Rohingya Crisis: Great Game in Myanmar
by G B Reddy on 12 Oct 2017 6 Comments

The unfolding “Great Game” in Myanmar – the Rohingya crisis – is the least understood or deliberately left out of public consideration. Perhaps it is due to ignorance among Indian analysts and media. Generally, the majority believe that the crisis relates to the plight of the Rohingya, stateless ethnic Bengali Muslim historically persecuted minority, living in coastal Rakhine (formerly Arakan state). And that the Myanmar ruling regime, Buddhist-centric, is playing a game of ‘ethnic cleansing’ at the behest of external masters to counter Muslim extremism sponsored by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.


In reality, the conflict itself is nearly a century old and its current escalation did not begin this year, but rather in 2011, and has continued to worsen ever since.


The Indian media, several prominent human rights organizations and legal luminaries (Prashant Bhushan) have given unprecedented attention to the conflict, including championing the cause of illegal Rohingya refugees in the Supreme Court; Rohingyas are refusing to go back to Myanmar. Ironically, even the Supreme Court has admitted the appeal with utter disregard to the vicious geopolitics by key actors in the region and their far- reaching fallout on India’s national security interests.


Saudi Arabia, acclaimed breeder of Islamic fundamentalism, radicalism and global expansionism, is funding Rohingya insurgency. As per experts, the Rohingya insurgency is hardly the organic, local response to long-standing state suppression it claims to be. Saudi Arabia is spending over a billion dollars to construct 560 Wahhabi mosques in Bangladesh.


Ataullah abu Ammar Junjuni, a Pakistani national who worked as a Wahhabi imam in Saudi Arabia, heads the group, now known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and formerly known as Harakah al-Yakin. According to a Reuters 2016 report, the group is financed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and a committee of 20 senior Rohingya émigrés in Mecca “oversees” the group. 


Those asserting that the group is not a terrorist group aimed at striking at the heart of Myanmar society suffer from strategic myopia. ARSA is directly responsible for both last year’s and the current crackdown on Rohingya civilians and communities, as its attacks on Myanmar military installations and bases have precipitated the military’s violent response. ARSA has also targeted Buddhist civilians, besides Hindus, fomenting support among extremist Buddhists elsewhere.


Indian human rights activists may like to read the statements of Myanmar’s Muslim organisations that have overwhelmingly condemned ARSA for its tactics and extremist views. As per international experts and analysts, internal conflict has provided geopolitical opportunities for external actors: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China and the USA.  


Myanmar faces extraordinarily complex, wide ranging and challenging threats to its national security, besides the Rohingya crisis. First, its fledgling democracy needs to consolidate and advance on an even keel. Next, it faces threat of over 20 insurgent organisations along the Chinese border.


The more important insurgent outfits include: United We State Army – 30,000 troops; Kachin Independence Army – 10,000 troops; Restoration Council of Shan State – 8,000 troops; Shan State Progress Party – 8,000 troops; Karen National Union – 5,000+ troops; Ta’ang National Liberation Army – 4,500+ troops; National Democratic Alliance Army – 4,500+ troops; Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army – 2,000 troops; Democratic Karen Benevolent Army – 1,500+ troops; and New Mon State Party.


Once viewed as a democratic icon with pro-Western ideals, Aung San Suu Kyi has turned into a pragmatic politician. Domestically, she is working to extinguish frictions between rival ethnic and religious groups and develop the economy. Internationally, she is trying to expand Myanmar’s clout and weigh in on the regional issues of the day. Suu Kyi has bigger aspirations for Myanmar than being just a ‘pawn’ in the hands of the USA as a counterweight to China.


Viewed from Myanmar, the center of gravity of the peace process is firmly in the Chinese border in northeastern Myanmar, where key insurgent groups hold resource-rich territory, posing new complications even for China. But, it is moving at slow pace. Only two significant sized insurgent groups (out of 20) have signed a national cease-fire accord. Representatives of the powerful United We State Army (UWSA) attended the talks; but walked out on the second day.


The ethnic armed groups - Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Arakan Army (AA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) with tacit involvement of the UWSA, have forged unity under the banner of what is called the Northern Alliance and will no longer engage in unilateral talks with the government. This has made the Northern Alliance and especially the UWSA indispensable to any meaningful negotiations. [Arakan Army is a Rakhine insurgent group founded in April 2009, as an armed wing of the United League of Arakan (ULA), currently led by Twan Mrat Naing. AA is fighting in the Kachin conflict alongside the Kachin Independence Army]


China likes to portray itself as an honest broker in the conflict. China is believed to have periodically supplied direct material support to the UWSA (some of which it has reportedly passed on to its Northern Alliance partners). So it wields substantial influence with several of the holdout groups. But its vested interests in Myanmar make neutrality difficult. A full withdrawal of Chinese backing from the UWSA, for example, would trigger a splintering of the rebel landscape in Shan state in ways that may further undermine Beijing’s ability to contain fighting along its border.


According to an unconfirmed report in The Irrawaddy magazine, China’s Special Envoy for Asian Affairs Sun Guoxin recently told UWSA leaders that China would no longer commit to backing the UWSA, encouraging the group to sign onto the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). More importantly, China does not want to jeopardise the progress it has made on its broader strategic and economic goals in Myanmar, including weakening US influence in the country; facilitating cross-border trade and energy links; and building projects furthering its Belt Road Initiative and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor; establishment of a deep water seaport and a special economic zone in Rakhine state. This is the Great Game in Myanmar.


In sum, the “key issue” concerns uninterrupted flow of gas and oil to the Chinese mainland through Myanmar, economic interests, and the struggle for dominance in the region. Geo- strategic analysts believe the Rohingya conflict is essentially a conflict over resources, namely oil and gas. In 2004, a massive natural gas field, named Shwe, was discovered off the coast of Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal. In 2008, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) secured the rights to the natural gas and bestowed upon the field its honorific name. Construction began a year later on two 1,200 km overland pipelines that would cross from Myanmar’s Rakhine state (home of the Rohingya) to the Yunnan province of China.


The gas pipeline was commissioned in 2014 and carries more than 12 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year to China. But, the oil pipeline - carrying oil from the Middle East and Africa, brought to Myanmar by ship - has proven more difficult to construct and is set to be completed later this year. It will reduce the transport time of such oil by as much as 30 percent.


The Shwe oil pipeline is of critical strategic importance to China: 80% of China’s imported oil currently passes through the straits of Malacca and disputed parts of the South China Sea. Once the Shwe oil pipeline becomes operational, the Chinese would no longer have to worry about the possibility of a US blockade. Thus, China’s tacit support of Myanmar’s response to the Rohingya crisis is on expected lines given its clear economic and strategic security interests.


The Myanmar government is a stakeholder in the pipeline, as it owns a major stake in the Shwe field’s production of natural gas and is set to earn $7 million per year in annual right-of-way fees for the pipelines once both are completed. Thus, Myanmar’s military has been pursuing the Rohingya, citing vengeance for periodic attacks launched by regional insurgents.


Since construction began, protests against the pipelines in Rakhine state and other areas of Myanmar have been constant. Residents of Rakhine state, in particular, have complained to the government and to CNPC that the project has polluted rivers, destroyed private property and decimated the livelihood of local fishermen. In addition, many owners of properties expropriated for the project were not compensated by CNPC as promised.


What does Saudi Arabia stand to gain from funding and driving the Rohingya conflict? Preventing this pipeline from being built might directly benefit Saudi Arabia to some extent, but would be far more profoundly beneficial to the United States. Another US-Saudi ally, Israel, also stands to profit as a significant supplier of weapons to the Myanmar regime.


Finally, US strategic interest in Myanmar is to wrest influence from Beijing, which is crucial to its larger regional “China containment” strategy. Aung San Suu Kyi’s rule is largely a product of US funding in support of democracy in Myanmar. Now, the US goal is simple: to force Myanmar to choose between the US or China as a “strategic partner.”


US interest in Myanmar is hardly new. The US government along with nongovernmental organisations had spent millions on “democracy promotion” - specifically on funding the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Suu Kyi. Further, in 2015, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) was the “leading donor” in Myanmar’s 2015 election (over $18 million spent).


In the Rohingya crisis, the US is playing both sides of the conflict. On one hand, its close ally Saudi Arabia is funding and fomenting the insurgency responsible for the worst escalation of the crisis, while the US corporate media paints this insurgency as “freedom fighters” and focuses public attention on the issue at a critical time.


According to the Associated Press, the US is concerned its involvement could “undermine the Asian country’s democratic leader,” Aung San Suu Kyi. Hence, Washington is offering Myanmar deeper military cooperation to combat the very insurgency problem it is helping to create, while also offering increased US investments.


The rise of insurgent groups in Myanmar and Philippines has provided America an excuse to boost military presence in both countries. Washington has removed Myanmar from its list of nations using child soldiers and is set to further expand direct military ties with the nation by way of an amendment hidden within the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It would open the path for the US to establish a military base which would definitively end Chinese hopes for its own naval base in Myanmar.


Interestingly, Myanmar and the Philippines are the only ASEN nations forced to battle against Saudi-funded insurgencies - ARSA in Myanmar and Daesh (ISIS) in the Philippines.


However, Aung San Suu Kyi is relying more and more on China in Myanmar and on the international stage due to Trump’s “America First; and Sharing the Burden” policy and his unreliability. Suu Kyi has maintained and even strengthened ties with China, rather than favour the US interests responsible for her rise to power.


Suu Kyi has visited Beijing twice, but rejected an invitation to a conference organised by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. She has said that China “will do everything possible to promote our peace process,” referring to China’s eagerness to end sectarian fighting in Rakhine State and other areas. There are also suggestions that the Chinese are seeking to develop a naval base in the port city of Kyaukphyu.


As per American experts, with calls for Suu Kyi to take drastic action in advance, the US has the ability to force her hand, both covertly and overtly. If the crisis continues to worsen, the possibility that Suu Kyi will request US military assistance to combat an outbreak of “terrorism” will grow. Such an outcome would greatly benefit the US, which would gain a military foothold in a China-bordering nation and secure Myanmar’s oil and gas riches for itself. In sum, the unfolding of the New Great Game in Myanmar is real. The US and China are both involved in competing for dominance in the region. Is Myanmar going to be similar to Afghanistan?


Where does India stand in such a geopolitical power play? Moralistic and egalitarian postures cannot advance India’s national security interests. The “Act East Policy” contours are yet to take shape. Pragmatism borne out of strategic wisdom must govern India’s postures.

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