Throughout the course of human history, every forcibly displaced group has had to face the sharpest of spears – hatred. But times have changed. Trade has improved. Democracy thrives and deterrence is practised. Yet, hatred finds its way through international politics to the victim. This time, it is the Rohingya Muslim.
A cocktail of Marxist and Buddhist principles was the backbone of the socialist ideology sowed by the architects of Myanmar’s 1962 coup, which found its takers in a country ridden with poverty but rich in Buddhist culture. Subsequently, the Ne Win-led military junta was perceived as a symbol of Buddhist omnipresence and garnered the support of influential monasteries over the years. This support was quid pro quo for the military assistance to the monasteries for their operations, including forced proselytisation of minorities and students belonging to ethnic communities. To this date, the monasteries together with the junta engage in forced conversions, and where they fail, in ethnic cleansing.
The apostle of democracy and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi herself cannot afford to do proper housekeeping. She has no say in the affairs of the military and the indomitable junta presence in the cabinet handles all the important portfolios. Even in the face of tough calls by the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN) over military violence and human rights violations in Rakhine, Suu Kyi cautiously treads to deny reports thereby offering political cover for the junta. Severe pressure from the international community too has failed to provide any relief for the Rohingyas, as Suu Kyi knows better that any proposition to impose sanctions on Myanmar will be met with a veto from the People’s Republic of China. Moreover, Suu Kyi realises that the only way democracy or rather the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) can survive in Myanmar, for at least the time being, is by offering political cover to the junta.
The junta and its allies, mainly China, control most of Myanmar’s foreign and economic policies. Other than the obvious geostrategic significance of Myanmar, which shares its borders with three Indian states, the Chinese have greater plans for the country that extend beyond the Panchsheel Treaty. China laid the foundation of its enduring friendship with Myanmar, when the Chinese Communist Party tilted its Myanmar strategy in favour of the junta and its government, and began supplying arms to it by the late 1980s in exchange for access to the Burmese markets. More importantly, China has managed to retain loyal elements in Myanmar’s government after its democratic makeover, and the relationship seems to be flourishing with China making Myanmar an important trade partner in its flagship projects such as the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. Myanmar, on the other hand, hungry for economic growth, is aggressively pursuing growth opportunities but its trade policy being controlled by the junta means the opportunities are confined to the biggest regional power – China. Chinese investments amount to 30 per cent of Myanmar’s total Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), which is for good reasons. The bountiful oil and natural gas deposits off the western coast of Myanmar and railroad links of the country, which provide a cheaper and faster alternative to maritime transport, essentially make Myanmar an attractive energy and logistics hub for China’s OBOR project. Moreover, Myanmar serves as a link for China to enter the consumer-rich markets of India and Bangladesh.
The Chinese, over the years, have made significant investments in the oil fields of Myanmar, especially in the western coast of Rakhine. PetroChina, a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corporation, recently opened its oil pipeline in Made Island, a few kilometres away from Rakhine’s coastline. The 771-kilometre-long pipeline is to cross Myanmar to reach PetroChina’s Kunming Refinery in China. The pipeline will allow China to import crude oil directly from the Middle East, thereby bypassing the Malacca Strait. Banking on the pipeline, PetroChina has inked a deal with Saudi Aramco to meet its energy demands. The gravity and the scale of the investment put pressure on Myanmar’s administration to provide security, especially at the origin of the pipeline, Rakhine. However, the military controlled solely by the right-wing-favouring junta has its own agendas. Widespread reports of arson, murder and rape were brought to the attention of the administration and the international community but to no gain. Solid documentation of atrocities and human rights violations by the military is overlooked because the demagogues cannot afford to intervene. The Rohingyas are simply collateral damage to them.
India’s foreign policy does not allow it much manoeuvrability on the Rohingya crisis and is inordinately overpowered by China’s Myanmar policy. Concerned by China’s ever-growing presence in Myanmar, India has been touting trade and infrastructure to improve ties with Myanmar. India’s realisation of the market opportunities in Myanmar and its geostrategic significance has somewhat accelerated Indian FDI in the country. The ASEAN–India Free Trade pact signed in 2009, nine years after the commencement of the ASEAN–China Free Trade pact, has the India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) trilateral highway, which aims to establish strategic Indian presence in the region, as one of its key deals.
What received attention and criticism from the media were the Indian Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s words on ‘extremism’ in Rakhine. What also deserves attention is India’s allocation of 2.56 billion USD for the completion of the IMT trilateral highway. The PM’s speech was another carefully positioned domino in India’s appeasement strategy towards Myanmar. After the Dokhlam crisis, both India and China have been eyeing avenues to tighten their hold on Southeast Asia. At a time when Myanmar is facing flak from the international community, India’s words were not on moral but strategic grounds.
The Malaysian PM’s support for Bangladesh is a model that India can follow to reiterate its dialogue with Myanmar. PM Najib is not too happy with the idea of PetroChina reserve, which, in effect, will eliminate the Malacca Strait from the oil trade route and result in significant revenue loss for Malaysia, another claimant in the South China Sea dispute. PM Najib’s words that Bangladesh will not be alone in the issue of Rohingya influx is another way of shifting the axis towards Bangladesh, thereby allowing Myanmar space to breathe. India maintains friendly relations with Bangladesh and humanitarian and/or financial aid will help improve ties with the country without compromising India’s Myanmar policy.
Myanmar and its military junta will never cede to the international community’s pressure tactics. And the smoke billowing from Rakhine is not likely to stop anytime soon.
*Nimish Sany is Research Assistant, CPPR.
Views expressed in the article are personal.