It was a bold move that might, in retrospect, constitute a defining moment in Bangladesh's foreign policy-making. Sheikh Hasina's emotional visit to a Rohingya refugee camp carried many messages: Bangladesh playing a humanitarian role, for a change, in spite of its obvious spatial limitations and social constraints; the country's readiness to challenge Myanmar leaders on this single issue (much like Indira Gandhi did on behalf of another hapless group in 1971 against Pakistan); in close proximity to Eid-ul-Azha, displaying the Ibrahiminic sacrificial essence to other Muslims, if not the entire world, to follow suit; and, by constituting the first countervailing gesture from anywhere, creating the pathway to holding responsible the 'ethnic cleansing' authors. Bringing those perpetrators to justice would magnify the historical importance of Hasina's visit.
Behind all of these significant reverberations lay Bangladesh's firmest rebuttal of India's Narendra Mody cozying up with one of the authors of that ethnic cleansing: Aung San Suu Kyi. How Modi attributed the Rohingya-exodus to Islamic extremism rather than the historical racism, persecution, and exclusion could boomerang: when all the details have been gathered, scholars may not only connect the Modi-Suu Kyi September 06 Rohingya identity to the escalation of burned Rakhine villages/Rohingya flight, but also to any Islamic terror spike along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. That would be disservice to its staunchest friend and neighbour.
Bluntly put, September 06 became what Franklin D. Roosevelt called another ghastly occasion, a 'day of infamy'. It was a day of infamy that Bangladesh's closest ally, India, would naively attribute the Rohingya exodus to Islamic terrorist activities over and above the entrenched racist and exclusionary persecution of Rohingyas, even worse, in a country claiming democracy credentials. It was a day of infamy that, for the convenience of enhancing economic linkages and balancing China in Myanmar, that the Rohingyas had to be thrown into the figurative fire. It was a day of infamy that, after blessing the marooned Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Modi would come and do to the Rohingyas what Netanyahu was doing to the Palestinians. Two pitilessly suffering peoples will not easily erase their experiences, and if the Rohingya case culminates in Islamic extremism, India and Myanmar will be held responsible as the catalysts.
Sheikh Hasina courageously chose her pathway: it informed India at the highest level that, no matter Bangladesh's limitations and constraints, it would warmly embrace every suffering Rohingya, hoping the world would rally behind her stand, now that India was ready to defect. Fortunately for her, global support was already unfolding. Her foreign ministry has also silently pushed the case with India's Ministry of External Affairs, to the extent that, if not Modi himself, India is beginning to rethink its Myanmar position: we are beginning to hear sounds of remorse and repudiation since September 06, even from official sources.
Much more than bilateral Bangladesh-India relations may be at stake. India's fencing of the Bangladesh border has continued more vigorously under Modi's watch, to the point that any rapprochement with Myanmar on the pretext of protection against Islamic insurgents, would completely fence overland Bangladesh off, in turn disrupting possible linkages with China. In the wake of the July-August 2017 Doklam incident, India's efforts to marginalise China's sub-continent forays, especially along the eastern frontier, has stooped to adopting below-the-belt positions.
Myanmar's elevation as the key China-India tussle playground comes when it desperately beckons foreign investors and traders. Those from the west harbour interest but more reluctance due to Rohingya-like fissures. More favourable responses have been from Asia, led by China, Japan, and South Korea. India's Myanmar entry would tilt the balance against Chinese preponderance, which Japan and South Korea can identify with, while India would be able to push many of its Southeast Asian projects, particularly the neglected Trilateral Highway linking India, Myanmar, and Thailand, and building Sittwe port in Rakhine territory.
Modi began his Act East in Myanmar's capital, Naypyidaw in 2014. For the free-trade envisioned two years later, at the Goa BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral, Technical, and Economic Cooperation) Summit, transit agreements have to be initiated now. India's offer to build Sittwe port not only combines with an almost half-billion dollar-worth Kaladan multi-modal transport project support to link India's Northeast provinces to the ocean. Clearly it hopes to also thwart China's oil-gas pipeline project, also from Sittwe, to China.
Very much like the salesman he has been after assuming the prime minister's position, Modi would be able to claim three crucial advantages through his September 06 Myanmar identity: (a) add more fuel to extinguish Islamic extremism, to whet the appetite of both the fanatic wing of his party and western countries reeling from Islamic terroristic activities; (b) contain China in Bangladesh and Myanmar, and thereby halt the Bay of Bengal flank of the Belt Road Initiative; and (c) push India's reaches to the Vietnamese shore, right across Southeast Asia, for which a Hanoi-Kolkata highway projects already lies on the backburner.
For geographical, strategic, and sentimental reasons, Bangladesh cannot stray far from India, certainly not in an adversarial or antithetical way. Yet, it cannot progress far if it must be sidelined or overshadowed by India, or even hold hands with a country appeasing ethnic cleansing. Against this backdrop, Hasina's dignified and assertive Rohingya camp visit vis-à-vis its powerful next-door neighbour showed a different and more congenial Islamic face, reached out over Indian shoulders to the rest of the world on grounds India cannot (or will not want to) match, such as humanitarian leadership, exposed the limits of Bangladesh's tolerance for India, and reiterated that, without a Bangladesh-India fulcrum, no broader alliance or economic partnership may be feasible.
It also spoke loudly about Myanmar: that Suu Kyi's holier-than-thou presence is flimsy and fake; that resolving the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine province (rather than in Cox's Bazar) may become the straw to break Myanmar's back; and, ideally, that Myanmar's future global rehabilitation may have to spin upon bilateral relations with a neighbouring country where half of the current 1.3 million Rakhine Rohingyas have been expelled (to add to the half-million or so already living there from past cleansing campaigns).
Hasina's camp visit reinforced domestic military interests by leaving refugee supervision under the military, buffered Islamic interests by playing the sacrificial Eid-ul-Azha card, and exposed the vacuum in opposition party-platforms over the issue. It also reopened Bangladesh's gateways to more international personnel: though they will visit largely for relief and rehabilitation, given how they were abandoning us between the 2014 oborrodhs and last year's Holey Artisan Bakery attack, our international guests should be welcomed by a more secure and attractive face if we are to dilute our own Indian dependence.
This last part may be the trickiest, since it unfortunately involves the almost half-million Rohingya destitutes. Whether they become carriers of Islamic extremism or not, Rohingyas have suffered too much for too long to not be more open to Muslim extremism. By leaving a trusted friend more exposed to fire, Modi might have to gulp much more than he expected if any of his 'eastern' plans are to bear fruits.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
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