Myanmar, Rohingyas and where Bangladesh faltered

Published: 00:05, Sep 13,2017 | Updated: 23:42, Sep 12,2017


In this photograph taken on September 7, a house burns in Gawdu Tharya village near Maungdaw in Rakhine State in northern Myanmar. The wooden structure on fire was seen by journalists during a Myanmar government sponsored trip for media to the region. In the past two weeks alone, 1,64,000 mostly Rohingya civilians, have fled to Bangladesh, overwhelming refugee camps that were already bursting at the seams and scores more have died trying to flee the fighting in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. — Agence France-Presse/STR


THE crisis is on us and has caught Bangladesh unprepared. There are a host of reasons why this has happened but one is a lack of a clear policy on our most difficult border, which is with Myanmar. As it occupies a small part of the total borderland, it was not taken seriously although trouble has been brewing for a long time, as early as 1971. Our entire focus was on India with which we have no such issues. We are now paying a price for a foreign policy which has proven to be both ad hoc and inadequate. One cannot survive in today’s complex international world by relying on the goodwill of others.
By the 1970s, we had received the first batch of Myanmar refugees and by 1975, local media had actually covered the presence of militants freed from jail there. From then on, this situation has grown on and in 1977–78, the first major batch of refugees had arrived. Of them, many had mostly returned but another big flood began in 1992 and since then it has been a permanent problem on the borders. As Myanmar tightened the screw on the Rohingyas, the most dispensable of the minorities, and sought negotiations with the stronger ones, the problem has escalated. However, we have never had a policy and do not appear to still have one. We wait for the Myanmar military to act and then try to decide what next to do.

Over dependence on big brothers?
ONE of the reasons this has happened is because our traditional big brothers — China and India — are themselves, directly or otherwise, involved in the Myanmar power play. Together with Myanmar, they form a critical triangle and we did not seem to understand that we were not part of it. Our assumption that both would take our interest into consideration while executing their policy has not been the case which shows that we do not understand real politics.
India and China are in Myanmar for the same reasons but they vary in proportion. While India is more into strategy and less into economics, China has less worry on security issues. India wants Myanmar to act against the Naga rebel alliance and there was even a report of a Naga militant being killed on the day before Modi’s visit.
For India, it is a concern as the Myanmar terrain has functioned as sanctuary for some of the north-east rebel groups. It feels uncomfortable strategically to have an escape route/sanctuary for its enemies next door. The other issue is that the link between the Indian mainland and its north-east is either through the ‘chicken neck’ corridor in the Doklam area of Bhutan or transit through Bangladesh. But the recent stand-off between India and China shows the fragility of its land communication access with a highly vulnerable area. In fact, India’s nervousness was obvious in June this year when it is supposed to have crossed over, according to Indian security analyst sources, to inspect the road maintenance taken up by China which India called a violation of the status quo of the treaty and nearly ignited a confrontation.
The only other route to the north-east is through Bangladesh and that is a slightly dodgy proposition in 2017 as China overtures to Bangladesh this year creating the ‘Chinese deep pocket’ crisis for India. It makes sense to have another option other than Bangladesh; and India is reportedly hoping that Myanmar will also be a bypass route to its north-east. So it is India which is asking for favours unlike China which is providing support. But India is also a happy supplier of armaments to Myanmar and is proposing military training in return.
China’s position is more confident and it is helping Myanmar to negotiate with the Shan and Kachen rebels with whom they maintain contact. It is not seeking passage ways but the stake is control of resources and linkage that ensures its status as the biggest player in the region. In return, what it offers is support for an unpopular army, massive investment and its presence as a friend of the entire Indo-China. It also wants access to a deep sea-port and ‘exclusive friendship’ which basically means keeping India out.

Myanmar: new peacekeepers?
BUT India is offering something lucrative like pushing for UN peacekeeping opportunities to the Myanmar army which will not only generate more income to them but reduce the army of its stigma of a repressive one. To that end, an India-Myanmar military training centre has been set up.
Given this scenario, it is obvious that every side is playing for high stakes and the Dhaka players should have been aware of that and acted accordingly. The stakes for India appears higher; and so, given the sensitivity, depending on Indian goodwill does not seem to have worked out. India’s rejection of condemnation of army action shows that big countries have many priorities. There should have been anticipation that given the history, something messy might happen, in stead of saying now that Myanmar is refusing to discuss the issues.
Bangladesh should have been aware that insurgency groups were active for long although few lived long but resentment is permanent. It seems a bit far-fetched that ISI is playing a role in fomenting the current insurgency because it would not support a group which is against the Myanmar army which is buying millions of dollars worth of Pakistani aircraft. Of course, both India and China are also big players with 75 per cent of China’s total arms sale going to Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh while India has supplied millions of dollars of weapons to Myanmar and Bangladesh.
So if everyone is involved, and with so much to gain, what was Bangladesh doing with only refugees to add to its population? We are significantly powerless and will remain so but that is why we need policies to ensure that our vulnerabilities are reduced. But till date, we have seen nothing. It is not just a calm attitude that is driving our relations with Myanmar but also a sense of being puzzled by developments which should have been anticipated.

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.

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