While there is a genuine outcry all over world against the atrocities being committed against the Rohingyas of Myanmar by the military-backed Aung San Suu Kyi government in that country, no international punitive action is expected, writes P.K.Balachandran in South Asian Monitor.
The reasons for the reserve or caution are in Myanmar’s economic, geo-political and strategic importance in South and South East Asia.
Myanmar is strategically situated, and outsiders feel it has to be handled with care. It is geopolitically and strategically very important for regional and world powers. It links South and South East Asia. Myanmar has borders with Bangladesh, India, China and Thailand. It is also a Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean rim country.
Any overland rail or road link between South and South East Asia will have to pass through Myanmar. Control or influence over Myanmar is critical for the survival of communication links in South and South East Asia.
Regional and world powers, which are keen to exploit Myanmar’s geo-strategic and economic potential, are aware of the need for peace and stability in the country, and would bend over backwards to have good relations with the government of the day, if it is stable and effective, as the military-backed Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be.
Therefore, interference by any power in Myanmar’s domestic affairs, will have to be subtle and measured so as not to upset the government and make it look more towards a rival suitor.
Eying Economic Resources
All powers in the region and the world at large are eyeing Myanmar’s very considerable and yet largely unexploited natural resources. Exploitation of these resources has been made possible by the liberalization of the economy, followed by a democratization of the political system in 2015.
According to Myanmar’s Energy Ministry, proven crude oil reserves amount to 3.2 billion barrels. Gas reserves are of the order of 11.8 trillion cubic feet (placing it about eight in the world).
The gas industry and the precious/semi-precious stone-mining industries have provided the largest incomes to Myanmar, with gas earning of US$ 3.6 billion in 2011–2012 and precious stones earning approximately US$ 3.4 billion in 2010.
Presently, gas is being exported to Thailand. But China will be a big-time user with a pipeline linking Kyauk Phyu in Rakhine state (which is currently very troubled over the Rohingya issue) to Kunming in China.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that Myanmar’s hydropower potential is more than 100,000 MW. Most of the generation now is for export to Thailand. China and India are potential big time buyers in the near future.
Myanmar exports electricity even depriving its own citizens of power (only 26% of the country has electricity now). This policy is to the advantage of other countries, hence the interest of foreigners in investing in the power sector.
India’s Economic Stakes
India’s interest lies in the India-Myanmar-Thailand Asian Trilateral Highway; the Kaladan multimodal project; a road-river-port cargo transport project; and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) in which it has assumed the role of leader. In April this year, India handed over to Myanmar the completed deep-water port at Sittwe which, incidentally, is in the trouble Rohingya populated Rakhine state. Thus, India has a stake in peace and stability in North Myanmar.
China also has heavy stakes in Myanmar. Noteworthy Chinese projects are the US$ 7.3 billion plan to re-develop the port in Kyauk Phyu. Two oil and gas pipeline costing US$2.45 billion carry energy from Rakhine state to Yunnan province in southwestern China.
The second-largest Chinese development project is the USS$2.3 billion, 100 hectare, industrial estate in Kyauk Phyu.
Need for Peace, Stability and Openness
All external powers are in need of peace, stability and openness in Myanmar to achieve their economic objectives.
The November 2015 elections were a watershed in this respect. The 53- year direct and indirect military rule had give way to an elected democratic regime led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
But given the endemic instability in Myanmar, even the Suu Kyi government with a 60% voter mandate, is kept under the thumb by the military, which is known as Tatmadaw.
As per the 2008 constitution, which is still in force, Tatmadaw holds 25% of the seats in the national legislature. In addition, the military has the majority (six out of eleven members) in the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) which regulates not only the armed forces and the police, but also General Administration from the central government to the township level.
However, the Tatmadaw has come a long way from the days of Gen. Ne Win, whose coup in 1962 started the era of military rule.
Gen. Ne Win believed in full dictatorship, nationalization, ethnic intolerance and isolation from the world. But over the decades the military has gradually changed to believe in liberalization, openness and ethnic accommodation, except in the case of the Rohingyas, who are considered by all Myanmarese (including Aung San Suu Kyi) as outsiders and illegal immigrants.
Tatmadaw–led or dominated governments had signed peace deals with Christian tribal rebels and had included them in the list of 135 ethnic groups which are “legitimately” entitled to citizenship of Myanmar as “indigenous” people.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who is designated as “State Counselor” rather than Prime Minister, is getting along with the Tatmadaw, thus ensuring political stability and consensus on almost all matters including the policy on Rohingyas.
Given such a consensus, it is no wonder that outside powers, be it India, China or the US, are tolerating the Tatmadaw and want to cultivate close relations with it even when it is committing crimes against humanity in the case of the Rohingyas.
The US and its allies have called upon the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, to brief the UN Security Council (UNSC) on the situation in Myanmar. But any bid by the UNSC to take against Myanmar will be vetoed by Russia and China which have openly sided with the Myanmar government from the beginning of the Rohingya crisis.
The US has actually been blowing hot and cold on the Rohingya issue for decades. Looking at the relative advantage of being with Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw the US is expected to bark not bite. The EU will follow suit.
India will also plead for non-interference, as it has high stakes in Myanmar vis-a-vis its rival, China. And like China, it is eyeing Myanmar’s natural resources. Both India and China are cultivating the Tatmadaw apart from Aung San Suu Kyi.
While China has been Myanmar’s traditional supplier of arms, India has also made significant deals, and is hoping to sell even fighter planes. When the Myanmar army chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing visited New Delhi in July he was given a red carpet welcome. He held talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who told him that Myanmar is the “main pillar of India’s Act East policy.”
In turn, Indian Army Chief, Gen. Bipin Rawat has visited Myanmar and Indian and Myanmere army and navy have held joint exercises.
But there is one huge cost which Myanmar’s suitors will have to bear: They stand to lose the goodwill of the people of Bangladesh who are saddled with over 800,000 Rohingyas, who Myanmar refuses to take back saying they are illegal immigrants.
“All these countries which are bending over backwards to woo Myanmar eying economic opportunities, forget that Bangladesh too is a huge investment destination. By alienating the common man in Bangladesh, they could end up losing these investment opportunities,” a Bangladeshi academic wrote on Facebook.
Asked if he does not appreciate the aid flown-in by India and the US offer of US$ 95 million for refugee relief, the academic said: “We don’t want relief. We want these powers to convince Myanmar to take back the Rohingyas.”
They can’t and won’t even try.
(The featured picture at the top shows a Rohingya woman with her children wading through a flooded camp in Bangldesh)