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Rohingya Crisis: The Larger Geopolitics Nobody Is Talking About

The roles of the US and China are going unnoticed.

23/09/2017 10:27 AM IST | Updated 23/09/2017 10:27 AM IST
Danish Siddiqui / Reuters

When it comes to the Rohingya crisis, there are two competing narratives that have dominated national and international media. One narrative portrays the Rohingya as the world's most persecuted minority. This view considers them as innocent victims of government-backed ethno-religious persecution. This narrative is backed by many countries and even the UN. One UN human rights official referred to the violence against Rohingya as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing'. There have been vocal rallies in Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh to protect the Rohingya and preserve peace in the region. The second Burmese narrative basically constructs the Rohingya as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in the Rakhine state. Foreign in origin, language and faith, they are considered undeserving to be part of the Burmese nation. This is the dominant narrative of the military junta that had ruled Burma with an iron fist since 1948, ever since British left. However, both these dominant narratives fail to capture the broader geopolitics and geostrategic agendas that are propelling the present crisis.

Economic angle to the conflict

What explains the current crisis? Why are the leaders of a country persecuting this minority community? The answers to these questions would be hard to come by if we looked at the Rohingya crisis merely from the lenses of identity politics and ethnic cleavages—there is an economic angle to it as well.

A lot of this conflict has its genesis in controlling the country's natural resources, namely the land occupied by the Rohingya.

A lot of this conflict has its genesis in controlling the country's natural resources, namely the land occupied by the Rohingya. Over the past few decades, the military junta in Myanmar has been grabbing land from small-scale farmers without giving due compensation to them. Land has often been grabbed in the name of developing "development" projects. The reluctance of international powers to resolve the crisis can be attributed to the fact that they are eyeing Burma's hidden treasures i.e. "oil" and "natural gas". Hereward Holland writes in Aljazeera that companies from the United States, Europe, Japan and Singapore are elbowing their way into the country so as to have access to its oil resources, which have largely remained untapped because of the isolationist policy pursued by the junta. There is a tacit understanding amongst these powers that the military junta will facilitate corporate takeover of country's wealth. Although the democratic transition of Myanmar has begun, the Burmese army still has considerable sway over domestic politics. This also explains the reluctance of Aung San Suu Kyi to condemn the current genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

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Rakhine, a battleground for 'Great Power' politics

The other much ignored aspect of the conflict is the role of major powers, China and US, in the current crisis. For China, Rakhine's strategic location at the heart of the Indian Ocean makes it central to the ambitious OBOR (One Belt One Road) project. This initiative focuses on improving connectivity and cooperation among Asian countries, Africa, China and Europe. The project emphasises on enhancing land as well as maritime routes. China for long has been trying to increase its foothold in the Indian Ocean because of its vulnerability in "Malacca." Myanmar is a vital cog in China's strategy so as to avoid its Malacca dilemma. Keeping this in mind, China is building a deep-water port at Kyaukphyu, which also includes a special economic zone (SEZ) worth US$280 million. The project is located in the troubled southwestern Rakhine province of Myanmar. The project is expected to contribute huge profits to Chinese business conglomerates such as Citic Group and is expected to increase Burmese GDP too.

A destabilised Rakhine region could go a long way in disrupting China's OBOR project. It is in the interest of US that the current communal clashes continue and culminate in sub-autonomous "Rohingyaland".

The biggest challenge to US primacy in Asia is coming from China. For instance China has launched new initiatives like OBOR, AIIB and the Silk Road Fund. These institutions are considered by US as rivals to the existing Bretton Woods institutions (IMF, World Bank and WTO). These institutions are expected to boost China's regional connectivity, bring FDI to countries lying along OBOR and strengthen China's "peaceful rise" image. A destabilised Rakhine region could go a long way in disrupting China's much-touted OBOR project. It is in the interest of US that the current communal clashes continue unabated and finally culminate in sub-autonomous "Rohingyaland". This may also create a fertile ground for US intervention under the garb of protecting human rights.

Islamophobia? Really?

"Creeping Shariah! Demographic time bombs! (Asian) Eurabia" are concepts which are often being invoked to describe Rohingya. There is a sense of "majoritarian victimhood" that has been systematically cultivated in Myanmar by the Buddhist nationalists and Burmese army. However, this framing of the Rohingya violence through the "Islamophobic" lens should be viewed as part of Huntington's "clash of civilisations" project and legitimises all right wing 'native' voices. One must refrain from viewing the current crisis from this angle as the Rohingya situation is primarily an ethnic clash and not a religious one. Those being killed in the conflict include Rohingya Hindus too. When the elephants fight it is the grass that suffers. The innocent Rohingya are suffering due to this great power struggle. Unless we shift our lens from Islamophobia to larger geopolitics, the sufferings of this besieged community may never be solved. The Rohingya crisis is a tragedy of colossal proportions and the global community, especially the neighbouring countries, must do whatever possible to alleviate their suffering.

The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of HuffPost India. Any omissions or errors are the author's and HuffPost India does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.

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