The geo-politics of Rohingya crisis

Kamal Uddin Ahmed   | Published: June 06, 2018 21:05:11 | Updated: June 08, 2018 21:24:47


UN Security Council delegation seeks Rohingya's safe return: UN Security Council President Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, right, Permanent Representative of the State of Kuwait to the United Nations Mansour Ayyad SH A Alotaibi, second right, UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations Karen Pierce, second left, and Permanent Representative of Poland to United Nations Joanna Wronecka leave after their press conference at Naypyitaw International Airport in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, May 01, 2018, after a two-day visit to Myanmar. —Photo: AP

Almost 720,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees have fled persecution and military crackdown and atrocities from Rakhine state of Myanmar during 2016-2017 where they had been living for centuries. Besides brutal massacres, the Rohingya houses were plundered, and scorched. The refugees are now sheltered in make-shift camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. The UN and the US have characterised the Rohingya crisis as "ethnic cleansing".

Bangladesh and Myanmar reached a repatriation agreement on November 23, 2017. On January 16, 2018 they also finalised 'Physical Arrangement' to enable the repatriation of the Rohingyas within two years. The Bangladesh government has by now provided a list of 8,032 displaced persons. Myanmar has given clearance to only 878 persons out of them. But none of the refugees could return to their motherland until today.

The members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) who visited Myanmar on April 30- May 01, 2018, opined that  the conditions in the Rakhine state is not yet favourable to voluntary and safe return of the refugees. Remarkably, Myanmar initially denied access to the UN fact-finding mission to 'establish the facts and circumstances' of the killings and crackdown by the security forces.

The political consequences of the Rohingya catastrophe are multi-dimensional. The potential effects of the Rohingya crisis are really a matter to worry over. Besides being a massive socio-economic liability for Bangladesh, the influx of refugees from predominantly Buddhist-Myanmar is a national security threat not only to Bangladesh but also to the region.

It poses a risk to political stability, communal harmony, and environmental sustainability. During the past few months, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and high ranking diplomats have raised the issue at different international summits held in Dhaka, London, Sydney, Geneva and India.

As a result, a global consensus has been reached on the Rohingya issue. The European Union, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Muslim countries around the world have repeatedly condemned Myanmar. The US House of Representatives has already approved the 2019 National Defence Authorisation Act comprising sanctions on Myanmar military officials responsible for ethnic cleansing.

The Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Countries  (OIC-CFM) Dhaka summit, held on May 05-06, declared that the Myanmar's crackdown on the Rohongyas constituted a "blatant violation" of international law. The OIC held that the Myanmar government must be held accountable for the persecution of the Rohingyas.

The UNSC pressed Myanmar's government on May 09 to initiate independent probe into allegations of violent oppression against Rohingya Muslims and facilitate immediate aid access to the Rakhine state. Despite initial opposition, Myanmar's ally and patron, veto-weilding China accepted an amended British-drafted UNSC statement on "accountability" to reported genocide.

In a Brookings op-ed piece, Lex Rieffel on  January 18, 2018 observed: "The crisis has turned the weight of the world opinion against Myanmar and its de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi." But Myanmar's ruling elite remained unmoved.

Aung San Suu Kyi totally ignored the Rohingya issue amidst allegation that she encouraged anti-Rohingya predilections. In fact, she was responsible for purging the Rohingya Muslim leaders from the ranks of the National League for Democracy (NLD) parliamentary elections in 2015. The NLD did not nominate any Muslim candidate to contest in that election.

By now, it is evident that Suu Kyi is responding to domestic politics. Her government has consciously rejected reports of the UN, human rights groups, and the media on the unprecedented destruction and bulldozing of Rohingya villages in the Rakhine State.  Her government also did not implement the recommendations of the 2017 Kofi Annan-led Special Advisory Commission's report which include restoration of rights and citizenship of the Rohingyas.

The question is, why? How could Myanmar ignore the international community?

The answer lies in the geo-politics, especially involving Asia's two giants - China and India.

India considers Myanmar as its key partner in the fight to end insurgency in its northeast. There are dozens of insurgent groups operating on and across the porous borders of northeast India with Myanmar.

For China, the Rohingya issue is a unique opportunity to bring the country back into its orbit, after Myanmar's brief sojourn with the Western countries following its faltering democratisation.

Myanmar is also critical for both China and India to connect their land-locked eastern regions to the Bay of Bengal and to the fast growing Southeast Asia. Binoda Mishra, a foreign policy analyst of India, stated: "Both India and China engage the Burmese military as much as the civilian government because the country is key to India's Act East policy and China's Belt and Road initiative."

Both China and India have made substantial investments in Myanmar, including in the Rakhine state which provides access to the Bay of Bengal.

India gave over $1.75 billion in grants and credit to Myanmar as of mid-2017. It built the Sittwe power station, in the Rakhine state. India is implementing the 109-km road project that links Paletwa river-terminal to Zorinpui on the Mizoram border in Myanmar, as part of the $484-million Kaladan Multimodal project.

China's investment in Myanmar hit $18.53 billion in January 2017. China is building a port not far from the Indian-built Sittwe port to connect the Bay of Bengal with Kunming province as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.

Historically, China and India are strategic rivals. But, both are now pursuing pro-Myanmar strategy on the Rohingya conflict. The reasons are clear. While competing to establish their influence and stronghold, stability in Rakhine is as important for geo-political and economic interest of India as it is for China.

Thus, China blamed the Rohingya rebels for the reason of violence, and blocked attempts by the UNSC to pass a resolution condemning the attacks on innocent Rohingyas. China earlier pledged closer military cooperation to Myanmar.

New Delhi also initially chose to condemn the Rohingya insurgents and not the persecutors. It threatened to deport several dozens of Rohingya families who crossed over to India, citing national security threat. During his official trip to Myanmar, in September 2017, Prime Minister Modi refrained from mentioning the atrocities against the Rohingyas.

Interestingly, India seems willing to sacrifice Bangladesh in favour of Myanmar on the Rohingya issue. Prime Minister Modi evaded the Rohingya issue in his convocation speech at Visva-Bharati University at Shantiniketan on  May 25, 2018, while at the same venue Prime Minister Hasina urged India to play a proactive role in resolving the issue.

However, it should be noted that the Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj during her official visit to Myanmar on  May 10-11, 2018 hoped for a 'safe, speedy and sustainable return" of the Rohingyas to Myanmar.

An Indian scholar, Shreya Upadhyay in her article, The Future of India's Do-nothing Policy toward the Rohingya, observed: "India till now has managed to keep at arm's length from the issue. Its policy is treading lightly with Myanmar, out of geo-political and geo-economic concerns."

However, India should understand that the Rohingya crisis represents a threat to regional stability. Contrary to its expectation, insurgencies in its north-eastern states might get further leverage from radicalised Rohingyas. Hence, India can ill-afford to lose Bangladesh's friendship, which is vital for its access to north-eastern states and deal with separatist movements there.

Furthermore, at the end, China is likely to take advantage of the Rohingya crisis to edge out India, its decades-old rival, as recently echoed by Yohei Sasakawa, Japan's special envoy for national reconciliation in Myanmar. That is, the longer the Rohingya crisis continues, probably more detrimental it would be for India.

Dr. Kamal Uddin Ahmed is a former Professor and Chairman, Department of Political Science, University of Dhaka.

Kamal112au@yahoo.com

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