Written By: Zarrar Khuhro
International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power”
– Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations
There is no shortage of commentary and outrage on the horrific atrocities being perpetrated on the Rohingyas. Hunted by a malevolent regime that specializes in ethnic cleansing, the Rohingyas are being subjected to pogroms, rapes and summary executions aimed at forcing them to flee their homes and villages. To prevent their return, Myanmar’s army, security forces and militias are burning their villages and planting landmines. These mines have also led those fleeing the carnage having their limbs blown off, making an already uncertain life as a stateless refugee even more challenging.
Along with the actual offensive, a propaganda campaign has also been launched with recently created Myanmarese social media accounts alternately maligning the Rohingyas as ‘terrorists’, blaming them for their own woes and sometimes even out rightly denying the atrocities being perpetrated on them.
There are few buyers of this malicious campaign, and by and large the international community has spoken with one voice, condemning the Myanmarese regime which has in the past used similar tactics against other ethnic minorities such as the Shan and Karen.
But condemnation will have very little effect on the Myanmarese regime which, thanks to its already moribund economy and insular nature, is largely immune to sanctions and censure.
More importantly, Myanmar’s greatest advantage is that it finds itself at the center of the geopolitical games being played by countries including those which share borders with Myanmar: India and China significantly… both of which have been careful to not condemn Myanmar’s actions and have even extended diplomatic support. This puts us in a situation where we ought to see this crisis in context of geopolitical compulsions as well as plight of Muslim brothers. It is a complex issue that demands much deeper understanding than mere sloganeering.
Pakistan’s all-weather friend China’s position is affected by several geopolitical and economic compulsions: a minor one is that China is wary of ethnic tensions at home and is thus loath to create a precedent (by supporting the Rohingya cause) that could later be used against it in, for example, the Tibetan context.
The major factors, however, are purely economic and geostratregic, both factors that have recently gained greater impetus due to China’s massive OBOR project, along with China’s ongoing attempt to export industrial overcapacity to neighbouring countries.
It also so happens that the Rakhine province is at the center of Beijing’s investments in Myanmar, with Chinese investments in Rakhine alone totaling up to several billion dollars.
Smack in the middle of the Rakhine state’s coastline on the Bay of Bengal, a consortium led by China’s CITIC Group has proposed taking a 70 percent to 85 percent stake in the $7.3 billion deep sea port at Kyauk Pyu. Here the commercial and strategic interests interlink, as the port is a key link in China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, serving as part of a larger passageway aimed at connecting China’s Southwestern provinces to the Indian Ocean and thus farther afield to Africa, where China has growing interests, and onwards to the Mediterranean. Kyauk Pyu is also the starting point for oil and gas pipelines that cross Myanmar to reach China’s southern Yunnan province. China also plans to build an industrial park and a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Rakhine where Chinese companies will be located. China is also the number one destination for Myanmar’s exports, followed by Thaiolans, China and then Japan. Besides these, defence collaboration between China and Myanmar are deep and well spread in many areas.
None of this means, however, that China can take Myanmarese goodwill for granted and in fact it is only recently that relations have warmed after a rather rocky patch.
During the previous Thein Sein administration in Myanmar, the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam project, a massive Chinese investment, was suspended after Thien declared it to be “against the will of the people.” There have been public protests against other Chinese projects as well, such as the Letpadaung mine in the northwestern town of Monywa, where locals have accused Chinese builders of land grabbing and environmental damage. Given the controlled nature of Burmese society and the all-pervasive hold of the security establishment, allowing such protests was almost certainly meant to send a message to Beijing.
Congnizant of the perils of too much Chinese dependency, the Commander-in-Chief of the Burmese Army (known as the Tatmadaw) recently visited both Japan and India, with the latter now providing the Tatmadaw with training in peacekeeping and endorsing Myanmar’s bid to join UN peacekeeping operations.
In return, the Tatmadaw has also endorsed India’s Act East policy and committed to strengthening the relationship with Japan. Given the general state of Sino-Japanese relations and the increased cooperation between Japan and India – both countries are jointly investing in Myanmar and ports along the Indian Ocean – this is clearly an attempt by Myanmar to hedge its bets and take advantage of the regional competition it finds itself to be in the center of.
So here then is another reason for China to support Myanmar: if they do not, then Yangon will inevitably lean towards another major Asian power and Chinese rival: India.
At a time when Myanmar was facing near universal condemnation on the Rohingya issue, crucial diplomatic support came in the form of Indian PM Modi’s much-trumpeted visit to Myanmar. Dispensing even with token shows of concern for the Rohingyas, Modi went on to talk about ‘extremist violence’ in the Rakhine state instead. Now, there is certainly an ideological element at play here, given Modi’s right-wing Hindutva credentials. Crucial support is being given to the aforementioned Myanmarese anti-Rohingya social media campaign by right-wing Indian twitter, with BJP officials going so far as to post fake stories and pictures aimed at labelling the Rohingyas as terrorists and infiltrators. The Indian government went so far as to tell its Supreme Court that “Many of the Rohingyas figure in the suspected sinister designs of ISI/ISIS and other extremists groups who want to achieve their ulterior motives in India including that of flaring up communal and sectarian violence in sensitive areas of the country,”
In tandem, right-wing Indian channels such as Republic and Times now have been mounting sustained media campaigns aimed at demonizing the Rohingyas.
Aligning with ideology are India’s interests: during the rule of Indian PM Narasimha Rao, India framed a ‘Look East’ policy aimed at bolstering relations with its eastern neighbours, partly in an effort to curtail Chinese influence in the region. With the advent of OBOR, the policy has transformed into ‘Act East’, and it just so happens that the first country that comes into view on India’s East… is Myanmar.
India-Myanmar bilateral trade stands at about $2 billion dollars, which is dwarfed by comparison with China-Myanmar trade standing at $25 billion, but is likely to increase following Modi’s visit. In addition to this, the Rakhine province is also the starting point of the $484-million Kaladan multi-modal transport projects that aim to connect Mizoram to India.
India has also already completed work on Sittwe Port, at the estuary of Kaladan river in Rakhine, which is to be a crucial link in this network.
There is no doubt that China.
has vital stakes in Myanmar, but given the importance New Delhi is attaching to this initiative, and Myanmar’s own need to secure as many allies as possible, the Sino-India competition does play to the advantage of Myanmarese reigme. Adding insult to injury, the U.S. is playing traditional spying games in the whole crisis. The net result will be that the Rohingyas find themselves at the bottom of the list of the worlds’ dispossessed. The hard realities of global power plays mean that there is no major country that will be willing to go beyond heartfelt condemnation and expressions of sympathy, and even then, none of these voices are those who are heard and taken seriously in Yangon.
The West is already in a mess, the Rest constructing new roads, and the Rohingya Muslims’ future in a perpetual limbo!
The writer has worked extensively in Pakistan's print and electronic media and is currently hosting a talk show on a private TV Channel.