Has China outrun the West on the Rohingya issue?

Afsan Chowdhury, July 29, 2019

The history of ethnic hatred and violence in Myanmar towards the Rohngyas has a long history. While the political one is a relatively recent one tracing back to the British rule, the roots were even earlier during the Mughal era. Both, Chittagonians and Myanmar people have been in and out-migrating for centuries into each other’s territory. Chittagong was under the Mogh kings when Shaista Khan took it.

Those called Rohingyas are recent additions to the history. They are mostly migrant labourers moving to adjacent zones for livelihood for centuries but are now caught at a bad moment in history. The Myanmar ruling class has been using the immigrant- race card to create power bids for sometime. Anti-Rohingya sentiments are noticed after the Anglo-Burmese war and later. During the WW 2 Rrohingyas were loyal to the Brits while the Myanmar people to the occupying Japanese.

Open racism works in Myanmar

Read Also: A murder in Bangladesh: Microcosm of a weak formal system

Rohingya eviction movement was already high in the early 20th century and after the war India produced new states, Rohingyas wanted to join Pakistan. But as Myanmar was an independent crown colony not part of India , this didn’t happen. Subsequently, the relationship continued to declined and these people, mostly poor agro-labourers faced high discrimination. In 1977-78 they were expelled from Myanmar to Bangladesh but later forced to take them back under international pressure.

In 1982 Rohingyas lost their citizenship status. Expulsion occurred again in 1992 with another bout of return. However, in the current round, 2017, the largest exodus has occurred and Myanmar has taken a hard-line stand about their return.

Myanmar is an openly racist country unlike Bangladesh where its more hidden but minorities face difficulties here too. In Mayanmar its more intense. As the Rohingyas are not Mongoloid and don’t share the same language group, their marginalization has been easier. What this ethnic discrimination has gained for Myanmar is not always clear as Rohingyas were never economic competitors and there is no land shortage either.

However, common social hatred for this group including their different minority faith has always helped Myanmar’s Mongolod Buddhist nationalism. What they experience is perhaps similar to the Muslims of India, treated as outsiders, either Pakistanis or Bangladeshis. But Rohingyas have no Kashmir as BD has no geo-strategic role in the region.

The crisis has involved many people and power but a key role in this is that of China.

ARSA no threat as China gains

Most Western countries were very pro-Myanmar and Suu Kyi and saw the Rohingyas as potential Islamists particularly the militant Rohngya outfit, ARSA. But now questions are being asked as to what made a weak outfit like them attack a Myanmar outpost? Was there an external motivation that both triggered the counter attack by Myanmar followed by the exodus.

Myanmar military didn’t expect the damage to its reputation in the aftermath as media, human rights and UN agencies labeled it as acting with “genocidal intent”. It also means, that doing business with Myanmar us a bit unsavory now. Meanwhile, Suu Kyi’s reputation has been tarnished and the military Generals have gained much more clout and now hold the key to decision making. They were unpopular for long but now popular with ordinary Myanmar people as those who kicked out the Rohingyas.

Western experts at that time speculated that China’s clout was declining in Myanmar which was able to hold its own. But a year later, while China is still unpopular it presence has grown bigger. It is the only big country that is ready to overlook the ethnic cleansing in return for economics and guarantee of security of its projects. As the world retreats a bit, China inches in more making Myanmar dependent on it.

Meanwhile ARSA has not produced the “Extremist explosion” everyone was expecting and Bangladesh has the situation under control. No terror attack has taken place either though several people have been arrested with a Rohingya background with possible ARSA links. However, Bangladesh has its own extremists but there has been no escalation in tandem with ARSA.

Bangladesh’s priority and China

Bangladesh has called upon China for help with its Rohingya problem. China has brokered a bi-lateral agreement with Myanmar which as expected yielded no results. There is increasing acceptance in BD official circles that the refugees are here to stay. If funding is found, Bangladesh may not raise heaven and earth from slumber on this matter.

Read Also: Court ticks off Bangladesh Central Bank for being blatantly pro-rich

Meanwhile, trade and investment is its priority so there is a two street approach on Sino-BD relations. BD wants the refugees to go home and has appealed to China for help. China has promised but not much has been delivered. On the other hand, trade relations are very positive and the support by China has also balanced to some extent BD’s sole dependence on India.

Bangladesh will not rock many boats and will go along what happens with time. China has managed to achieve two things in Myanmar. It has gotten rid of the Western threat that could challenge China’s monopoly clout in Myanmar and has greater guarantee of its projects. Myanmar needs China more than they did before the Rohingyas left for Bangladesh.

Whether there is a link between the two is not known but no doubt, China has done well when it was expected to face international embarrassment because of its support o Myanmar on the Rohingya eviction issue.

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