Who are gaining from the Rohingya issue?
There could be many reasons for the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas from Myanmar but one isn’t sure if Myanmar has gained a whole lot from it.
The recent decision to investigate and if possible put Myanmar’s iconic leader Aung San Suu Kyi on trial by the ICJ shows that there is a downside to such actions. Both Myanmar national politics and international forces have an impact on this issue.
As an ally, China matters. Myanmar has many friends but China is the closest on whom it depends for survival. So a lot of the flak directed at China internationally is landing on Yangoon. In fact it is China that matters and Myanmar is increasingly becoming an excuse. The Hong Kong events have emboldened China’s foes.
Myanmar can’t use the retaliation for ARSA attacks card anymore. It did help in 2017 when the Rohingyas first arrived. Myanmar read it right then. The global attitude towards Islamic extremists helped its cause and reduced the blame on it for acting the way it did. But that equation is of less value now as Sino-West rivalry has exploded over Hong Kong where international politics plays a bigger role.
Myanmar’s Rohingya politics
Myanmar’s reason for expelling Rohingyas is simple. It is the cheapest, easiest way to gain domestic popularity. Myanmar has never accepted the Rohingyas as its own though they have been there for a couple of centuries. Living under different regimes, including colonialism, international politics has changed their status from being legal under British rule to being Stateless under Myanmar rule.
They are poor, dark skinned and non-Mongoloid originating in Bangladesh, another poor country. So they add no value to Myanmar. Their faith identity – Islam- is radically different from the majority’s Buddhism and that can be linked to “terrorism”. With these characteristics, a whole set of advantages arise, too tempting to be ignored.
The question of assimilation doesn’t arise but stripping of citizenship of a people who are impoverished farmers and in no way a threat to anyone in any form cannot be justified. They are certainly not worthy of expulsion. But Myanmar isn’t a unified state and the various groups in it are fighting each other.
The question is, why were Rohingyas chosen to be expelled now. Going by media reports on Myanmar’s internal politics, the reasons could be in the civil and military relations in it. Reports suggest that some acts that produce popularity for the military were considered necessary by the military. Rohingyas are a toothless ethnic group, expelling whom wouldn’t cause counter military action in contrast to the cases of the Shans, Kachins or Karens to name a few who are more powerful and organized.
Winners and losers
Two years down the lane, Myanmar hasn’t gained in any sector and has lost the shine of being a State ruled by the iconic Suu Kyi. It has also become a less attractive source of international investment.
The one gainer has been China which has more clout there than before. Myanmar can’t bargain much with China as it is Myanmar’s only no-holds-barred ally. China didn’t ask for ethnic cleansing but has certainly gained from it.
Internally, the 2017 cleansing was a military-run show which allowed it to regain street level popularity even though formally out of power. It thus remained a contestant in the political field. Suu Kyi had to take the international arrows aimed at her. But finally after being accused in the ICJ, she has a chance to state her case internationally and retrieve some of her brand amidst dark clouds.
The Myanmar military may actually be a bit wary of her possible success at the Hague because its Rohingya operation’s main objective was to get the upper hand in politics.
However, the army has been so badly thrashed that it might like a bit of relief now. But the army certainly won’t like a revived Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi herself has begun to do what the army did after 2017, which is mobilize the streets. Several rallies have been held in her support. Both ICJ and ICC are pushing but both have given her a chance to say something about the issue. And a live show anywhere including ICJ will always get her some sympathy, particularly given her iconic status.
The big fight is elsewhere?
But it would be wise not to expect too much because the fight is at another level too – China vs the West. Hong Kong has shown that just as Myanmar gained from China’s support, Hong Kong protesters gained from Western support. In the latter battle China didn’t win. The situation is not one sided as it once was, because it is inside China. However, several Western Human Rights outfits have been banned in Hong Kong.
China can’t support Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing policy but it can’t display indifference to Myanmar either.
Suu Kyi can’t blame anyone except ARSA but to look better she will have to show more humanitarian concern using her powers albeit limited. But her power base –streets- hates Rohingyas so she can’t apologize or blame the army either.
A new international game is on but it is about Myanmar’s internal politics and China’s/West’s international war. None of this involves the Rohingyas. Rohingyas are largely Bangladesh’s problem.