In Myanmar, one of the world’s most diverse, multiethnic nations, there is a rare consensus — the much-persecuted Rohingya Muslims are outsiders and not part of the country. A military operation to flush out Rohingya militants waging a hit-and-run campaign has led to an exodus of Rohingya residents from Rakhine state, creating a refugee crisis for Bangladesh and, to a smaller extent, India.
India, over the years, has generously admitted asylum seekers or refugees from a host of places, including Tibet, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and China. But the illegal entry of tens of thousands of Rohingya is seen in India as an internal security challenge, in part because of the threat the Indian government perceives from Rohingya jihadist activities. Rohingya militants have a long history of violent jihadism, including recent attacks on non-Muslim civilians in Rakhine state.
The current international narrative on the Rohingya plight has actually failed to recognize the roots of the present crisis. Contrary to the perception that the Rohingya militancy has arisen from military repression in recent years, Myanmar’s jihad scourge is decades old, with Rohingya Islamist violence beginning even before Myanmar gained independence in 1948.
Rohingya militants have actually been in the vanguard of the global rise of Islamic radicalism since the early 1940s, when they joined the campaign to press the British to establish Pakistan by partitioning India. It was the British who more than a century ago moved large numbers of Rohingya from East Bengal to work on rubber and tea plantations in Burma, now Myanmar, which was administered as a province of India until 1937 before it became a separate, self-governing colony. Rohingya migrants settled mainly in Myanmar’s East Bengal-bordering Arakan region (now renamed Rakhine state).
It was the advance of the Imperial Japanese Army into Myanmar during World War II that first highlighted the country’s Rohingya problem. Communal hatred spilled into violence as the Japanese military swept into Arakan in 1942 and the British launched a counter-offensive, with the local Buddhists largely siding with the Japanese and the Rohingya with the British.
Britain recruited Rohingya Muslims into its guerrilla force — the “V” Force — to ambush and kill Japanese troops. When the British eventually regained control of Arakan in 1945, they rewarded Rohingya Muslims for their loyalty by appointing them to the main posts in the local government.
Emboldened by the open British support, Rohingya militants set out to settle old scores with the Buddhists. And in July 1946, they formed the North Arakan Muslim League to seek the Muslim-dominated northern Arakan’s secession from Myanmar. In the religious bloodletting that preceded and followed the 1947 partition of India, Rohingya attacks sought to drive out the Buddhists from northern Arakan as part of the militants’ campaign to join East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh in 1971).
Failure to join East Pakistan turned many Rohingyas to armed jihadism, with mujaheddin forces in 1948 gaining effective control of northern Arakan. Government forces suppressed the revolt only in the early 1950s, although intermittent mujaheddin attacks continued even subsequently until the early 1960s.
From the 1970s onward, Rohingya Islamist movements reemerged, with a series of insurgent groups rising and fading away. The aim of the groups was to establish an Islamist state within a Buddhist state through jihad and demographic change.
Now history has come full circle, with the Myanmar military being accused of driving the Rohingya out of Rakhine state. But in a development that carries ominous security implications for the region, especially Myanmar, India and Bangladesh, Rakhine is becoming a magnet for the global jihadist movement, with Rohingya radicals increasingly being aided by militant organizations in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
The new breed of Rohingya insurgents is suspected of having links with Islamic State, Lashkar-e-Taiba, al-Qaida and even Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. After the 2012 deadly communal riots in Rakhine, Ata Ullah, the Pakistani who heads the Rohingya terrorist group, the well-oiled Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, reportedly returned to Pakistan from an extended stay in Saudi Arabia with millions of dollars to wage jihad against Myanmar.
Against this background, India is concerned about the illegal entry of over 40,000 Rohingya since 2012. The government has told the country’s Supreme Court that their arrival poses a “serious security threat” because of Rohingya militants’ links with terrorist outfits. Some Rohingya militants have become active even in India, according to the government.
What is particularly striking is the organized manner in which the Rohingya sneaked into India from multiple routes and then settled across the length and breadth of the country, including in communally sensitive places like Kashmir and Hyderabad. Rohingya settlements have come up even in New Delhi. Because they entered India unlawfully, the Rohingya are classified as illegal aliens, not refugees.
Normally those fleeing a conflict-torn zone tend to camp just across an international border. But the Rohingya entered India not through the long border the country shares with Myanmar but via a third nation, Bangladesh. After having crossed over into India, many Rohingya then dispersed from the Bangladesh-bordering West Bengal and Tripura states to different parts of the country. Large numbers of these arrivals, according to the government, have fraudulently obtained Indian identity cards, thus reinforcing security concerns.
In fact, the Rohingya have approached India’s Supreme Court against their possible deportation. Because they entered from Bangladesh, they can be deported only to that country, not to Myanmar. However, the Indian government has made no attempt thus far to deport any Rohingya.
India is already home to some 20 million illegal migrants from Bangladesh, a figure that is nearly double the number of Mexican immigrants — legal and illegal — living in the United States. But while the presence of the Mexican aliens is a hot political and judicial issue in the U.S., political correctness has inhibited any debate in India for years on how to deal with the illegal Bangladeshi settlers. The United Nations has described the influx of Bangladeshis into India as “the single largest bilateral stock of international migrants” in the eastern hemisphere.
A crowded India is in no mood to accommodate more illegal aliens. The specter of the Rohingya contributing to violent Islamism in India has made them feel unwelcome.
More broadly, the external forces fomenting jihadist attacks in Rakhine state bear considerable responsibility for the current plight of the Rohingya. It is ironic that the Islamic nations aiding jihad in Rakhine and slamming Myanmar are unwilling to give refuge to any of the fleeing Rohingya.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.