Rohingya Crisis: The Metamorphosis of South Asian Security and Regional Geopolitical Map

Kutupalong Refugee Camp Cox's Bazar Bangladesh
Credit: John Owens (VOA), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“The Metamorphosis” is a novella of Franz Kafka. The story tells about a salesman Gregor Samsa who wakes one fine morning to find himself mysteriously transformed into a giant insect and his struggle to adjust to an absolute new condition. Symbolically, 0.7 Million of Rohingya people had gone through the same metamorphic experience in their life from August 25, 2017.

August 25, 2017 is the trigger point of Rohingya crisis. In reply to deadly attacks on police and army posts in Rakhine state of western Myanmar, the Government of Myanmar (GoM) declared the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) a terrorist organization and started military crackdown on Rohingya civilians, including women and children. Entire villages have been annihilated. 750,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh after this brutal military campaign and joined with some 300,000 others who fled earlier waves of violence in Myanmar since the 1980s. Despite of very limited land and resources, Bangladesh is hosting 4.7% of World’s Total Refugees. At present, Kutupalong (Coxs Bazar district of Bangladesh) refugee camp is the largest refugee camp in the world.

The crisis is not an accidental pop-up. The series of events in Rakhine and its nearby states throughout more than decade shows that Myanmar is working based on their specific long term agenda. It has long prelude, which can be dissected through the framework of geopolitics and regional security.

The geographic location of Myanmar has a great strategic value. It is facing the Indian Ocean and shares the border with the two ascending powers, China and India. It is the only land transportation hub connecting Southeast Asia, East Asia and South Asia. The geopolitical importance of its location makes it the focus of interest for all major powers.

For Myanmar, China has historically been by far its most important neighbor, sharing the longest border, of 2,227 kilometers. Against the foundation of closer strategic, political and security ties between Myanmar and China since 1988, their financial relations have substantially flourished all through the 1990s. Right now, China is the major supplier of consumer and capital goods to Myanmar.

Under the grand project Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), China is refurbishing the relationship with all of its neighbors. For China, Myanmar is the gateway of Indian Ocean. The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a regional strategic bloc of BRI, will connect China’s landlocked Yunnan through Mandalay to Kyaukphyu and Yangon. Under this trade connectivity, construction of Kyaukphyu Deep Sea Port, Oil & Gas pipeline and high-speed railway are underway.

The CMEC program is going to channel tens of billions of dollars of investment to Myanmar from private and state-owned Chinese companies. USD 3.6 billion of Myitsone Hydroelectric Dam is one of the key projects of CMEC. The Dam is located at the confluence of the Mali and N’Mai rivers of Myanmar. The plant will generate yearly 30.86 billion KW of electricity which will cater almost 90% of electricity demand of South-East Industrial Belt of China.

The Straits of Malacca, the sea passage that connects the China Sea with the Indian Ocean, is one of the critical “choke points” of global trade and energy route. It is the shortest sea route to move goods from the Persian Gulf to Asian markets. It is more than one-third shorter than the closest alternative sea-based route. Roughly a quarter of all oil transported by sea (more than 15 million barrels per day) passes through the Strait of Malacca. This makes it second only to the Strait of Hormuz in oil transport by volume. That means open access through the strait is key to Chinese economic security. Currently over 80% of China’s oil imports (by sea) passes through this strait. Kyaukphyu Deep Sea Port and its connecting Oil & Gas pipeline through Myanmar would provide alternative routes for energy resources from the Middle East directly to China that bypass the Malacca Strait.

Being located at the center of the India-Southeast Asia geography, Myanmar also became strategically valuable to India. Myanmar is the only ASEAN country that shares 1,624 kilometers of land border with India (northeastern provinces) and 725 kilometers maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal.

Naturally a failed Myanmar on the neck of India is not desirable to Delhi. Delhi is not comfortable to see Myanmar under strong grip of Beijing. Delhi has its very own calculations. The ongoing India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway (IMTTH) and Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport (KMMTT) are strategic infrastructure routes for India.

KMMTT intends to interface the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with the Sittwe port of Myanmar’s Rakhine state via sea. IMTTH and KMMTT, both are mainly to avoid the dependencies on the geo-strategic uncomfortable “Chicken’s Neck” i.e. The “Siliguri Corridor.” (The Siliguri Corridor, or Chicken’s Neck, is a slender passage of 22 kilometers land of India, located in the Indian state of West Bengal, that links India‘s northeastern provinces to the rest of India, with the countries of Nepal and Bangladesh lying on either side of the corridor.)

India’s long-term strategic goal is to form a Special Economic Zone encompassing the Sittwe port. The strong presence in the Sittwe port is meant to be the retort of India to the Chinese-fronted Kyaukpyu port. India also needs deep defense relationship with Myanmar to control different insurgent groups of its northeastern states — Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram.

The Rohingya crisis opens new security challenges in this region. Around 37% of displaced Rohingya people are in between 5-17 years. The prolonged oppression of Myanmar Army and the continued sufferings may lead more frustration and grievances. The young people are specifically vulnerable in their mind space. If the legitimate grievances are ignored, they will become more vulnerable to recruitment by extremists. Regional insurgent groups also may take advantages of this vulnerable situation.

Bangladesh is located at the core of three regional drug-producing centers. In the east, it is the Golden Triangle, in the north, the Golden Wedge and in the west, across India, the Golden Crescent. The proximity of these regions makes Bangladesh more vulnerable for drug trafficking and to be used as a transit route by transnational militant and insurgent groups for smuggling arms and ammunition. Even not only drugs and arms, illegal human trafficking is another concern of this region.

The root cause of the Rohingya crisis is derived from “The 1982 Burma Citizenship Law (1982 Act).” This act turned down the citizenship of Rohingya. As a consequence, most of the Rohingya have no legal documents; effectively which makes them stateless. A million of stateless people are in threat to become Non-state Actor. In terms of security perspective, which is not comfortable for anyone.

On Jan. 23, 2020, The International Court of Justice (ICJ) unanimously adopted “provisional measures” that requires Myanmar to prevent genocide and take steps to preserve evidence. Till now, the government of Myanmar is not respectful about the directives of ICJ. According to the latest UN report, the sites of the destroyed villages have been completely erased from official map of Myanmar.

After converging all of the stated factors through geopolitical lens, the summary of the greater picture is like — China needs Myitsone Hydroelectric Dam to cater electricity demand of its South-East Industrial Belt. More importantly they need shorter energy trade route to bypass Malacca strait and the Kyaukpyu sea port is the solution. To develop Kyaukpyu sea port, Myanmar also aspires to build industrial belt throughout the periphery of the port. Thus, they need clean land of Rakahine state; the land without human, the land without home.

On the other side of the picture — India needs connectivity through its north-eastern region. They also need track from their Kolkata to Sittwe port of Myanmar. To check and control the insurgent groups of its northeastern provinces, they need to be trusted ally of Myanmar. Moreover, India is always tensed that in case the relationship becomes cold then Myanmar would lean more towards China.

The above Non-Linear equation bounds both of the mighty neighbors to be soft on Myanmar. Beijing is always in support. Delhi also did not take a hardline approach on Rohingya issue. Even they were keeping distance when Myanmar was in initial trial at ICJ. The ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist party BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) is not sympathetic to the plight of Muslim Rohingya as its Islamophobic legacy. As a result, Myanmar became more courageous to do the genocide and disrespect all sorts of international rules and norms.

In this backdrop, if Rohingya issue lasts for long time, then the security architecture of the entire region may become vulnerable and will create a new crisis pocket of geopolitics.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.