India has pledged $25 million towards development of Myanmar's Rakhine state. Under a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the Indian and Myanmar governments, India will disburse this amount over a period of five years for socio-economic development of Rakhine. It is to restore normalcy in the violence-ravaged province so that the Rohingyas can return home that India has extended this help to Myanmar. The festering Rohingya conflict intensified over the past year and with the Myanmar military unleashing a brutal crackdown, over 600,000 Rohingyas fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. This triggered a humanitarian crisis, one that also has ramifications for India and its neighbourhood. India's support could jumpstart development in Rakhine, a province which although rich in natural resources suffers from extreme poverty. It must pursue a path of development that benefits local communities and focuses on capacity building. There are lessons from other conflict zones that India must draw on while designing its projects in Rakhine. Infrastructure projects that are extractive in nature and benefit outsiders rather than locals trigger new conflicts and deepen existing ones. India must avoid this path. That India has signed the MoU with Myanmar's Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement with a cooperation partner that focuses on socio-economic development and livelihood initiatives in Rakhine indicates that Delhi is on the right path.
India's infrastructure projects abroad are notorious for delays. It would be unfortunate if this becomes the fate of the proposed housing project in Rakhine as returning refugees will need safe shelters immediately. India must therefore swing into action to deliver the promised prefabricated housing in Rakhine as soon as possible. India must ensure that the process of choosing beneficiaries is transparent and prioritises special needs groups such as widows and those physically disabled. Importantly, the project must be designed taking their specific needs into account.
India's approach to the refugee crisis so far has been insensitive and confused. It resulted in India ceding significant influence to the Chinese in the region, especially with Beijing adopting the role of a third-party mediator between Myanmar and Bangladesh. The development aid India is extending will enable it to regain some of that lost influence in both countries. If India implements the project efficiently and fairly, it can contribute to building public goodwill on the ground in Rakhine, perhaps even draw Rohingyas away from militancy. Simultaneously, Delhi should quietly nudge the Myanmar government to initiate a political dialogue with the Rohingyas. Jobs and housing are important for the returnees but for sustainable peace to take root their underlying grievances need to be addressed and India could play a role in facilitating that process.