Since the military coup in Myanmar in February, an umbrella opposition organisation called the National Unity Government has emerged, attempting to bring together Burmese and non-Burmese civilians in a formal challenge to the coup. This organization would be easily recognized as Myanmar’s legitimate government, save for one thing: it now lacks any representation from the Rohingyas, who were recently subjected to genocide at the hands of the Tatmadaw and are the only ethnic Muslim minority group to be left out in this fashion.
Despite the fact that there are several Muslim groups throughout Burma, the majority of Muslims reside in the Rakhine state, originally known as Arkan state, which borders Bangladesh on the Naf River. The Rohingyas are a Rakhine ethnic group. These people are regarded to be one of the world’s most discriminated groups. They are denied access to all fundamental necessities, including education, health care, marriage rights, and even citizenship in the nation in which they were born. They are stateless people who have spent their entire lives under persecution, attempting to find sanctuary in neighbouring countries.
The Myanmar government, military, and right-wing Buddhist organisations argue that the residents of Rakhine state are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and Bangladeshis who should be expelled from the country. In addition, the Myanmar government explicitly denies all charges of systematic slaughter and arson in Rakhine state.
Since the 1300s C.E., the Arakan has been a part of Bengal for over a millennium, under the rule of the Bengal Sultanate. After that, the region was ruled by the Mughal Bengal Subah, the Bengal Nawabs, and later, during the British imperialists’ occupation of Myanmar and the greater Indian Subcontinent, this province was absorbed into Myanmar, despite its predominantly Muslim population and close historic-linguistic ties to Bengalis.
With the 2012 Rakhine state riots, which were a series of skirmishes between sectarian groups of ethnic Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine, both sides blamed each other for atrocities, the number of fatalities and fires increased dramatically. After Friday prayers on 8 June 2012, Rohingyas began protesting against sectarian tensions, and the police retaliated with brutal retribution, firing fire on the protestors. The firing in Mungdaw Township resulted in the deaths of several people. In Rakhine, a state of emergency has been imposed, allowing the military to take part in the administration of the territory. On 25 August 2017, Rohingya ARSA insurgents attacked more than 30 police posts and one army base, the exodus began.
Arriving Rohingyas in Bangladesh said they were forced to flee as the army, supported by local Buddhist mobs, set fire to their communities and attacked and killed civilians. According to medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières, at least 6,700 Rohingya people were killed in the month following the outbreak of violence, including at least 730 children under the age of five. Amnesty International reported on the abuses perpetrated on Rohingya women and girls by the military.
Myanmar’s military dictatorship and Buddhist nationalists have been attempting to drive the Rohingya into Bangladesh since the 1970s. Since the 1970s, the Rohingya have been fleeing to Bangladesh. Myanmar’s economy has been hindered by a variety of internal stifles caused by ethnoreligious turmoil on its borders. The ruling class in Myanmar holds the view that the Rohingya are new migrants who do not belong among Myanmar’s ethnic citizens. As a result, the majority of the populace is opposed to them. They are despised for intermarrying with ethnic locals and are considered as a community with a high reproductive rate. According to popular belief, the Rohingya’s presence will lead to widespread Islamization along the west border. These ideas have influenced the public perception of Rohingyas as a security concern, justifying military actions to “liberate Myanmar” from them.
Myanmar’s sanctions were lifted in December 2016 after President Barack Obama said the country had made progress in promoting human rights. Some viewed the move as premature, considering it came amid a crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. New US sanctions were imposed on a Myanmar general a year later, under President Donald J. Trump, for his alleged role in the military’s attacks in Rakhine. In 2018 and 2019, the Trump administration continued to tighten sanctions against Myanmar military commanders, alleging evidence of military abuses.
The US sanctions on the Myanmar military junta has created the stage for hybrid warfare to be waged in a region rich in mineral resources, which is witnessing heavy Chinese investments under the Belt Road Initiative (BRI). The Oxford Business Group reported: ‘Myanmar possess vast deposits of tin, tungsten, copper, gold, silver, zinc, lead and precious stones, the country’s diverse landscape remains relatively unexplored compared with other mineral-rich countries.’
Western sanctions and sabre rattling has pushed Myanmar further into the influence of China, which is investing in developing infrastructure projects under the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), emulating the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which when becomes fully functional, will reduce China’s dependence on Malacca Straits for international trade and energy supplies from the Middle East. Reduced dependence on Malacca Straits will mean a reduced chance for the USA to shadow Chinese trade through the Malacca and heavily disputed South China Sea.
Hence both China and the USA will look to challenge each other’s position regarding Myanmar for preserving each other’s strategic advantage in any way. As a neighbour of Myanmar and a host of over nine hundred thousand Rohingya refugees, Dhaka will need to realize that the ethnic minority group will be at play in the strategic game plan of the two world superpowers. Dhaka has already started to witness the fallouts of hybrid warfare due to the refugee crisis, with new terror outfits emerging using the refugee cover and harassing local populations. One such group named Al Yakeen traces its roots with the notorious ARSA, which according to Myanmar officials is linked with the Taliban outfit fighting in Pakistan, which has received clandestine support from the USA against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
Emerging scenarios are making it imperative for Dhaka to make calculated diplomatic manoeuvres. The Rohingya refugee crisis has opened the doors for Bangladesh to engage more with Western and OIC countries diplomatically and improved some strained ties, most notably with Turkey. Bangladesh-Turkey ties suffered massive setbacks after Ankara unprecedentedly reacted with an internal judicial matter of Dhaka regarding the trial of local collaborators who took part in crimes against humanity during the country’s 1971 war of liberation. However, the countries maintained relations with a burgeoning trade reaching the USD 1 billion mark, with Bangladesh emerging as the 2nd biggest trading partner of Turkey in South Asia after India. Following the thawing of ties between Dhaka and Ankara as a result of the Rohingya crisis, Bangladesh has emerged as an attractive defence market for Turkey. Dhaka stands to be the 4th biggest customer of Turkish arms.
Closer engagement with Western countries opens up multiple avenues for Dhaka worth exploring, most notably for sourcing modernized weaponry for its growing military capabilities for boosting deterrence and maintaining security in light of its Forces Goal 2030, but it also forces to take up a role in the foreplay of Western hybrid warfare. Grounds for a similar to Syrian NGO-Guerilla logistic supply model of unsetting regimes opposed to Western world order is prevalent in the Myanmar-Bangladesh region, where numerous international NGOs are active in the Rohingya refugee shelters, which also happens to be the shelter of Rohingya separatists harbouring extremist Islamist ideology. It was alleged that the extremist fighters fighting Syrian government troops receive supplies through a network of NGOs active in extremist controlled regions inside Syria. The refugee shelters right across the Bangladeshi borders pose a threat of becoming launch pads of hybrid warfare against Chinese interests in the region. NATO’s designation of China as an adversary evidently puts Myanmar in its strategic plans for countering China. NATO’s obligation will also come into play through Turkey, which is now desperately looking to enter into the good books of Washington after the S-400 fallout.
The complex nature of the struggle between the USA and the collective West with the alliance of Russia and China has rendered any global initiative by the UN for resolving the Rohingya crisis fruitless. Even the latest UN resolution was about more challenging the incumbent government of Myanmar than repatriating Rohingya refugees. Series of UN failures on guiding Rohingya repatriation underscores the absolute weakness of such organizations in handling situations where there is a direct conflict of interests of major powers.
Collaboration with Western countries for pushing Myanmar into speedy repatriation offers little chance of attaining the goal, rather poses a substantial risk of jeopardizing regional stability and antagonizing Beijing, a price Dhaka cannot afford living in such close proximity. Bangladesh also needs to carefully observe the motivation of the National Unity Government on its decision to grant citizenship to the Rohingya minority group, as on one hand recognizing it risks drawing ire from Beijing, on the other hand, the main party leading this underground government refused to grant citizenship to the Rohingyas when it was in power. Dhaka has to largely rely on Beijing for the Rohingya repatriation after the coup in Myanmar, especially due to repeated failures in the UN, growing Chinese clout on ASEAN, and growing ineffectiveness on global bodies on resolving recurring crisis situation or getting bent by world powers for extracting their interests. Dhaka can engage more in soft power diplomacy and more bilateral engagement with Myanmar by offering assistance to rooting out terrorist groups and insurgency factions with its enhanced military capabilities that threaten the stability of Myanmar and Bangladesh, and chalk out a joint approach plan for speedy and safe repatriation of Rohingyas, rather than entering into any traps of hybrid warfare.
Written by Khalid Ibn Muneer