Rohingya Crisis: The Complex Geopolitics behind the Delayed Repartition -Ahmad Bhuiyan

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In August 2017, Myanmar’s military expelled about 1.2 million Rohingya from the country through inhumane ethnic cleansing. Escaping the persecution, they finally took refuge in Ukhia-Teknaf on the border of Bangladesh and since then those Rohingyas have been staying in our country. Subsequently, the Bangladesh government left no stone unturned to repatriate this large number of Rohingya people.

Needless to say, everyone appreciates our humanity and generosity, but they do not seem to have much interest in rescuing us from this crisis. That is the real truth. In fact, for the sake of geopolitics and self-interest, it is difficult to understand the foreign policies and activities of some other countries, including China.

Regional, international and geopolitical interests of different countries are liable behind the delayed repartition of Rohingyas. Although the UN and human rights organizations have been vocal about the genocide against the Rohingya, international donors and important countries in the world that could have played a major role in the Rohingya issue have not cooperated with Bangladesh as expected. Moreover, it is impossible for a densely populated country like Bangladesh to cope with the long-term pressure of more than 1.1 million Rohingya refugees.

Bangladesh claims that India and China are our friendly countries and its ties with them are getting stronger day by day. Both countries are our development partners, and China is partnering with the government on a number of major projects. Unfortunately, Bangladesh has not received the expected active role from these two friendly countries in case of Rohingya issue. The reason behind this is not unknown to us anymore, the two big neighboring states are not only powerful in the region and they are also competing to become geopolitical superpowers.

There is a Sino-Indian equality on one issue. China continues to use extremely inhumane oppression against Uighur Muslims in its Xinjiang region. Despite pressure from the international community, they have not backed down from this anti-Muslim move. No matter how much the BJP government in India talks about the golden chapter of friendship, in practice they are implementing the civil registration system and amending the civil law accordingly, targeting the Muslim community in the country. As a result, it is doubtful how sincere the BJP government in India will play its role against the persecution of the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar. In recent years, India has been voting “abstain” on the Rohingya issue in various forums, including the UN Human Rights Council, because of Myanmar’s military ties with India. In addition, the Myanmar army has assisted India in countering insurgents in the northeastern Indian state, particularly the Nagas and ULFAs. Apart from India’s armory help, including submarines, the Indian army chief visited Myanmar just a month ago and pledged to strengthen ties. The new polarization of geopolitics in the region, in the face of China’s rivalry with India, does not seem likely to move India against the military rulers and towards Aung San Suu Kyi.

In an effort to exert regional influence, China as well as India has become extremely competitive which has brought misfortune to us. Although China and India have always been rivals, both countries have strategically taken a stand against Bangladesh’s interests on the Rohingya issue. This is because of India’s longstanding border dispute with China. The two countries have been involved in wars several times. China considers India’s Aksai Chin region and Arunachal Pradesh as its territory. That is why the country is at extreme security risk with Ladakh and the Seven Sisters and the risk is exacerbated by the Siliguri corridor between Bangladesh and Nepal. To inform, Siliguri corridor is the only way for the Seven Sisters to connect with the mainland of India and Siliguri’s distance from China’s Doklam is only 130 kilometers. The entire Seven Sisters would be cut off from mainland of India if Chinese troops stationed in the Chumbi Valley could take control of the Siliguri corridor during any natural calamity. So, quick connectivity with the northeastern part of India as an alternative to Bangladesh route, India ventured to create a transport project towards the Seven Sisters through the Kaladan project, which connects Kolkata with Mizoram i.e. North-East regions of India via the Sittwe port of Myanmar’s Rakhine state. That is why; India maintains a good tie with junta and presumably won’t let it disrupted by any chance.

However, China is the main player for Myanmar in the Rohingya repatriation game,where Russia stands by. Neither India nor Japan, on the other hand, is a permanent member of the Security Council. Hence, the role of China and Russia is much more important than these two countries. In particular, if Myanmar fails to comply with the four tasks that the International Criminal Tribunal has set for Myanmar, the order will automatically go to the UN Security Council. In this case, there will be a vote on what action can be taken against Myanmar for not complying with the court order. If China and Russia continue to veto the vote, the whole order will be meaningless.

Even though the Security Council is strict against the persecution of Rohingyas, it couldn’t take action due to China’s partialities. However, in response to Gambia’s request, the International Criminal Tribunal agreed to hear the case. Surprisingly, within few days,defying International Criminal Tribunal’s order,Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Myanmar to sign a multi-billion dollar project agreement with Myanmar, including the establishment of a deep-sea port and economic zone in Rakhine. The point is, whenever Myanmar needs economic and diplomatic support, China is there.

China, which has been playing the role of referee in resolving the Rohingya refugee crisis, has repeatedly vetoed, openly opposed in the Security Council. On the other hand, despite repeated assurances from Bangladesh, Myanmar has suspended the repatriation process on various pretexts. Despite several ministerial meetings between Bangladesh and Myanmar mediated by China in the last three years, not a single Rohingya has returned under the repatriation agreement. That is why; Western members of the UN Security Council are blaming China for its reluctance.

As China’s dependence on Myanmar is increasing day by day due to the new geopolitical equation created around the Bay of Bengal, the rulers of Myanmar are making good use of this advantage. The Rakhine (Arakan) region along the Bay of Bengal in Myanmar has become one of the world’s strategic lands since the launch of China’s new geo-strategic plan, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In addition to the Rakhine-Yunnan gas pipeline, there are pipelines for transporting oil imported from the Middle East. Also there are deep seaports, rail and road connections under construction by China. For China’s trade with Africa, Europe and the Middle East, the route is quite important. That being said, this gateway could become the lifeline of the Chinese economy, through which, China is said to balance economic and military power in Southeast Asia and the Bay of Bengal.

Both Japan & Russia’s position on the Rohingya crisis are also close to that of China. The country is trying to take over Myanmar’s arms market. There is also an eye on mineral resources. Russia’s state oil and gas exploration company ‘Gaspom’ has already opened an office in Myanmar. On the other hand,Japan is the second largest investor in Myanmar after China. During the Aung San Suu Kyi period, Japan invested heavily, especially in the east. It also plans to invest heavily in the planned economic zone near Maungdaw, Rakhine. For all these reasons, they are not in a position to put pressure on Myanmar.

Western nations, meanwhile, have been vocal, but they try to keep this burden on Bangladesh until the situation in Myanmar becomes favorable. Few days ago, the British Foreign Secretary asked the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh to take the Rohingyas. In response, Foreign Minister Abdul Momen called on the West to take the Rohingya. There are also doubts about the effectiveness of western travel ban against individuals in Myanmar. Western diplomats fear that their new pressure will push Myanmar more towards China and the opposite will happen.

These equations suggest that there are a lot of bilateral, regional and multilateral games of big powers and no matter how many resolutions on the repatriation of Rohingya are passed by the UN Human Rights Council, the whole rehabilitation process could fall into uncertainty in the face of complex geopolitical realities. Moreover, if not forced, Myanmar will not take back the Rohingyas, on the other hand, those who can force Myanmar will not walk or walk on that road for their own interests. Although it is considered by many to be a diplomatic failure of the government, the core of all countries’ diplomacy is to protect their own interests. Due to the ‘diplomacy of self-defense’ of these internationally important countries, there is growing uncertainty about whether it can ever go.

In such a situation, Bangladesh may face a deeper crisis over the Rohingya issue as the Rohingya population has been increasing day by day in the last three years. There are allegations that many of them have already been involved in various crimes including drug trafficking, arms smuggling and murder. There have also been allegations that some of them have been secretly associated with militancy. On the other hand, they have spread their criminal network outside the country through various kinds of immoral activities including passport forgery and as a result of these negative activities, our internal security, law and order and social norms have been threatened. For all these reasons, the government of Bangladesh and the people of this country all want a solution to this problem as soon as possible, as well as speed up the process of repatriation of Rohingyas. But still, it seems that despite Bangladesh’s sincere efforts and interest in the repatriation of Rohingya, many countries, including China, do not seem to have much interest. All in all, this is a complicated situation.

In the new geopolitical situation, Rohingyas can be a chess piece. Conflict between Myanmar and the West, especially between the United States and China, is expected to take a new turn. Therefore, the diplomats of Bangladesh have to think anew about the way to resolve the Rohingya crisis in the complicated situation that has arisen.

The writer is an independent analyst on national and economic issues.