The Rohingya Crisis and Myanmar’s border relations with Bangladesh
The Rohingya crisis in Myanmar has become a major talking point in geopolitical discourses and news media alike the world over the 21st century. Much of the attention stemming from the treatment of the Rohingya people by the military of Myanmar’s government. Rohingya are a Muslim minority group that has its own ethnic identity whose residence is in the northern Arakan State area. Decades of state sponsored terror and violence on the people beginning as early as 1972 have forced hundreds of thousands of people across the border into Bangladesh resulting in one of the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis. Bearing most of the brunt of the Rohingya refugee crisis, Bangladesh has had a sweet and sour relationship with her neighbour Myanmar with whom they share several economic and social interests. This paper intends to elaborate the geopolitical relations that underlie the Rohingya crisis and how the crisis has in turn affected South East Asia Geopolitics as well as local relations between Myanmar and her neighbours. According to (Dodds, 2003, p. 206), geopolitics assumes a problem solving approach to political issues on an international scale laying emphasis on the territorial dimensions of foregin policy and dimplomacy. The analyses the geopolitical relationships of the wider actors influencing the crisis such as China’s larger interests in the area and how these have come into play to lengthen the crisis unnecesarily.
The Rohingya crisis can be perceived as an ideological geopolitical situation. Ideological geopolitics can be defined as an amalgam of ideas, planned strategies and symbolic figures with the purpose of promoting or altering an existing societal order (Agnew, 2003, p. 102). In Rohingya the ideologies supported by the State Chancellor of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi have placed her at odds with the people of Rohingya in the sense that she has adopted the popular narrative of the Buddhist majority population against Muslim ideals. Her tolerance of the Military’s excesses in the Rakhaine area, where the majority of the Rohingya population resides, speaks to the conflict arising out of the ideological differences. The conflict was further perpetuated by the regional geopolitics in which Myanmar found herself in. China’s interests as well as India’s and the United States played an important part in ensuring the crisis was not addressed, much less solved, within reasonable time allowing the military forces to continue with the violence unabashed (Storey, 2017).
The Rohingya people have had a long history in Myanmar dating back to the Maruk-U dynasty that was part of the Arakan kingdom. They therefore have their own traditions and practices and are in many ways considered a separate ethnic group. Therefore, ethnic differences were as influential to the crisis as ideological ones. A sequence of actions, including an attempted coup that the ruling regime believed to have been orchestrated by the Muslims, hardened the relations and eventually led to 167000 refugees being forced into Bangladesh by State sponsored militias and the military itself. The multi-ethnic Burmese people have supported the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people repeatedly over the decades that followed (Haque, 2014, p. 2). The government that took over in 2016 continued the violence unabashed, with a Nobel Laureate and world renowned human rights activists at its helm. The rationale of Myanmar’s government is that the Rohingya people are not ‘originally’ from there and that they are natively from the Muslim majority neighbour, Bangladesh. The government, therefore, contests the integrity of the territorial claim of the Rohingya people over the Rakhaine area placing this conflict right at the heart of political geography.
As follows nearly all geopolitical conflicts, the victims have reacted vengefully, fatally and devastatingly sometimes to the violence meted against them. The Arakan Muslims have been systematically divided and turned against each other by the government which is comprised of a majority Buddhist population. As a result, the government has been able to keep an all-out mutiny by the Muslim population in aid of their Muslim fellows. Indeed, the other Muslims have in some ways been complicit by action or inaction. Regardless, the Rohingya population that has been displaced from their homeland has formed an easy recruitment target for Islam extremist groups and militias such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) as a form of retaliation, further feeding the conflict loop (Haque, 2014, p. 5). Organized attacks have been perpetuated by the militias such as ARSA that was reported to have attacked an army post and ended up killing 30 soldiers according to the official report by the government. On its part, the angered government responded with protracted state sponsored violence that claimed 3000 lives of the Rohingya population while displacing a further 600000 into refugee camps into Cox’s Bazaar located in Bangladesh (Storey, 2017). The terror threat posed by the hundreds of thousands of unemployed Rohingya population as well as the economic strain it places, particularly on Bangladesh, has had a great influence on the protracted crisis.
The Cold War served as the most important and formative geopolitical time in the 20th century discourse on global politics. The stand-off involving the world’s two greatest powers, based on an ideological difference on how the worlds should be governed, had far-reaching ramifications for the proxy countries where the wars were fought, for the respective economies of the two countries and even more importantly for the ensuing global geopolitics. Former American president Ronald Reagan viewed the Soviet Union as an evil empire that had to be resisted by all means. The stakes, however, were too high for the two countries to engage each other in an all-out war. The Soviets were running out of money following their nuclear programs and military efforts in other countries and the US Dollar was beginning to pick and as such war was inconceivable for both countries (Dodds, 2003, p. 209). Peace was, unfortunately, not an option. The proxy countries such as Vietnam and the wars in Sudan and the Congo were all believed to be backed by U.S and Soviet powers on opposing sides. The ideological difference between capitalism and communism inevitably led to a geopolitical conflict that led to the loss of lives of hundreds of thousands across the globe eventually culminating in the fall of the Soviet Union placing the United States firmly as the world’s only regional hegemon at least until China came along.
When a country gains immense powers and dominates the countries that surround it to the extent that no other state can fathom engaging it in a military encounter, it has achieved hegemony. The country seeks to be the only power in the region and crashes any attempts by other states to gain power often brutally and violently. The United States achieved regional hegemony in the western hemisphere and followed through with the culmination of the Cold War (Mearsheimer, 2010, p. 383). China has seen a miraculous economic boom over the past decades that has given it massive influence over several Asian and Pacific countries thus enhancing her pursuit for regional hegemony. A slew of Chinese ports and military bases across the Asia-Pacific region have cemented China’s claim by strengthening her naval forces and her projection of power into the Indian Ocean.
In Myanmar, China has overseen the construction of infrastructure projects such as a deep-sea port at Kyauk Pyu and highways. This will give her much needed direct access to the Bay of Bengal and more importantly to the Indian Ocean. As early as in 1991, China signed a deal to supply the Myanmar government with $900 million worth of military equipment. They used this equipment to launch a brutal operation against the Rohingya people in an attempt to show force and win over the support of the Buddhist population. The intention to project power has seen China construct military bases in the region and this placed China at loggerheads with long-time rival, India. India wishes to secure her interests within the Bay of Bengal, also through Myanmar (Storey, 2017). In order to cushion the working relationship between the two countries and protect India’s position, a naval training and military equipment deal was signed between the two countries. This not only served to balance out China’s position, it also emboldened the Myanmar military to pursue the violence knowing they had the support of two of the most powerful neighbours (Haque, 2014, p. 8).
Sanctions against countries have proven to be effective in combating human rights abuses by governments. However, Myanmar’s support from the regional powers has ensured that any sanctions made against the country are ineffective. China is too preoccupied with her hegemony interests to give up to the plight of a minority ethnic group. Her interest is to protect the goods that are shipped through the Indian Ocean as well as the passengers and energy. India is preoccupied with the dramatic rise of China and the threat this poses in the region therefore, a working relationship with the regime is far much more valuable than the plight of the Rohingya refugees. India and China hold the influence but are disinclined to intervene and interrupt the all-important status quo. The United States, on the other hand, is occupied with military exploits in the Middle East and a much more urgent threat faced in North Korea’s nuclear program (Storey, 2017). On top of that, any pressure they could purport to exert on the administration as regards the human rights abuses would only serve to push Myanmar further away and to China. This, they cannot afford considering the position China is taking (Haque, 2014, p. 9).
Contention between India and China over geopolitical influence in Myanmar is based on the control of sea trade routes and the Indian Ocean. The Tibetan border dispute still remains a very integral part of the conflict. According to the Chinese, the Indians are colonial successors and inheritors of British imperialism. It is because of this that China does not recognize the McMahon line as a Sino-Indian land boundary since they view it as a symbol of British colonialism. China’s support for Pakistani hostilities is aimed against India. A number of high-ranking Chinese officials have gone as far as mentioning that the Indian Ocean is not India’s ocean (Khurana, 2008, p. 3). These unending hostilities have made Myanmar a very important partner for both countries essentially making them incapable of any form intervention.
Following the end of the second world war, the political elite in the US embarked on a security mission that focused on the balance of power across the entire globe and not just the Western hemisphere. The resolve was that any attempts at building economic blocs or pan-regions and any rise in power must be opposed the world over (Agnew, 2003, p. 105). Inevitably, therefore, the rise of China has already raised several concerns within the US administration. Consequently, the Aung Suu’s administration has also avoided pressure from the US who are keen to keep an ally. Moreover, political realism forces the US and China, who have a long history of trade and cooperation, to pursue alternatives to war (Tuathail, 2006, p. 2).
Among the most crucial consequences that resulted from the displacement of the Rohingya people is that they now form a ripe recruitment ground for Islamic militant groups such as ISIS. These groups have reportedly already begun recruiting soldiers and sympathisers to the Rohingya cause. In Egypt, a terrorist group bombed an embassy in support of the Rohingya cause (Storey, 2017). Nearly 800000 Rohingya people have been displaced from their homes into refugee camps in Bangladesh. This has arduously strained the receiving country’s economy due to the number of mouths to feed and with no solution in the near future. Scarcity, poverty, violence and mistreatment in the camps has made religious extremism seem like a viable alternative to the victims (Haque, 2014, p. 10).
As result of the refugee crisis, militant groups have risen along the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar debilitating the state of security in the area. This has served to further reduce the cross border relations between the two countries which were already bad due to the same crisis. Bilateral trade between the countries has not been at the level it could be considering the strategic geography of the two countries (Storey, 2017).
According to (Castree, 2003, p. 426) the ideological differences that lead to geopolitical conflicts were to be fought out with the use of nuclear power to deter and would be done in developing countries. Myanmar is developing country on which a geopolitical ideological confrlict is being settled. The conflict between Buddhist ideologies and muslim ideologies and the geopolitical conflict between India and China and between China and the US. As a consequence, the crisis has been protracted for a much longer time than it should claiming several lives aling the way. The refugee problem in Bangladesh arising out of the Rohingya crisis has soured the relationship between the two neighbours at a time when bilateral trade is essential for both countries. The crisis wll require a concerted effort by all the powerful actors in order to come up with a long lasting solution. According to (Dodds, 2005, p. 224), terrorrism does not occur in a geopolitical vaccum. That we must seek to understand as much as condemn. Therefore, the Rohingya crisis must also be understood in terms how state sponsored terrorism, international complacency as well as geopolitical differences has resulted in a worldwide terror threat.
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