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5 January 2018,

Presentation on ‘Rohingyas: Geopolitics, Morality and International Law’

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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The following presentation was given by Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia at an event hosted by Working Group on Alternative Strategies on 4 January 2018

The Issue: Vital Elements

  • Two dates and a few numbers are worth recalling here:
  • 25 August 2017 when Myanmar military action began in response to alleged ARSA terrorist attacks. The result: it triggered a massive exodus of the Rohingyas population, which was estimated to be 1.1 million in the Rakhine state.
  • 23 November 2017 when the Myanmar-Bangladesh agreement was concluded for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. Their number in Bangladesh (i. e. of those who arrived since August 2017) stood at 620,000 by then.
  • Now in early January 2018, UNHCR states that the exact number 626,000
  • The bilateral agreement does not seem to contain specific dates when the repatriation will begin and when it will end. BD government has, however, stated that the repatriation would begin within 60 days of the signing i.e. 22 January 2018. Further developments merit a close watch.
  • An objective assessment suggests that of the three critical dimensions of this vexed problem
  • The dimension of terrorism, with ARSA attacks constituting the immediate trigger for the military’s ‘clearance operations’, has been exaggerated
  • The dimension of violence and atrocities against the Rohingya people has been reported widely, graphically and in-depth. Much of it sounds credible.
  • The dimension of injustice, discrimination and segregation against the Rakhine Muslims lasting over several decades, which is the root cause of the problem, has not been exposed adequately.

Geopolitics of it All


  • The so-called “three-phase plan” of China as a mediator is posturing, not policy; a myth, not reality. It is pure maneuvering by the Chinese to promote their own interests rather than those of the Rohingyas
  • Bilateral discussions between Dhaka and Naypyitaw began and much of the agreement was negotiated well before Beijing joined the fray
  • China is fully and unabashedly on Myanmar’s side. It is keen to promote stability. Consider its investments in the region: $2.45 billion already spent on oil and gas pipelines; and $7.3 billion committed to building a deep water port in the Rakhine province
  • The mediation ‘plan’ was apparently manufactured in response to the BD criticism of China’s partisanship
  • Finally, note the three stages: ‘Ceasefire’ to prevent displacement; ‘feasible solution’ through bilateral discussions; and ‘long-term solution’ for poverty alleviation. This is a fundamentally flawed and one-sided prescription.
  • Hence China’s approach on the Rakhine issue should be understood and presented accurately. It is a pity that some of our own analysts and media editors were taken in!


  • U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Myanmar (November 2017) – independent investigation was suggested; situation dubbed as ‘genocide’, subsequently; economic sanctions under consideration since October 2017.
  • Trump Administration seems to have abandoned the Obama line on Myanmar’s strategic importance in the region
  • Its overall approach is to let Myanmar – and the region – slip deeper into China’s embrace


  • Its stand on the Rohingya issue reveals ASEAN nations’ weakness and vulnerability, and failure to adhere to its own principles and values. The latest ASEAN summit statement is very weak, reflecting serious internal differences.
  • This has also shown the failure of Bangladesh diplomacy, as Dhaka could not even secure the support of Muslim-majority nations – Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, two of which have borne the brunt of Rohingya refugees.


  • New Delhi has no option but to navigate between two fundamental and opposing considerations:
  • Prevent Myanmar’s further dependence on China
  • Convey ample sympathy and material support to Bangladesh, our friendliest and most important neighbour today.
  • Hence our calibrated balancing act continues, causing a mix of satisfaction and discontent to both Myanmar and Bangladesh
  • We should not expect much more from South Block, except to suggest that the military’s reported assertion that ‘local Rakhine ethnic people’ (i.e. Buddhists) would have the final say on accepting Rohingyas, should not be acceptable as the basis of future arrangements.
  • What is truly needed is to enlighten and empower our civil society, liberal and progressive constituencies, strategic community and media so that they play a role in activating international opinion in favour of the victims and against the architects of a grave humanitarian crisis.
  • The imperative need is to focus on the way forward, which has been astutely delineated in the recommendations presented by the Kofi Annan Advisory Commission. There is no need to re-invent the wheel!

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House. A former ambassador to Myanmar, he writes regularly on East Asian developments

This speech was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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