Rohingya refugees as pawns in a geopolitical game
US and EU unlikely to impose new sanctions on Myanmar's abusive military practices in sight of China's use of the crisis to score diplomatic points
US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley did not mince her words in condemning the Myanmar military’s brutal crackdown that has forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees streaming across its Rakhine state border into neighboring Bangladesh.
The envoy said in a September speech that “the time for well-meaning diplomatic words” had passed and that “we must now consider action against Burmese [Myanmar] security forces who are implicated in abuses and stoking hatred among their fellow citizens.” She also called on Myanmar to “immediately remove and prosecute those accused of abuses.”
Yet it is extremely unlikely that the US will take such punitive action, including a reimposition of the economic sanctions lifted last year by then president Barack Obama.
Delaying the planned restart of the US’ International Military Education and Training program, suspended after Myanmar’s military lethally crushed a pro-democracy uprising in 1988, may be as far as America is willing to go in responding to reports of widespread security force abuses against the Rohingya.
Indeed, fears that China may bid to capitalize on the humanitarian crisis to regain recently lost influence over Myanmar will likely restrain Washington from making anything more than symbolic gestures of displeasure.
While the West and UN have criticized Myanmar’s “clearance operations” launched in response to Rohingya insurgent attacks, China has lauded Myanmar’s tough tactics to maintain stability in Rakhine state, where Beijing has budding commercial and strategic interests.
On October 17, Myanmar Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing expressed his gratitude for Beijing’s support on the Rakhine issue in a meeting with Chinese special envoy for Asian affairs Sun Guoxiang.
The day before Sun met Myanmar’s vice president Myint Swe, a former army general, where he openly condemned the August 25 Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacks which prompted the massive crackdown on Rohingya populated areas of Rakhine state.
The Global Times, an official Chinese newspaper, was predictably quick to exploit Western criticism of Myanmar and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
On September 18, the paper noted that “despite being heavily criticized by the Western media over the Rohingya issue, Myanmar State Counsellor and former Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has gained popularity with Chinese netizens, who praised her defiance against ‘outside pressure while safe-guarding the people’s interest.’”
The mouthpiece newspaper, quoting Chinese social media posts, went on to say that Suu Kyi, who “had long been seen as a proxy of the West…has won cheers…from Chinese online communities who are routinely indignant over Western pressure on developing countries over issues concerning national security.”
That de facto official line suggests that China would likely block any US or European Union (EU) attempt to raise the Rohingya issue at the UN Security Council.
When the US, EU and Japan imposed sanctions in 1988 to isolate the then ruling military regime, China moved in with counterbalancing trade agreements, official aid and military sales.
In turn, heavy dependence on China prompted Myanmar to change political course from direct military rule to the introduction of a more pluralistic political system after elections rigged in favor of a military-backed party were held in 2010, a shift that helped to normalize ties with the US and West, capped by Obama’s visit to the country in 2012.
Myanmar is strategically important to China, providing access to the Indian Ocean and serving host to oil and gas pipelines connecting the Bay of Bengal to China’s southern Yunnan province that shorten shipping routes from the Middle East and help to avoid the vulnerable chokepoint of the Strait of Malacca.
Myanmar is also an important partner in China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ scheme, of which Rakhine state serves as a crucial exit to the Indian Ocean. A planned economic zone on Rakhine’s Ramree Island and deep-sea port at Kyaukphyu are key components of the trillion dollar infrastructure initiative.
China’s grip on Myanmar was likely the real reason why the US changed its policy from sanctions and boycotts to engagement with the men in power in Naypyitaw.
Reinstating sanctions or imposing other punitive measures in response to the Rohingya crisis would potentially reverse the strategic gains made under Obama and still seems unlikely under president Donald Trump despite his penchant for reversing his predecessor’s policies.
Myanmar’s influential generals are likely uncomfortable with the idea of drifting too far back into China’s embrace. Beijing is also known to be eager to maintain friendly relations with Bangladesh as well as its long-time ally Pakistan, both of which have an interest in the spiraling crisis.
ARSA commander Ataullah abu Ammar Jununi is notably not native to Rakhine, but rather a second-generation Rohingya born in Karachi, Pakistan. Other insurgent leaders are believed to be based in Saudi Arabia.
The Rohingya’s ill-treatment has sparked an uproar in many Muslim countries, with financial support for ARSA known to be pouring in from the Middle East and militants in Indonesia and other countries pledging to go to the Bangladesh-Myanmar border to carry out jihad against the Myanmar military.
According to intelligence sources, China has urged Pakistan to help mollify Muslim World sentiment on the Rohingya’s plight, to avoid further inflaming the situation in an area where Beijing has significant strategic interests.
It would be naïve to think that US security planners are oblivious to reports of ties between ARSA and extremist groups and elements in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Arab countries. ARSA has strenuously denied any such links, claiming that it is only “protecting the Rohingyas” from Myanmar military abuses and that it is an ethno-nationalist rather than jihadist organization.
But its original name, Harakah al-Yaqin, or ‘Faith Movement’, indicates otherwise, as do intelligence reports linking the group to radical elements in the Muslim World.
The group’s mentor, Abdus Qadoos Burmi, a Pakistani of Rohingya descent, is close to Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba, or the Army of the Righteous. The Pakistani-based group was set up in 1987 in Afghanistan with funding from now deceased al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and is now one of South Asia’s largest terrorist outfits.
While Bangladesh has won praise, and rightly so, for now receiving more than half a million Rohingya refugees, it is also wary of traditional links between various Rohingya groups in exile and its own militants.
This month the Bangladesh government banned three Islamic charities — Muslim Aid, Islamic Relief and the Bangladesh-based Allama Fazlullah Foundation — from working with the Rohingya due to concerns they might try to radicalize the refugees.
With China capitalizing on the crisis and the US dispensing of so far empty threatening rhetoric, Myanmar’s military may yet ride out the storm unscathed. The losers, of course, will be the refugees driven out of Myanmar into inhospitable camps in Bangladesh, where they may be stuck for years to come.
And if the camps become a hotbed of radicalization and militancy, Rakhine will become an intense new theater of geopolitical competition, contributing another dangerous dimension to an escalating humanitarian crisis.