The total number of Rohingya presently in Bangladesh, driven out of Myanmar recently and previously, exceeds 900,000. This is a difficult crisis for an over-populated country like Bangladesh, though it has no hand in the matter. Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appealed to the world conscience and the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) to come forward resolve the matter. Other than Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia, no other OIC member has put pressure on the Myanmar government. The European Union has issued strong warnings against ethnic cleansing, but has taken no effective measures to do anything about the issue. The UK has imposed a degree of pressure. The US has condemned the atrocities and has committed assistance for the Rohingya refugees. India has sent relief too. But India, China and Russia have sided with Myanmar. Though the UN has taken a stand supporting Bangladesh, nothing tangible can be done without the cooperation of these big powers.
The support of these countries in favour of Myanmar is shaped by economic and geopolitical interests in the region. These reasons make Myanmar more important to them than their bilateral relations with Bangladesh. Bangladesh has resolved India’s major geographical limitations. We have long-standing economic, military and trade ties with China. The present government took great strides to improve relations with Russia, which include purchase of US$ 1 billion worth of arms and cooperation in the nuclear sector. Both India and Russia lent their full support during Bangladesh war of liberation. Despite all of this, they have sided with Myanmar. One must understand the geopolitical and economic stand of these countries in connection with Myanmar to understand their present position concerning the ethnic cleansing and atrocities in Myanmar.
In context of India’s ‘Act East’ the country has several projects centred in Myanmar. From a geopolitical stand, one of their main objectives is to counter China’s extended influence in the Bay of Bengal off the shore of the Rakhine state. Their biggest challenge to China here is the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project. The Modi government has released US$ 500 million for the project so far.
The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project is a project that will connect with the Sittwe seaport in Rakhine State, Myanmar by sea. In Myanmar, it will then link Sittwe seaport to Paletwa via the Kaladan river boat route, and then from Paletwa by road to the India-China border. It will then go on to the Indian state of Mizoram. Once the Kaladan project is complete, South Bay of Bengal will be used to transport cargo from Haldia in Kolkata to Sittwe. China has significant presence here.
India has two major geopolitical viewpoints in this regard. Firstly, it has its eyes on China’s One Belt One Rood project. It wants to curb China’s influence in this region. In the meanwhile, on 17 July for the first time China took unrefined Saudi oil by pipeline up to Kunming. India’s second objective is to reduce the use of the Siliguri corridor, referred to as the Chicken Neck in geopolitical jargon, and create a strategic alternative route.
The Chicken Neck of Siliguri Corridor was the only connecting route between India and its northeast states. It is just an 18 mile stretch between Bangladesh and Nepal and very close to the Chinese border.
It may be recalled that the Akhaura-Tripura road link has been established via Bangladesh’s Bhairab and a railway link is underway. This linkage will reduce India’s dependence on the Siliguri corridor.
The long-standing bone of contention between India and China is China’s claim to a northern part of Arunachal. China still retains this claim. Only recently, Indian and Chinese troops confronted each other at Dokhlam, a connecting point at Bhutan. These tensions have egged India on further for a separate route and the Kaladan project can even be an alternative to the proposed corridor through Bangladesh.
On top of this all, India is on the best of terms with Myanmar’s present military and civil leaders. The Myanmar army chief Min Aung Hlaing paid an eight-day visit to India in 2015. And when the homes of Rohingyas in Rakhine were being burnt down, Myanmar’s naval chief was visited India and won Indian support. Military cooperation between India and Myanmar has been expanded. India has proposed selling patrol boats to the Myanmar navy and has also committed selling arms to the military. Delhi’s geostrategic analysts say that while the whole world is castigating Myanmar for its atrocities, India is siding with it in order to counter China’s influence. India is rid Rakhine of Rohingyas in its own interests. They regard Rohingyas as a risk factor. Even though the Rohingyas are in such a distressed state, the Indian government has ordered that 40,000 of them be sent back. The Indian judiciary has halted this move for the time being, but their fate in India will be decided upon shortly.
China is still ahead of India in its influence over Myanmar. It has established and begun operating a fuel oil terminal in the Rakhine region. This pipeline is a long-standing plan of China to ensure its geostrategic presence in the Bay of Bengal. A natural gas pipeline has been laid down parallel to the oil pipeline. A total of 12 billion cubic metres of gas flows through the pipeline annually, of which 20 per cent is used by Myanmar. US$ 2.5 billion has been invested in this pipeline alone. In all, investment of US$ 18 billion has been planned for the Rakhine state.
There had been a lot of opposition to the Chinese pipeline in the Rakhine state due to land acquisition, environmental harm and disruption of the fishermen’s livelihood. The Myanmar government dealt with this firmly and removed the Rohingyas to settle them in two camps in a camp near Sittwe.
Security has been stepped up for the pipeline not just in Rakhine, but cantonments have been established all over the region. In Rakhine alone there are three regional commands. The 16 Light Infantry Division’s 10 Infantry Battalion is in charge of Operation Clearance against the Rohingyas. The army chief himself is in overall charge. Laying this pipeline, and particularly setting up the oil terminal, is a move by China to bypass the Malacca strait.
* M Sakhawat Hossain is former Election Commissioner, columnist and PhD researcher and can be contacted at email@example.com. This piece, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.