Myanmar coup: Rising numbers of refugees, spiralling violence present major humanitarian crisis for India

The Myanmar's military's ruthless crackdown after its coup has left more than 500 people dead, according to a local monitoring group, triggering international outrage

FP Staff March 31, 2021 15:15:18 IST
Myanmar coup: Rising numbers of refugees, spiralling violence present major humanitarian crisis for India

Police officers who fled Myanmar following a military at an undisclosed location bordering Myanmar, in Mizoram on 18 March. AP

With the crisis in Myanmar spiraling with each passing day, India is caught in a bind between safeguarding its own strategic interests and providing urgent relief and rehabilitation to refugees.

The Myanmar's military's ruthless crackdown after its coup has left more than 500 people dead, according to a local monitoring group, triggering international outrage.

Over the weekend, military jets hit targets in the country's eastern Kayin state, as Myanmar reeled from the deadliest day so far in the protests, AFP reported.

The crackdown is having significant repercussions in India, particularly in the northeastern states of Manipur and Mizoram.

The Manipur government had earlier issued a circular to the Deputy Commissioners of districts bordering Myanmar not to open camps to provide food and shelter to refugees fleeing the neighbouring country. However, it withdrew the circular three days later to avoid potential public anger. This uncertainty is in many ways reflective of the predicament that India finds itself in.

In Mizoram too, disagreements have cropped up between the Centre and the state government over policies to deal with refugees.

Even as a significant number of people from Myanmar have crossed over to Mizoram and Manipur, India attended a military parade in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw on 27 March to mark Tatmadaw Day. (Tatmadaw refers to Myanmar's military). The other countries that attended the parade were China, Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, as noted by India Today.

The official Indian response to the developments in Myanmar has also been cautious, with New Delhi only saying, "We have noted the developments in Myanmar with deep concern. India has always been steadfast in its support to the process of democratic transition in Myanmar. We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld. We are monitoring the situation closely."

Myanmar coup Rising numbers of refugees spiralling violence present major humanitarian crisis for India

Humanitarian concerns

Nevertheless, with more and more villagers seeking shelter in halls and safehouses in India, humanitarian concerns can hardly be ignored. Many of those who have fled Myanmar are police officials and army personnel who refused to take part in the crackdown. A report in The Indian Express quotes Joseph, a police officer from Myanmar, as saying he chose to defect rather than open fire on his own people. He also reportedly said that he would be executed if he went back.

Local residents in both Manipur and Mizoram have provided shelter to fleeing refugees. The Zo Reunification Organisation (ZORO) has also urged the Union home ministry to withdraw its order directing four northeastern states to guard against the influx of people from Myanmar. They have also demanded that the Centre grant refugee status to these people. Last week, Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga said it was the duty of his government to provide food and shelter to the Myanmarese refugees.

Cross-border ethnic ties are also a reason why residents of Mizoram and Manipur have opposed proposals to send refugees back to the strife-torn country. Several parts of the two northeastern states have Chin communities, who share ethnic ties with community members across the border.

India and Myanmar have an agreement named the Free Movement Regime, which allows locals from both sides of the border to go to the other side for up to 16 kilometres and up to 14 days. However, as noted in an article in The Indian Express, thousands of people regularly cross the border for work and to meet relatives, often unofficially and for longer periods. On several occasions, marriages are also arranged across the border.

Apart from the people fleeing the ongoing military crackdown, India also has a considerable population of Rohingya refugees. According to Human Rights Watch, India has an estimated 40,000 Rohingya refugees, at least 16,500 of whom are registered with UNHCR.

While calls for India to take a humanitarian approach to the refugees have grown, it will not be easy for New Delhi to confront Myanmar's military. An article in Foreign Policy quotes JNU professor Shankari Sundaraman as saying that since 1993, India has been engaging the Myanmarese military "particularly in the light of insurgency issues in Northeast India.” For India, the support from the Tatmadaw has been crucial to take on insurgents whose bases were located in Myanmar's jungles.

Further, for New Delhi, antagonising the ruling regime in Myanmar runs the risk of ceding space to China to expand its influence in the country. On the other hand, as noted by Sundaraman in the article quoted above, India enjoys considerable goodwill among the people in Myanmar, which would be seriously dented if it takes a hard stance on sending back refugees.

With violence mounting in Myanmar and the numbers of refugees increasing, what is clear is that this is a crisis that New Delhi cannot afford to turn its eyes away from.

With inputs from AFP

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