Myanmar’s Rohingya refugee crisis, characterized by United Nations’ investigators as “ethnic cleansing” with possible “genocidal intent”, could finally be redounding on the country’s powerful and autonomous top brass.
But while Western nations press to penalize Myanmar’s latest abuses, definitively ending a short-lived engagement with the long-isolated county, neighboring states are taking a more self-interested approach.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague said last month that it plans to initiate pre-trial procedures which could lead to legal action against Myanmar’s military leaders for mass atrocities.
A conviction against top soldiers, including military commander Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, could spur renewed Western sanctions, soon after the US and European Union lifted their previous punitive measures in diplomatic reward for implementing democratic reforms.
The government in Naypyitaw is clearly in damage control mode. Reports suggest it will send a delegation to Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh, where at least 700,000 Rohingya refugees have been housed in squalid camps since being driven out of Myanmar in 2016 and 2017.
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a repatriation deal in November 2017, but now both sides are blaming each other for a failure to implement its measures.
To date, no refugees have been returned through official channels, in part because they refuse to return to Myanmar without official guarantees of full citizenship rights.
Bangladesh, meanwhile, is getting agitated about the lack of movement. During a visit to Beijing this month, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appealed to her Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to intervene in the crisis.
“We expect the goodwill of the Chinese government and the president so that the displaced Rohingyas can go back,” local media reported her saying on July 6.
That plaintive plea reflects a new, bitter regional reality which is just now coming into stark view: any ICC move against Myanmar’s military will only drive the nation more firmly back into the grip of its long-time protector and patron, China.
Beijing, for its part, opposes intervention by international legal bodies, seen most recently in its rejection of a Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruling in 2016 against its wide-sweeping claims to the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, no government in Naypyitaw will likely ever agree to take back more than a million, mostly Muslim, refugees who want to be fully recognized as Myanmar citizens.
As such, an Asian version of Palestine is emerging on the shores of Bangladesh, a realization which may have prompted Hasina to say on June 26 that “our security and stability will be hampered” if the Rohingya remain in their camps.
If the Rohingya are not soon returned to Myanmar, their situation will increasingly mirror that of the Palestinians in Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries, where refugees have carved out a state within a state with their own political organizations and administration.
There are also indications that desperate Rohingya are being radicalized by outside extremist groups, posing a potent new security risk that reach across the country.
In May, Rohingya in cahoots with Malaysian militants plotted to bomb Hindu and Buddhist temples, Christian churches, and the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur. BenarNews reported that the arrested militants had all pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
The news outlet quoted a Malaysian police source close to the investigation saying that “this is the first time we arrest Rohingyas. Prior to this, there was no case involving them.” There are currently tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees and migrants in Malaysia.
One of the detained Rohingya also said that he supported the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a relatively new militant group that carried out a series of deadly attacks against Myanmar security forces in Rakhine state in October 2016 and August 2017.
Those crude assaults prompted Myanmar’s military to launch what it referred to as “clearance operations” in northern Rakhine state, assaults that UN investigators have since referred to as “ethnic cleansing” with “genocidal intent.”
The thwarted bomb plot in Malaysia may only be an isolated incident, but security analysts believe it could be indicative of the threats that will arise if the Rohingya are stuck interminably in Bangladesh.
Many clearly want out. An unknown number of refugees have recently purchased Bangladeshi passports so that they may escape the crowded camps for third country destinations, sources familiar with the situation say.
Others are reportedly seeking to cross the border into India, where they apparently hope to live more freely than in Bangladesh’s tightly-controlled camps.
An estimated 40,000-50,000 Rohingya now live near the capital New Delhi, in Jammu in the north and Hyderabad in the south. Earlier this year, small groups of Rohingya were rounded up in India and sent back to Myanmar.
India clearly does not want to become a magnet for more Rohingya refugees. That likely has more to do with strategic interests than security concerns that Islamic militants may be hiding in the refugees’ midst.
New Delhi wants to build cordial relations with Naypyitaw to maintain Myanmar’s cooperation against insurgents from northeastern India who for years have used cross-border sanctuaries in Myanmar’s northwestern Sagaing Region to launch cross-border attacks.
After years of inaction against the armed rebels, with officials even implausibly denying the existence of such camps, the Myanmar military finally drove some of the insurgents out of their sanctuaries in March this year.
New Delhi is also eager to counterbalance China’s influence in Myanmar through Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Act East” policy, which aims to better link and integrate India with Southeast Asia’s booming economies.
Likewise, geopolitical concerns are likely behind China’s refusal to support a British-drafted United Nations Security Council resolution to address the Rohingya refugee crisis. Both China and Russia boycotted the meeting and hence killed the motion.
Even Hasina’s appeal to Xi may fall on deaf ears as Myanmar is strategically too important to China to risk frictions with Naypyitaw over any contentious refugee repatriation scheme.
Anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar is already running high over the highly unpopular Myitsone hydroelectric power dam project and other controversial China-backed investment projects across the country.
Myanmar is China’s only relatively secure outlet to the Indian Ocean and building an “economic corridor” through its southwestern neighbor is more important to its national interests than helping to resolve the Rohingya refugee crisis.
So, too, is a desire not to inflame more anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar. There is little public support for repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, where many consider them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
That also means it’s unlikely that Myanmar civilian politicians would agree to such a mass repatriation, especially with new general elections on the horizon in 2020.
Military commander Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s most powerful political figure, has said the 2017 crackdown on the Rohingya aimed to settle “unfinished business” from World War II.
His statement was a clear allusion to bloody clashes that occurred in 1942 between Muslims who remained loyal to the British colonial power and Buddhists who sided with the then Japanese occupational force.
Muslims in what’s now Rakhine state tortured, raped and murdered more than 20,000 ethnic Rakhine Buddhists while about twice that number of Muslims were killed, according to Myanmar and Western historians.
Moreover, the Chinese are also wary of ARSA and its possible connections to regional extremist groups, including Uighur Muslim terrorists from its Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
China recently conveyed that concern to an alliance of ethnic armed groups in northern Myanmar to discourage any engagement with ARSA, a warning they have apparently heeded.
The fact that ARSA was founded by Rohingya based in Pakistan, among them ARSA chairman and founder Ataullah abu Ammar Junini, poses a similar Islamic extremist threat to India.
It is still not clear what Ataullah and his militant group hoped to achieve when they launched their poorly planned and weakly armed attacks on Myanmar security forces in 2016 and 2017.
But the upshots of those fateful assaults has been a situation that threatens not only the stability of Bangladesh but has
also pushed Myanmar back towards China and away from the West.
Myanmar has almost overnight been transformed from a darling of the US and EU enamored with its democratic reforms to a rights-abusing international pariah.
The losers are over one million Rohingya who face bleak futures in squalid camps; Bangladesh, which must shoulder the burden of housing the refugees and brace for new extremist threats; and the West, which has lost the influence it gained in Myanmar during the transition from direct military to quasi-democratic rule.
The winner, on the other hand, is China. Beijing will likely not, as Hasina hopes, use its considerable clout to solve her country’s refugee crisis, but rather will leverage the situation to regain ground it had earlier lost to the West in Myanmar.
Geopolitics are taking precedence over humanitarian concerns in the imbroglio that has tragically emerged on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, one that if allowed to entrench and fester runs the risk of becoming Asia’s version of Palestine.