The expulsion of 700,000 Rohingya by Myanmar into Bangladesh is a terrible human tragedy involving the murder of 100,000 Rohingya and the rape of innumerable Rohingya women.
A vicious and cruel assault on a human group that qualifies for crimes against humanity and probably even genocide. It is another dramatic story of the cruelty of man and signals a deep social sickness in Myanmar society.
The crisis has attracted great attention and the international press presented and written of the horrors of the expulsion.
Why did this happen now? Trouble with the Rohingya presence in Myanmar is not a new issue -- there have been frequent repressive periods resulting in 100,000-200,000 to be expelled into Bangladesh. But the events of the past three months have been of a different level of cruelty than in the past.
The international community has been forthcoming with some financial support. However, the burden of caring for and nurturing the Rohingya has fallen to Bangladesh. The response of the Bangladeshi people and the government has been quite extraordinary. Deploying the army in a non-combatant role along the border, camps for the Rohingya are being rapidly constructed.
Registration of the refugees has proceeded with a large percentage now having IDs issued. The general public in Bangladesh has reacted remarkably, gathering resources and delivering to the unfortunate refugees.
Shelter and food are gradually being managed. The medical problems are enormous, and only a start has been made. The refugee population is reported to be mostly children (60%) with a large number of orphans among them.
Medical problems include malnutrition, dangers of infectious disease such as cholera, and PTSD.
The danger to the minds of the children is reported to be extensive and difficult to cure. The response of the ordinary people of Bangladesh has been extraordinary, and stands in contrast to the cruelty of the Myanmarese.
How it all happened
Who is behind this tragedy? Is it just the insane behaviour of the Myanmarese? Perhaps it is the army generals high on their own meth-amphetamines? Or is there something else that underlies these events and provides a better explanation?
In seeking such an explanation, we turn first to the behaviour of the Chinese and Indian governments.
The Chinese government has stood with Myanmar from the start of this crisis, supporting the claim that the treatment of the Rohingya was a natural consequence of security issues -- of course the Chinese diplomats have done their best to calm the Bangladeshis and promise to help with the return of the Rohingya to Myanmar.
Their efforts are largely scoffed at by Bangladesh elites who believe that there is little hope for the return to Myanmar of these refugees.
The Indian government has also supported Myanmar in this crisis while trying to cover their tracks in Bangladesh with many statements that make their position fuzzy.
The reality is that the Indians see this crisis as a security issue, and fear that the Rohingya issue is all mixed up with the growth of Islamic fundamentalism.
However, private Indians are generously providing food for the refugees. Interestingly, the camp holding the Hindu Rohingya is not under the control of the Bangladesh army and the sources of financing and security are not clear.
The above points miss, however, what this crisis is really about.
The international community has been forthcoming with some financial support. However, the burden of caring for and nurturing the Rohingya has fallen to Bangladesh
Big players, bigger problems
China has a fundamental problem: Its economy is dependent on ocean shipments for supply of gas and oil and for exporting to its major markets in Europe and the Northern hemisphere.
A large part of this trade passes through the Straits of Malacca or the the Straits of Lombok (for large tankers).
It is no exaggeration to say that at this time, in late 2017, China is dependent on the freight flowing through these channels to power its economy and to fight a protracted war.
Unfortunately for the Chinese, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia maintain very close relationships with the US and the 7th Fleet of the US Navy controls these areas. For the Chinese, it is like having a knife at your throat all the time.
The driving objective of Chinese foreign policy is to escape this trap that geography has forced on them.
But getting the Americans out of Asia is more easily said than done. There are three main steps the Chinese are taking:
• Building a strong blue water navy potentially able to provide a counterforce to the US 7th Fleet
• Extend their sovereignty and power in the South China Sea
• Use the Belt and Road Project supported by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to construct alternative routes
One of the most important aspects of the Belt and Road investments is the linkage between Myanmar and China with one end at Kyaukphyu located at the southern end of the Rakhine state and the other in Kunming in China.
This includes natural gas and oil pipelines and a railway combined with an industrial estate in a Special Economic Zone. These investments will provide an alternative route for Chinese trade.
The Chinese connection
The intention of the Chinese is to build up these links over time and to create a very large facility for transport and manufacturing. This will lead to a large Chinese community that will run to hundreds of thousands.
The capacity of these links is still far below what passes through the Straits of Malacca but it makes a real contribution to shifting reliance away from this vulnerable Malacca route.
The Chinese want stable conditions in these areas.
The Chinese distrust of Islam is based on their general distrust of foreign religions and the problems that they face with their own Muslim citizens, many of whom are in active revolt.
This revolt originated from the repression of their religion in Xinjiang. Difficulties that the Chinese state will face from their repression of Muslims will not go away -- such concerns are in the mind of the Chinese with respect to their presence in the Rakhine state where there was, until three months ago, a large Muslim population, almost one-third of the population of Rakhine state.
One reason that brings comfort to the Chinese is the impact of all of this on the Western alliance’s presence in Myanmar. In the past four years, the deal offered to Myanmar was: Move towards democracy and there will be a great deal of Foreign Direct Investment, access to the world financial markets, and allowing Myanmar back into the real world.
This deal was attractive to Myanmar, which resulted in their pushing back against the powerful Chinese influence.
The Rohingya crisis will reduce the attractiveness of Myanmar as an investment site, the West’s influence will decline and Chinese influence will increase. With another 200,000 Rohingya expected to move into Bangladesh in the next few weeks, the stress on Bangladesh will only increase.
The West has few cards it is willing to play, and the Chinese are the winners.
Forrest Cookson is an American economist.