Rohingya refugees who were intercepted by Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency off Langkawi island are escorted as they are handed over to immigration authorities, at the Kuala Kedah ferry jetty in Malaysia April 3, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Stringer
Rohingya refugees who were intercepted by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency off Langkawi island are escorted as they are handed over to immigration authorities, at the Kuala Kedah ferry jetty in Malaysia on April 3, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Stringer

In August last year, 150 armed Rohingya attacked 30 police stations and a Myanmar army base in Mangdu district of Rakhine state, leaving 70 dead and prompting a military crackdown that triggered more killings and a Rohingya exodus. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for the August 25 killings.

The Rohingya crisis in Myanmar could not have come at a more opportune time for China. But this article is not about how, when and for what purpose Rohingya entered what was then Burma or whether the British were behind it. Neither is it about the genesis of last year’s Rohingya exodus.

With China sharing Myanmar’s longest border and the latter’s access to the eastern Indian Ocean, particularly the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, it eyes Myanmar as a geo-strategic pivot (much the same as Pakistan). Little wonder then that China’s interest in Myanmar grew rapidly while the international community had abandoned it.

China also continues to be the largest trading partner and largest investor in Myanmar – an alignment that has suited China’s growing need for oil and other natural resources. But Myanmar is also becoming aware of China’s debt-trap policy and how the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) works predominantly to China’s advantage.

Work has commenced on Chinese investments in the Kyauk Phyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Myanmar covering more than 17 square kilometers, which includes a US$7.3 billion deep-sea port and a $2.3 billion industrial park.

With plans to attract industries such as textiles and oil refining, Kyauk Phyu on the Bay of Bengal provides an alternative route to China for energy imports from the Middle East. It is also the entry point for a 770-kilometer oil pipeline across Myanmar to southwestern China – a crucial part of Beijing’s BRI.

Locals criticize Chinese projects

But there is considerable hostility from locals toward Chinese projects, not only on such issues as compensation and job losses, but because some projects are being rushed through without consultation or regard for their way of life.

There have also been drastic curbs on fishing. Land acquisition is being done before completing environmental impact assessments and resettlement, which is not only against national laws of Myanmar but can also be viewed in the backdrop of China’s total disregard to ecology and the environment in projects elsewhere.

Some 20,000 villagers mostly dependent on agriculture and fishing are at risk of being relocated to make way for the Kyauk Phyu SEZ and Chinese companies are bringing in their own workers. China says it will create 100,000 jobs in Rakhine state, but going by another BRI hallmark, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, these will be in the lowest category.

Early last year, China signaled it might abandon the Myitsone Dam hydroelectric project in Myanmar to exert pressure and push through the Kyauk Phyu SEZ. But when thousands of Rohingya refugees streamed into Bangladesh, and Western countries and the United Nations went after Myanmar with hammer and tongs over the issue of human rights, China pounced on the opportunity to further its strategic aims in Myanmar, offering mediation between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the Rohingya issue.

Many may be unaware that China has created a deadly proxy in the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a 10,000-plus-strong narco-army straddling the “Golden Triangle” in Myanmar’s Shan state. It has armed it with machine-guns, armored vehicles, shoulder-fired missiles and even missile-fitted helicopters that were flown in via Thailand.

Under threat

The UWSA is China’s “Sword of Damocles” hanging over Myanmar – signaling the country can be destabilized if it doesn’t behave or tries to cozy up to the US – especially after the electoral victory of the National League for Democracy and given the leanings of that party’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

But China did not stop with the UWSA. Simultaneous to India’s “Act East” policy and construction of the India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) Highway, Chinese intelligence established the United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (ULFWSEA) in Myanmar in May 2015. This brought together nine insurgent organizations including the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang and the United Liberation Front of Assam. The ULFWSEA is primarily aimed at India but is an extra pressure point against Myanmar as well.

Now, the China-Pakistan sub-conventional nexus has provided yet another handle to China for tightening its hold on Myanmar while posing as favoring Myanmar on the Rohingya issue. ARSA head Ata Ullah grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, before moving to Saudi Arabia with his father. He is reported to have returned to Pakistan in 2014 with millions of dollars to purchase weapons.

Reports also suggest that in 2013, Bangladesh raised concerns about Pakistani terror groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba attempting to instigate the Rohingya. Abdul Kareem Tunda, an Indian-designated terrorist associated with the LeT, is believed to have traveled from Pakistan to Bangladesh to recruit Rohingya for jihad. However, there are no independent reports to corroborate whether they succeeded.

It is also a fact that since then, Bangladesh has allowed more than 700,000 refugees to take shelter in Cox’s Bazaar.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has proposed the “China-Myanmar Economic Corridor” to re-energize efforts to promote economic ties with Myanmar but there is no telling how China may use its sub-conventional muscle while continuing to harp on friendship with Myanmar, given that Myanmar appears firmly in the dragon’s jaws.

Prakash Katoch

The author retired as lieutenant general from the Indian Army's Special Forces.

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