Preventive Diplomacy and the Political Crisis in Assam, India

Internally displaced Rohingya people in Myanmar. Photo credit: UK Department for International Development/ CC 2.0

On September 27, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to establish an “ongoing investigative mechanism to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence of international crimes committed in Myanmar since 2011.”  The resolution came as a response to an earlier report of the Fact Finding Mission established by the Human Rights Council. The Fact Finding Mission’s report, some 440 pages, highlighted the “genocidal intent of the violence” and called for several of Myanmar’s top generals to be tried by the International Criminal Court. The Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court had already launched a “preliminary examination” of the Rohingya situation, a first step toward action.

On September 28, the U.S. State Department, which is no longer a member of the Human Rights Council nor a party to the International Criminal Court, released its own findings on the violence against the Rohingya. The State Department had asked a Washington-based law firm – the Public International Law and Policy Group – to carry out the investigation.

The law firm members carried out 1024 interviews with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, some 15,000 pages of testimony.  The interviews give multiple examples of information contained in the U.N. report: massacres, the burning of villages, summary executions, gang rapes of women, religious persecution.  The State Department, in issuing the law firm report, did not use the word “genocide” which would have required U.S. action under the provisions of the 1948 Genocide Convention.

However, there is no other word for the actions of the Myanmar military, police, and associated armed groups, nor any other word than “intent” for the systematic way the violence has been carried out.

A somewhat similar situation to the Rohingya issue is developing in neighboring Assam, in northeast India. The Assam situation has not received the international attention that Myanmar has as wide-scale violence and refugee flows have not taken place, thus the need for preventive diplomacy now.

The people of Assam in northeast India are potentially sitting on top of a smoldering volcano that threatens to erupt into catastrophic suffering. The violence would target ethnic and religious minorities, most particularly Bengali-speaking Muslims, somewhat on the pattern of the fate of the Rohingya of Myanmar.

The state of Assam has a population of some 30 million people according to the most recent Indian census (2011).  Some 60 percent are considered Hindus, 34 percent Muslims, 4 percent Christians and 5 percent “other” – Jain, Buddhist etc.  Most people also keep original animist beliefs, but there is no “animist” on the census choices. Northeast India has always had a mixture of ethnic and religious groups.  During the colonial period, the whole northeast was called Assam.  In 1965, Assam was divided into seven separate states, usually taking the name of the majority ethnic group: Nagaland, Tripurha, Mizoram, Manapur etc, but no state is homogeneous. Part of northeast India kept its original colonial name of Assam.

For the most part, the Bengali-speaking Muslims are the descendants of an influx of migrants that arrived after the civil war that led in 1971 to the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan, with a decisive Indian Army involvement. However, there has always been people from both Bangladesh and Indian Bengal moving into northeast India in search of land to farm or other forms of work.

In keeping with the Hindu cultural bias of the current central Indian government of Prime Minister  Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party, Bengali-speaking Hindus have been given automatic citizenship rights under a 2016 law. However, Bengali-speaking Muslims are considered as “non-Indian citizens” and are thus subject to potential deportation.  Some 10 years ago, Bengali-speaking Muslims started to be rounded up and put into camps, with families often being separated.

In July 2018, the National Register of Citizens, in a decision concerning Assam, made a list of some four million people it considers non-citizens of India, which has caused a sentiment of insecurity, potentially panic, among those on the list. Some have made plans to leave Assam or have already left.

However, densely-populated Bangladesh cannot cope with the over one-million Rohingya refugees who have fled or been pushed out of Burma.  The Bangladesh government wants no new arrivals, and certainly holds out no citizenship road either for the Rohingya or for arrivals from Assam.

The aims of the state government of Assam or of the central Indian government are not entirely clear. Since independence, the Central Government in New Delhi has tried to calm recurrent political strife in northeast India with government development funds, but has never been able to deal effectively with a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society.

There are two possible reasons for the current oppressive policy. One reason may be a government effort to eliminate voters from the voting roll, voters who might not vote for a narrow Hindu party. A harsher motivation is, after seeing that the international community has not acted in a strong way concerning the Rohingya, the Assam government is willing to push the Muslims out and give their land to non-Muslims.

Therefore, before there is greater violence and a refugee flow from Assam, there needs to be preventive diplomacy from the United Nations and from conflict-resolution non-governmental organizations.

The term of preventive diplomacy – acting at the first sign of conflict before a pattern of violence sets in – was made popular by the former U.N. Secretary-General Dr Boutros Boutros Ghali’s report Agenda for Peace (United Nations, 1992).  An earlier Secretary-General U Thant has summed up preventive diplomacy as “one which is not heard of until it is successfully concluded or even never heard of at all.”  Preventive diplomacy is normally non-coercive, low key, and confidential in its approach.

Preventive diplomacy is an aspect of the multi-layered relations among security, conflict resolution, respect for human rights, the development of democratic institutions and the rule of law. Preventive diplomacy works only if there is trust in the wisdom and impartiality of those taking the first steps.  This presupposes a strong, efficient, and independent international civil service whose integrity is beyond question and which has the financial base with which to act.

A main component of preventive diplomacy is the creation of an effective early warning system. At the first signs of conflict such as persistent violations of human rights, refugee flows or the internal displacement of populations, a crisis team should be set up to monitor events. There should follow increased analysis of the situation and fact finding. Such efforts should be coupled with increased international pressure for negotiations and help to set up local level activities to reduce tensions. At some point in the process of preventive diplomacy, the leaders of the countries in crisis need to be informed that the process cannot remain confidential. Even the most repressive leaders watch to see how much they can get away with before triggering an outraged external response.

Preventive diplomacy is not restricted to United Nations or national government officials. Non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, and the media can all play a role. It is important to find balanced and harmonious ways in which many different actors can play a positive role to prevent dangerous increases in violence. Reconciliation must be the aim, compassion the spirit, non-violence the means. These tasks of reconciliation require people from all cultures and spiritual backgrounds.  Many of these elements of reconciliation already exist, but the seriousness of the multiple political crises requires new energies and additional people to express compassion in action. We must all help build such trans-national networks for reconciliation. Assam is a current test.

Rene Wadlow is the President of the Association of World Citizens.