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India ramps up Myanmar border patrols as it weighs junta demand to return police

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Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar gather outside a mosque on Sunday in Jammu city. At least 168 of their number face possible deportation back to Myanmar. Photo: EPA-EFE

While the Indian government has yet to respond to Myanmar’s request to send back eight police officers who crossed into India last week in a bid to escape the turmoil back home, it has asked its paramilitary unit deployed at the border to step up patrols and turn away anyone from Myanmar without a travel permit or visa.

It is also expected to start deporting scores of Rohingya – members of Myanmar’s Muslim minority – who have ended up in India over the years after fleeing persecution in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar, news reports said. The United Nations says there are 16,000 Rohingya registered in India, but many more are living in the country undocumented. Several thousand live in Jammu and Kashmir, the only region in Hindu-majority India where Muslims form the largest group of residents.

The Indian nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has for years asked local authorities to identify and deport any Rohingya in their districts. Jammu’s inspector general of police, Mukesh Singh, told Agence France-Presse last week that local officials would send details of 168 Rohingya refugees to New Delhi, although questions remained about whether they could be sent back to Myanmar or should be kept in designated camps for now.

India and Myanmar share a 1,643km long border, which meets China in the north and Bangladesh in the south. The border separates the four Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram from the Myanmar states of Chin and Kachin, as well as Sagaing division. There are two official immigration and custom posts along its length.

The two sides also have a so-called Free Movement Regime, which allows tribes living along the border to travel 16km on either side without visa restrictions, so long as they carry the requisite permits. Altogether, there are an estimated 250 villages with nearly 300,000 inhabitants on either side of the border, as well as more than 100 small and large informal crossings, making it difficult to stop all traffic between the two sides.

But retired Lieutenant General Shokin Chauhan, the former director general of the paramilitary group deployed at the border, the Assam Rifles, said India and Myanmar had a protocol agreement to “cooperate with each other in anti-insurgency operations and also hand over any [hostile] person if they manage to cross over.”

An estimated 48 people, including the eight police officers, have crossed into India in recent days as Myanmar’s junta continues its crackdown on protesters opposed to the February 1 coup, which brought down the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

 They have all taken shelter in Mizoram, an Indian state across from Myanmar’s southwestern Chin state.

 The deputy police commissioner of Mizoram’s Champhai district, Maria C.T. Zuali, told Reuters that she had received a letter from her counterpart in the Falam district of Chin state requesting the return of the eight officers “in order to uphold friendly relations between the two neighbour countries”.

Zuali said the letter contained details of at least four of the police officers, all between the ages of 22 and 24 and including one woman. She added that she had referred the request to the Home Affairs Ministry in New Delhi and was awaiting instructions.

Former Indian home affairs secretary G.K. Pillai said India was “unlikely to act in haste” in responding to the request.

He said that there was nothing unusual about requests to hand over citizens who had fled from neighbouring countries – India shares borders with seven countries – but that the case of Myanmar was different.

He said New Delhi was likely to make a decision on the matter “only after making a proper assessment” and verifying details about the police officers who had fled. “Usually such things take time,” Pillai said, adding that “the prevailing situation in Myanmar is such that whatever decision India takes it will be closely watched by the international community.”

The United Nations said that at least 54 people had died since the coup amid a mass uprising against the junta, and that more than 1,700 protesters had been detained. Several countries and international organisations, including the US, Britain the UN and the G7, have condemned the junta for ordering security forces to fire directly at the largely peaceful protesters.

India, however, has avoided reproaching Myanmar directly. Its caution stems from the heavy price it paid after it denounced the Myanmar army’s brutal crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in 1988 and then opened its borders to allow fleeing students, citizens, parliamentarians and politicians to take shelter. In response, Myanmar’s military regime cut off contacts with New Delhi and closed its eyes to the activities of Indian armed separatist groups that were seeking refuge in Myanmar.

After relations returned to a more normal state in 1992, Myanmar’s army began once again to help curb the Indian separatist groups where they existed in Myanmar, a fact acknowledged by Indian army chief M.M. Naravane during a seminar last month.

But Gautam Mukhopadhyay who served India’s ambassador to Myanmar from 2013 to 2016, said he hoped India would “respond in its best humanitarian tradition” in resolving the matter of the fleeing Myanmar citizens.

Mizoram’s chief minister, Zoramthanga, who goes by one name, said last week that the state would indeed seek to assure the personal safety of Myanmar citizens who had fled to India. “The government is mindful that they could face hunger and so has sanctioned funds accordingly,” he said, as quoted by local media.

Rajiv Bhatia, who served as India’s ambassador to Myanmar from 2002 to 2005, said he did not believe India faced an “alarming” situation in regard to the border crossings, but that it did need to monitor developments.

“India has high stakes in Myanmar and its policy towards the country has to ensure its interests are not jeopardised,” he said.

India has provided some US$1.7 billion in developmental assistance to Myanmar and it has invested in a number of large infrastructure projects, including the US$484 million Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, which connects the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with Sittwe seaport in Rakhine State, as well as a trilateral highway project that connects India’s northeast region with Myanmar and Thailand.

A summit meeting of the four members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – the United States, India, Japan and Australia – is expected to be held as soon as Friday, with the developments in Myanmar a likely topic of discussion even as the focus of the group remains squarely on China.

Although there has been no agreement among the four on what actions to take against the Tatmadaw, US President Joe Biden could try to persuade the group to take a tougher line against the military junta.

But Bhatia said it was more likely the grouping would have a “candid discussion” on the matter and come up with “a convergent approach based on democratic values and the reality of the situation”.