Forging a new Rohingya strategy

Published : 18 Sept 2017, 07:27 AM
Updated : 18 Sept 2017, 07:27 AM

Absent any national refugee laws in Bangladesh, the legal status of the Rohingyas as foreigners impedes efforts to garner much needed international cooperation and financial assistance. Beyond this legal limbo, a viable Rohingya solution for Bangladesh rests on placing the Rohingya problem in the context of dynamics inside Myanmar and the geopolitical and economic interests of some large stakeholders. This piece proposes a Rohingya strategy for Bangladesh in this regard.

First, the Rohingyas are discriminated against in Myanmar partially because of their ethnicity, not just their religion. All Rohingyas, including the Hindus, are denied Myanmar citizenship with their ancestral abode in Bangladesh used as justification. The characterisation of the minority as a religious one serves the political purpose of the anti-secular forces and hampers international assistance. The government of Bangladesh should thus actively deflate such characterisation.

Second, research[1] indicates that more Buddhist small landowners than Rohingyas have been forcibly expelled from their land. This expulsion program gathered steam in 2012 when the Miyanmar parliament revised the Farmland Law and Vacant Land Law and annulled the 1963 Peasant Law to accompany a new Foreign Investment Law allowing 100 percent foreign capital and 70 year lease in crucial sectors such as mining. Not only do the corrupt military and political personnel of Miyanmar stand to make personal fortunes from future sale of the looted land and waters to foreign investors, the rural mercenaries and armed groups are also vying for the fortune by means of violence against the small landowners.

Importantly, unlike other victims, the Rohingyas do not have a viable migration and livelihood option within Myanmar. Southeastern Bangladesh will continue to be their sole refuge. Thus any sustainable solution requires the Bangladesh government to build an international coalition to initiate and enforce the stoppage of the land grab.

Third, crucial to any such effort is to navigate the varying and often conflicting interests of large stakeholders in Myanmar and the neighbouring region. The three elephants in the room are China, India and the US. Bangladesh and Myanmar offer attractive prospects for multimodal links between South East Asia to the rest of Asia, over both land and sea. It is a cost-effective shipping alternative to the Malacca Strait, which is second only to the Strait of Hormuz for the oil and gas shipments[2], and handles one quarter of global merchandise trade[3] and half of seaborne trade[4]. Further, their maritime waters offer naval manoeuvring through the Indian Ocean to water bodies in the east amdthe west, and are ideal for stationing military capabilities in striking vicinity of an economically mighty region that is home to many ongoing conflicts.

Realising the potential, China has secured access to and transportation of Myanmar's natural resources, most notably oil and gas, from fields near the Rakhine capital of Sittwe, not too far from the southeastern tip of Bangladesh. To this end, two pipelines (and a parallel rail track) to China's Kunming are to be used, one from the Maday Island deep water port for oil, and the other from the sea port of Kyaukpyu for methane gas[5]. Sensing archrival China's growing presence in Myanmar, India has also been cozying up to the regime. For a cost-effective alternative to the Shiliguri corridor, it is pursuing a transportation route (Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project) from the Sittwe area, which will connect landlocked northeastern India to the rest of the country through the Bay of Bengal. A gas pipeline from the Sittwe gas field (in which Indian companies have a large stake) is also being contemplated by India.

China also has a long-established and unshakable influence on the military junta in Myanmar. It seems the North Korean model is in the making in Miyanmar, where China can help to develop and install nuclear weapons and ICBMs, and perhaps also establish a naval base near Sittwe, thereby opening a formidable new war front against India. In return, as in North Korea, the rogue regime in Myanmar can perpetuate its hold on governance power and constitute a potent threat to the stability of South and Southeast Asia, the vital maritime channels and the naval resources and pacific strategy of the US. For these reasons the US, and not only India, would also be interested in collaborating with Bangladesh to arrest the Chinese onslaught.

Bangladesh should thus use its geographic positioning to elicit strategic collaboration from India and the US. To reconcile India's interests, the Bangladesh government may pursue two connectivity projects paralleling the Indian ones in Myanmar, connecting the on-shore and off-shore ports of Bangladesh to the northeastern Indian states. Such a route would be much safer and reliable for India considering the unrest in Rakhine and the China-influenced regimes of Myanmar. Secondly, Bangladesh may collaborate with India to house the Rohingya refugees in shelters along the entire borders of Bangladesh and India with Myanmar. The two countries should then jointly train and possibly arm the Rohingya refugees to fight back the Myanmar persecution and return to their homeland with dignity. Bangladesh cannot pursue such a strategy by itself, especially considering the prospect of inadvertently arming insurgents within India and anti-secular terrorists.

Bangladesh, however, cannot rely on India alone to defend and promote its interests. It is necessary to gain the collaboration of the US by bringing it close to the borders and shores of Myanmar. Offering some Bangladesh island territory for a US military or naval base should be seriously considered to counter the North Korea-like threats from Myanmar. Further, in the case of escalating tensions with Myanmar due to aggressive posturing, the US's influence at the United Nations and its veto power can be extremely valuable in fending off punitive measures against Bangladesh (and India) that China may seek.

In conclusion, a long-term and viable solution for Bangladesh to the Rohingya refugee problem demands strategic collaboration with India and the US to stop the brutal land grab by the Myanmar regime that is supported by the geopolitical and economic interests of China. To avert the underlying and larger destabilisation threat of North Korea-like Mianmar, the Bangladesh government should pursue north-south connectivity projects to benefit northeastern India and accommodate the naval presence of US in off-shore Bangladesh, notwithstanding the risk of some loss of sovereignty.