The three-way diplomacy between Myanmar, Bangladesh and India on the Rohingya crisis has entered a more settled phase.
The Bangladesh-Myanmar agreement on the repatriation of the refugees has given both sides a face-saver to mull the next steps. Firing diplomatic salvos at one another has made way for quibbles over the process.
India welcomes the agreement and the establishment of the joint working group, but the details are fuzzy. Many reckon the process is unworkable. The 23 January deadline for starting repatriation has passed. The key question: will the refugees return?
Given the logjam, India has launched the diplomacy of reassurance. The relief it provided for the refugees in Bangladesh dealt with the immediate crisis. India has now moved on to address the day after.
Under the agreement signed last November between the then Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar and U Soe Aung, the Myanmar deputy minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, India pledged $25 million for the development of Rakhine state.
Under the Rakhine State Development Programme, India despatched the first team to Myanmar on 8 February. Prefabricated housing projects are also being discussed.
Sripriya Ranganathan, the joint secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, dealing with Bangladesh and Myanmar, says: "Until some infrastructure is created, they (the refugees) won't go back. With specific, targeted assistance, once the return stream begins, it will create momentum for more people to return. This, to our mind, is the only way of restoring normalcy and harmony in Rakhine state."
Beneath the concrete and pillars of construction lies a nuanced diplomacy. India's initiative binds the three nations into a web. By allowing India to construct shelters, Myanmar acknowledges it needs to take back the refugees. Why else would shelters be built?
There is reassurance for Bangladesh, and importantly, insurance for the refugees. The right to return is important, but the will to return is even more so.
The refugees will feel safer if they have shelters, with the psychological assurance of an Indian "guarantee" of sorts, in the roof over their heads. But this is only a long-term prospect.
India's twin initiatives provide a small moral window out of the impasse. If they embrace the Rakhine State Development Programme with good faith, the concerned will find it difficult to dodge repatriation.
In an ideal situation, this initiative would allow everybody partial satisfaction. The key issue is to create safety for their return. Every Rohingya understands this.
Why has India chosen creation of physical infrastructure as a way forward?
In the imperfect world we live in, reconstruction is better than agitation. A solution lies in direct dialogue between Bangladesh and Myanmar, not petitions in the chancelleries of Geneva or New York. The need is to build trust and encourage the return of the refugees.
How do Bangladeshis view India's role?
Last October, when I was in Dhaka, there was dismay that India had sided with Myanmar. India's statement last September at the UN Human Rights Council, calling for restraint by the Myanmar security forces, and the immediate and safe return of displaced persons, was brushed aside.
In contrast, China came out squarely in Myanmar's support, but Bangladesh adopted strategic silence. Bangladeshis knew China would not alienate Myanmar. Expectations from India were extravagant.
While China is unwavering in support of Myanmar, India's approach has been constructive. "We have adopted a pragmatic posture," says Ranganathan.
Is Bangladeshi opinion about India's role changing?
Ranjan Basu says in the Dhaka Tribune: "From the very beginning of the Rohingya crisis, India has played a seemingly balanced diplomatic role without offending either Myanmar or Bangladesh." It is another matter that the Bangladesh government continues to ask India (and China) to do more.
When will repatriation begin?
Myanmar has agreed to take back 300 a day across designated points, with repeated calls for the return of the refugees. With no guarantees of their safety, the refugees are reluctant to return.
For Bangladesh, which has hosted Rohingya refugees in the past, the situation is stark. Few returned. Many melted with the Bangladeshi multitudes. There is doubt it will be different this time. Aung San Suu Kyi has said that Myanmar will abide by the recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led Rakhine Advisory Commission. But it is not clear how this impacts the ground situation.
Until the process begins, we don't know what will happen. It may not be realistic to expect Myanmar will take back all 600,000 refugees.
Despite contention, there is common ground. Al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, Islamic State, and Chechen groups expressed solidarity with the Rohingyas. The three countries directly affected are united in opposing Rohingya radicalisation.
The author is a former ambassador. He has served in Bangladesh.
Updated Date: Feb 23, 2018 19:02 PM