“Great Game” in Myanmar – Rohingya Crisis


(Brig (retd) GB Reddi)

Least understood or deliberately left out of consideration is the unfolding of “Great Game” in Myanmar – Rohingya crisis. Perhaps, it is due to ignorance among Indian analysts and media.

Generally, majority believe that the crisis relates to the plight of the Rohingya, stateless ethnic Bengali Muslims, historically persecuted minority, living in coastal Rakhine state (formerly Arakan state). Also, the Myanmar ruling regime, Buddhist-centric, is playing the ‘ethnic cleansing” game at the behest of their external masters to counter Muslim extremism sponsored by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

In reality, the conflict itself is nearly a century old and its current escalation did not begin this year, but rather in 2011, and has continued to worsen ever since.

The Indian media, several prominent human rights organizations and legal luminaries like Prashant Bhusan have given unprecedented attention to the conflict including championing the cause of Illegal Rohingya Refugee in the Supreme Court, who refuses to go back to Myanmar. Ironically, even the Supreme Court has admitted the appeal with utter disregard to the vicious geopolitics by key actors in the region and their far reaching fallout on India’s national security interests.

Ipso facto, Saudi Arabia, acclaimed as the breeder of Islamic or Islamist fundamentalism, radicalism and global expansionism, is funding Rohingya insurgency. As per experts, the “Rohingya insurgency is hardly the organic, local response to long-standing state suppression it claims to be.” Saudi Arabia is spending over a billion dollars to construct 560 Wahhabi mosques in Bangladesh.

Ataullah abu Ammar Junjuni, a Pakistani national who worked as a Wahhabi imam in Saudi Arabia, heads the group, now known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and formerly known as Harakah al-Yakin. According to a Reuters 2016 report, the group is financed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — and “a committee of 20 senior Rohingya emigres,” in Mecca, “oversees” the group.

So, those asserting that the group “is not a terrorist group aimed at striking at the heart of Myanmar society” suffer from strategic myopia or blinkers. ARSA is directly responsible for both last year’s and the current crackdown on Rohingya civilians and communities, as its attacks on Myanmar military installations and bases have precipitated military’s violent response. ARSA has also targeted Buddhist civilians, besides Hindus, fomenting support among extremist Buddhists elsewhere.

All Indian blind Indian human rights activists may like to read the statements of Myanmar’s Muslim organizations that have overwhelmingly condemned ARSA for its tactics and extremist views.

As per international experts and analysts, internal conflict has provided geopolitical opportunities for external actors to safeguard their interests: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China and the USA.

Thus, Myanmar faces an extraordinarily complex, wide ranging and challenging threats to its national security interests besides Rohingya crisis. First, its fledgling democracy needs to consolidate and advance on even keel. Next, it faces threat of over 20 insurgent organizations along the Chinese border.

More important ones among the insurgent outfits include: UWSA (United We State Army – 30,000 troops), KIA (Kachin Independent Army – 10,000 troops), RCSS (Restoration Council of Shan State – 8,000 troops) SSPP (Shan State Progress Party – 8,000 troops), KNU (Karen National Union – 5,000+ troops)), TNLA (Ta’ang National Liberation Army – 4,500+ troops), NDAA-ESS (National Democratic Alliance Army – 4,500+ troops), MNDAA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army – 2,000 troops), and DKBA (Democratic Karen Benevolent Army – 1,500+ troops), NMSP (New Mon State Party).

Once viewed as a democratic icon with pro-Western ideals, Aung San Suu Kyi has turned into a pragmatic politician.  Domestically, she is working to extinguish the frictions between rival ethnic and religious groups and develop the economy. Internationally, she is trying to expand Myanmar’s clout and weigh in on the regional issues of the day. Suu Kyi has bigger aspirations for Myanmar than being just a ‘pawn’ in the hands of the USA as a counterweight to China.

Viewed from Myanmar, the center of gravity of the peace process is firmly in the Chinese border in northeastern Myanmar, where key insurgent groups hold resource-rich territory, posing new complications even for China. But, it is moving at slow pace. Only two of significant size insurgent groups (out of 20) have signed a national cease-fire accord. Representatives of the powerful UWSA attended the talks; but walked out on the second day).

The ethnic armed groups – the KIA, the Arakan Army, the MNDAA and the TNLA with tacit involvement of 30,000-strong USWA – have forged unity under the banner of what’s called the Northern Alliance. No longer, they would engage in unilateral talks with the government. In effect, this has made the Northern Alliance and, even more so, the UWSA, indispensable to any meaningful negotiations.

China likes to portray itself as an honest broker in the conflict. China is believed to have periodically supplied direct material support to the UWSA (some of which the WA has reportedly passed on to Northern Alliance partners). Si, it wields substantial influence with several of the holdout groups. But its vested interests in Myanmar make neutrality difficult. A full withdrawal of Chinese backing from the UWSA, for example, would trigger a splintering of the rebel landscape in Shan state in ways that may further undermine Beijing’s ability to contain fighting along its border.

According to an unconfirmed report in The Irrawaddy magazine, China’s Special Envoy for Asian Affairs Sun Guoxin recently told WA leaders that China would no longer commit to backing the UWSA, encouraging the group to sign onto the NCA. More importantly, China does not want to jeopardize the progress it has made on its broader strategic and economic goals in Myanmar — including weakening U.S. influence in the country; facilitating cross-border trade and energy links; and building out projects furthering its Belt Road Initiative and BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) corridor, establishment of a deep water seaport and a special economic zone in Rakhine state – The Great Game in Myanmar.

In sum, the real “key issue” concerns uninterrupted flow of gas and oil to Chinese mainland through Myanmar, economic interests and the struggle for dominance in the region.

As per geo political strategic analysts, the Rohingya conflict is essentially a conflict over resources, namely oil and gas. In 2004, a massive natural gas field, named Shwe, was discovered off the coast of Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal. In 2008, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) secured the rights to the natural gas and bestowed upon the field its honorific name. Construction began a year later on two 1,200 km overland pipelines that would cross from Myanmar’s Rakhine state – home of the Rohingya – to the Yunnan province of China.

The gas pipeline was commissioned in 2014 and carries more than 12 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year to China.  But, the oil pipeline – carrying oil from the Middle East and Africa, brought to Myanmar by ship —has proven more difficult to construct and is set to be completed later this year.  It will reduce the transport time of such oil by as much as 30 percent.

Ipso facto, the Shwe oil pipeline is of critical strategic importance to China: 80% of China’s imported oil currently passes through the straits of Malacca and disputed parts of the South China Sea. Once the Shwe oil pipeline became operational, the Chinese would no longer have to worry about the possibility of the U.S. imposing a blockade. Thus, China’s tacit support of Myanmar’s response to the Rohingya crisis is on expected lines given its clear economic and strategic security interests.

Next, the Myanmar government is also a major stakeholder in the pipeline, as it owns a major stake in the Shwe field’s production of natural gas and is set to earn $7 million per year in annual right-of-way fees for the pipelines once both are completed. Thus, Myanmar’s military has been pursuing the Rohingya, citing vengeance for periodic attacks launched by regional insurgents.

Since construction began, protests against the pipelines in Rakhine state and other areas of Myanmar have been constant. Residents of Rakhine state, in particular, have complained to the government and to CNPC that the project had polluted rivers, destroyed private property and decimated the livelihood of local fishermen. In addition, many of the owners of properties expropriated for the project were not compensated by CNPC as promised.

What does Saudi Arabia stand to gain from funding and driving the Rohingya conflict? Preventing this pipeline from being built might directly benefit Saudi Arabia to some extent, but would be far more profoundly beneficial to a major ally of the Saudis, the United States. Another U.S./Saudi ally, Israel, also stands to profit as a significant supplier of weapons to the Myanmar regime.

Finally, U.S. strategic interest in Myanmar is to wrest influence from the Chinese is crucial to its larger regional “China containment” strategy, besides oil and gas resources. After all, Aung San Suu Kyi’s rule is largely a product of U.S. funding in support of democracy in Myanmar. Now, the U.S. goal is simple: to force Myanmar to choose between either the U.S. or China as a “strategic partner.”

U.S. interest in Myanmar is hardly new. The U.S. government along with nongovernmental organizations had spent millions on “democracy promotion” — specifically on funding the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Suu Kyi. Furthermore, in 2015, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) was the “leading donor” in Myanmar’s 2015 election – over $18 million spent.

In the Rohingya crisis, the U.S. is playing both sides of the conflict. On one hand, its close ally Saudi Arabia is funding and fomenting the insurgency responsible for the worst recent escalation of the crisis, while the U.S. corporate media paints this insurgency as “freedom fighters” and focuses public attention on the issue at a critical time.

According to the Associated Press, the U.S. is concerned its involvement could “undermine the Asian country’s democratic leader,” Aung San Suu Kyi. So, the U.S. is offering Myanmar deeper military cooperation to help combat the very insurgency problem it is helping to create, while also offering increased U.S. investments.

Now, the rise of both Wahhabist groups has offered a convenient excuse for the U.S. to boost its military presence in both Myanmar and Philippines. In Myanmar, the U.S. removed Myanmar from its list of nations using child soldiers. The U.S. is set to further expand its direct military ties with the nation by way of an amendment hidden within the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It would open the path for the U.S. to establish a military base, which would definitively end Chinese hopes for its own naval base in Myanmar.

Interestingly, Myanmar and the Philippines are the only ASEN nations forced to battle against Saudi-funded Wahhabist insurgencies — ARSA in Myanmar and Daesh (ISIS) in the Philippines.

Nonetheless, Aung San Suu Kyi is relying more and more on China in Myanmar and on the international stage” due to Trump’s “America First; and Sharing the Burden” policy and his unreliability. So, Suu Kyi has maintained and even strengthened her nation’s ties with China, failing to favor the U.S. interests responsible for her rise to power. After all, China is its next door neighbor.

For example, Suu Kyi has visited Beijing twice; but rejected an invitation to a conference organized by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. She has expressed her feelings that China “will do everything possible to promote our peace process,” referring to China’s eagerness to end sectarian fighting in Rakhine State and other areas of Burma. There are also suggestions that the Chinese are seeking to develop a naval base in the port city of Kyaukphyu.

As per American experts, with calls for Suu Kyi to take drastic action to address the issue growing by the day, the U.S. has the ability to force her hand, both covertly and overtly. If the crisis continues to worsen, the possibility that Suu Kyi will request U.S. military assistance to combat an outbreak of “terrorism” will grow. Such an outcome would greatly benefit the U.S., which would gain a military foothold in Chinese bordering nation and also secure Myanmar’s oil and gas riches for itself.

In sum, the unfolding of the “Great Game 2” in Myanmar is real. The U.S. and China are both involved in competing to gain dominance in the region. Is Myanmar going to be similar to Afghanistan?

Where does India stand in such a geopolitical vicious “Great Game 2” power play? Surely, moralistic and egalitarian postures cannot advance India’s national security interests. “Act East Policy” contours are yet to take shape. Pragmatism borne out of strategic wisdom must govern India’s postures.