmar refugees are rhetorical. We are supposed to stand up to democratic principles as the world’s largest democracy and support elected governments. Our principles, not security, should be our first concern, it is argued. We should not damage how the world sees us, and that we matter only because we are a democracy, goes the argument.
We are not in the business of democracy promotion, and should not be. The consequences of regime change-policies based on imposing democracy by military means and imposing sanctions are before us. This policy has led to refugee flows into Europe which its established democracies are grappling with. Political and social strains within the European Union, the emergence of right-wing nationalist forces, religious intolerance, and security issues related to violent extremism have resulted. Strenuous efforts are being made to prevent the flow of refugees with coastal surveillance, financial incentives to Turkey, and so on. The US and Australia are democracies that have taken drastic protective steps against refugee flows. Western democracies do not offer a model. We do not have to prove to the world our democratic credentials. If we matter only because we are a democracy, one wonders why China matters.
Because of larger political, economic and security interests that India has in Myanmar where the military will retain a part of power no matter how the present situation unfolds, we have to keep open the doors of dialogue. The China factor cannot be ignored. We have condemned the violence and asked for the restoration of democracy there. Working behind the scenes is more effective. We have to be consistent. If we want to send back Rohingyas to Myanmar, we cannot at the same time welcome Chin refugees into India.
Kanwar Sibal is a former foreign secretary
Taking in refugees is not only the right thing to do, it’s also good geopolitics
Sushil Aaron (AGAINST)
India is now grappling with a new refugee situation along the border in the Northeast. People from Myanmar are fleeing the ongoing military crackdown and over 3,000 are believed to have taken refuge in Mizoram. The union home ministry had asked four border states not to grant refugee status to those entering while the BJP-led government in Manipur initially ordered district administrations and civil society not to open camps and turn away refugees trying to enter India. The Manipur order was withdrawn following an uproar but the Centre is evidently keen not to alienate the junta. India, incidentally, was among the eight countries that attended the Armed Forces Day celebrations in the Myanmarese capital of Naypyidaw on March 27. Several strategic affairs specialists will back this approach of turning away refugees and argue that India cannot afford to alienate the military regime while Delhi strives to retain a measure of influence in Myanmar while facing China’s footprint there.
Scholars have, however, forcefully questioned the wisdom of this strategy. Avinash Paliwal, associate professor in international relations at SOAS, has argued that three decades of backing the junta has not yet given Delhi the leverage to steer the generals in a “politically inclusive direction.” He also points out that armed insurgent groups in Myanmar were more helpful in countering Assamese and Naga militants in their heyday than the generals but that Delhi (inexplicably) abandoned allies in Myanmarese society and cast its lot with the military. Political observer Pratap Bhanu Mehta said that Myanmar’s economic importance to India has been greatly exaggerated even if connectivity and trade through it, to the rest of southeast Asia remain valuable. Mehta argued that if India is to be a key interlocutor in shaping Myanmar’s future it ought to have credibility with different groups within the country.
Further, there’s the issue of how the conflict in Myanmar appears to those in Mizoram and Manipur, since they have kinship ties with Chin communities across the border and are keenly invested in developments there. The political class in Mizoram is questioning Delhi’s policy, and the state government is planning to provide employment to refugees while the wider society is raising funds and rallying behind the refugees. Delhi’s keenness to maintain bureaucratic ties with Myanmar at the expense of humanitarian considerations risks undermining domestic coherence in the Northeast.
It is difficult to see the political sense in this strategy. India’s reflex to turn away refugees, violating the established principle of non-refoulement, a fundamental principle of international law that stops a country from sending back those facing threats in their home country, is not a good look for the world’s largest democracy. The crisis in Mizoram (and Myanmar) may seem like a localised affair but it opens up broader questions: whether India will attempt moral suasion or look out for its narrowly-conceived interests; whether, as a subcontinental power, it seeks to do its bit to shape global order and take the risks for democracy, when its legitimacy is being challenged worldwide and in Myanmar, or if it acquiesces by declining refugees.
The refugee situation in the Northeast will provoke uncomfortable questions about India’s record as well. India has previously hosted refugees from Tibet, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and been particularly attentive to Afghanistan, handling refugees, building roads and its Parliament building, and giving scholarships to Afghan students. Failing to be sensitive to refugees from Myanmar at this juncture will lend an impression that India adopts humanitarian policy only when it has geopolitical skin in the game.
Delhi could avoid this reputational pickle by an active assent to principle and backing democratic instincts. It is striking that in Nehru’s time India, despite its limited means, had the ambition to shape the world order in line with values, while the country now with its vastly enhanced power shrinks from the global canvas it operated with.
India is currently on a different journey —of subordinating state policy to the goal of developing a muscular, majoritarian identity, where the deportation of Rohingya back to Myanmar where their lives are at risk, the passing of a discriminatory citizenship law — are all of a piece in the construction of a new sensibility that is blind to the experience of other identities and politics.
That may win elections at home for the BJP but makes for bad geopolitics, besides stoking disaffection within. The Indian government is not popular in Nepal and Bangladesh, as recent protests show; Delhi is now alienating the people of Myanmar as well. None of India’s interests, including those furthered by vaccine diplomacy, can be meaningfully served if neighbouring populations turn against it.
Accepting refugees is the right thing to do. It should be the starting point of letting an understanding of the Northeast’s diversity and complex history guide India’s diplomacy rather than resorting to the formulaic option of bureaucratic diktat and force. A ‘civilisational state’ needs a moral calculus.
Sushil Aaron is a political commentator