Elites in Dhaka and Yangon aren’t really interested in each other
Myanmar has remained the great unknown for decades. The periodic influx of migrants into Bangladesh raises its profile, but almost always in the limited context of having to return those migrants back home.
There is an almost abstract idea of connecting with China or Thailand via Myanmar. The latter is viewed merely as a transit node, useful only in helping one reach one’s destination. It works in the other direction too. Myanmar has also perceived Bangladesh as a station on the way. In the early 2000s, the big agenda of the day was for Myanmar’s gas to flow north through the Bengali delta onward to feed the voracious appetite of India’s economic machine.
That never happened. Myanmar was quickly ejected from memory. Soon after that chapter closed, Beijing offered to invest heavily in Arakan (Rakhine) state and share the vast gas reserves with Myanmar.
Subsequently, Bangladesh decided to import expensive oil, LNG, and much dirtier coal. Occasionally, it does contact Myanmar for energy and resource matters, but if only for a deal here and there. It’s all stop-start.
One might have thought that the Rohingya tragedy and diplomatic stalemate had ushered in a new local Cold War. Instead, we learn this week that Bangladesh is purchasing a significant quantity of rice from Myanmar, one of the world’s largest rice exporters. On its own, the decision is sensible and shows Dhaka is getting ahead of the curve, stocking up as global food prices rise ominously.
Alternatively, Naypyidaw might take this to mean that the Rohingya issue can be shelved whenever trade and commerce imperatives come into play.
Time is running by. No one (well, almost no one) wants to see a Gaza Strip on Bangladeshi territory. The official aim is for a safe and secure return of Rohingya to Arakan (Rakhine) state. It is what the Rohingya themselves want, and is the only just solution. Then again, that coincides with the position of Palestinians. The year 1948 unites Israel and Myanmar. Temporary can slide into permanence, with all the attendant misery that goes with it.
Today, moving a hundred thousand de facto “refugees” to a small, young island (char) has its critics and supporters. Unless the master plan is to find 10 other islands (Bhashan chars) to relocate the remaining 1 million Rohingya, this operation has the effect of a pressure-cooker valve releasing steam.
Bengal and China
In the early 1400s, Bengali rulers implored the Chinese for help in dealing with aggressive neighbours from the immediate west. A show of force and diplomacy by Imperial China solved that problem.
The Chinese eventually gave up on the Indian Ocean. The Arakanese surged north of the Naf river. They even made a raid on Dhaka in 1425 and conquered Chittagong. This “North Arakan,” today’s southeastern Bangladesh, was held for two long centuries until the Mughals swept in in 1666. They lost the area to the British a mere 90 years later. Arakan to the south was overrun by the expansion of the Bamar (Burmese) in 1785.
Six centuries after their last major entry, one might say “Bengal” is relying on the Middle Kingdom (China) to solve a problem once again.
The historic concept of North and South Arakan illustrates the constant fluidity of suzerainty and sovereignty of the region and the different interests of Burmese, Bengalis, and Arakanese (including the Rohingya). It also captures the natural strategic imperative for the region: An ambition to create a series of economic industrial clusters, dotted by deep sea ports and linked by up-to-date roads, rail, and fibre-optics. A mini-maritime-Belt-and-Road.
Chittagong division could already have had a deep sea port operating today had the Chinese not been prevented in building one. The Japanese replacement at Maheshkhali will still take years to come into stream. There could already have been a direct road (and rail) link from southwestern China (Yunnan) via Mandalay, through Arakan/Rakhine and then north to Chittagong.
That was also shelved under pressure from Delhi. Needless to say, Hindutva forces in Delhi have no love for the Muslim Rohingya. India and Myanmar agree and collaborate on centralization and the military. India has parked itself in Sittwe too, but not with Bangladesh in mind.
Rohingya should be permitted to return home. But not to then be forgotten again and condemned to poverty. They and all the peoples of Rakhine state and southeastern Bangladesh share the same aspiration to escape from poverty. Locating the Rohingya within a much broader canvas involves the revival of historic links across the Naf and investing for the long term.
The question is: Is China being asked to solve a temporary problem like in the 1400s, or is it being invited as a strategic ally for decades to come?
Farid Erkizia Bakht is a political analyst. @liquid_borders.