China meets India in Rakhine: Implications for Bangladesh

M. Shahidul Islam | 13 September 2019
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Nearly one million Rohingya have poured into Bangladesh in the past few years caused by escalating violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. This has created enormous demographic and economic pressure on Bangladesh. The demographic picture of the southernmost parts of Chattogram division has altered markedly generating a host of problems.[i]The cost of delay in the repatriation of Rohingya refugees is staggering. An estimate suggests that considering the refugee population alone, the annual cost of food, shelter, education, and other basic needs would be a minimum of $1,219 per refugee. The cumulative amount required to support refugees for a few years could be as high as $12 billion. Under the most optimistic scenario based on a faster repatriation process, the cost would be about $3.0 billion.[ii]

 It was hoped that the world leaders would take a strong stance against the Myanmar government, forcing the regime stopping the violence in Rakhine as well as facilitating the repatriation process of the refugees. However, no permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (also known as the Permanent Five, Big Five, or P5) has strongly backed Dhaka to deal with the refugee problem. China and Russia render their support to Myanmar at the United Nations (UN) when the issue is debated. United States’ (US) intention to solve the problem is at best half-hearted reflected by the fact that the issue was not even mentioned in President Trump’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2017.[iii]Although owing to domestic political imperatives in Bangladesh,  there is little interest to engage US in solving the Rohingya refugee problem. India, though it does not have a loud voice at UN, insteadsupports Naypyidaw condemning the terrorism in Arakan ignoring the flight of thousands of Rohingya people who mostly have taken refuge in Bangladesh. Similarly, Japan, another influential Asian power, backs Myanmar. As a result,Myanmar does not face any immediate security or economic threats such as sanctions[iv] forcing Naypyidaw, capital city of Myanmar since 2006, to solve the ongoing crisis.

Why have several influential global and regional powers defended Myanmar even though the country has grossly violated human rights killing hundreds of people in troubled Rakhine state? What are their stakes in Myanmar? That said, this study discusses major regional powers’, in particular, China and India, economic and geo-strategic interests in Myanmar following a brief overview of the country, and its historical and contemporary relations with Bangladesh. Then it focuses on how Bangladesh has missed opportunities to compete with the country’s ‘near-far neighbour’ banking on its favourable geography. The final section provides policy suggestions.

Myanmar: An anthropologist’s paradise and a statesman’s nightmare

Myanmar is a highly complex society given the presence of a large number of ethnic groups and the country’s linguistic and cultural diversity. It has 11 major ethnic groups (Graph 1). There are Seven Bamar[v]regions and seven ethnic states and six self-administration areas. The country has 93 political parties, two-thirds of which are ethnic-based. There are 110 armed organisations of varying sizes, most of them ethnic-based.

 Graph 1: Major ethnic groups in Myanmar


Civil war and ethnic conflict have been a constant feature of Myanmar’s socio-political landscape since the country attained independence from the British in 1948. In fact, ever since the British landed in Burma in 1886, it adopted infamous ‘divide and rule’ policy empowering the ethnic minorities instead of Bamar, majority of the population, sowing the seed of century-long ethnic conflicts.[vi] During World War II, ethnic minorities fought defending Britain. On the other hand, Aung San, the Burmese nationalist leader, and father of Aung San Suu Kyi led the Bamar backed Japan, but switched sides at the eleventh hour when the allied victory was apparent.[vii] Burma’s ethnic conflict is the world’s longest continuing civil war in which the ethnic Bamar Buddhist majority seeks to dominate dozens of non-Buddhist ethnic minorities resulting in enormous cost for the country. Consequently, from being the best-educated (apart from Japan) country in East Asia, it spiralled down over the ensuing 65 years to being possibly the worst educated as well as one of the poorest.[viii]

 After independence, the Burmese military controlled the country fighting communists and various ethnic groups. The military has been involved in long term conflict with several ethnic groups. They include the Kachin conflict, between the Pro-Christian Kachin Independence Army and the government, a civil war between the Rohingya Muslims, and the government and non-government groups in Rakhine State, and a conflict between the Shan, Lahu, and Karen minority groups. Armed conflict between ethnic Chinese rebels and the Myanmar Armed Forces resulted in the Kokang offensive in February 2015 forcing 40,000 to 50,000 civilians to flee their homes and seek shelter on the Chinese side of the border. The actions of the Burmese army, particularly in eastern Burma, have been argued to count as.[ix] The Burmese government’s oppression against the Rohingya Muslims has been termed as a textbook case of ethnic cleansing by the United Nations. In its recent crackdown, over 3000 Rohingyas were killed, and half a million sought refuge in Bangladesh. [x]

During the 1970s and 1980s, the military aimed to crush the ethnic armed groups. Having failed to do so, the government has adopted a reconciliatory approach in the 1990s assimilating all ethnic minorities, and faiths save Rohingya Muslims into the Bamar Buddhist majority. During 2011-16, a national ceasefire agreement was reached involving armed ethnic groups, although half of them did not sign on it.[xi][xii]

In addition to adopting a reconciliatory approach with various ethnic groups, the military government initiated democratic reforms in the mid-2000s. In this pursuit, a new constitution was adopted in 2008, and a national election was held in 2010, resulting in a quasi-democratic government dominated by the military. However, in a free and fair election in 2015, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won in a landslide. Aung San Suu Kyi and her party took office in April 2016, although she was barred from the presidency. A new position is created titled state counsellor (Union Minister for Foreign Affairs), but analysts believe that it is the military that pulls strings behind the scenes. Thus, the country’s democracy is very fragile, given its incomplete democratic transition, which left the military with three key ministries, a quarter of seats in parliament and control over the army and police.[xiii] Some even doubted that if the country will at all make the transition. As a seasoned expert of the country’s politics observed that “if the elected civilian government cannot make attempts to change the game, the transition will die a slow death, in the graveyard of hybrid regimes.”[xiv]

From Bangladesh’s close neighbour to “near-far” neighbour

Myanmar is bordered by Bangladesh (170 km) and India to its west, Thailand and Laos to its east and China to its north and northeast. To its south, about one-third of Myanmar's total perimeter of 5,876 km forms an uninterrupted coastline of 1,930 km along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. 

Myanmar is also termed as ‘near-far’ neighbour of Bangladesh as there has been little business and people-to-people exchanges between the two countries in recent decades. Although there is a sub-regional initiative to forge greater connectivity and trade relations under the aegis of BCIM- EC (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor), the entity has made little headway in recent years, mainly owing to the rivalry between China and India. Nevertheless, there were long historical ties between the people of both Bangladesh and Myanmar starting from the pre-Mughal era that continued till the British period. However, the relationship between the two nations deteriorated when the Rohingya issue surfaced in the 1970s. 

The Rakhine state of Myanmar, formerly known as Arakan, where Rohingya people live has had very long relations with Bengal, in general, and Chattogram, also known as Chittagong, Chattagrama, Chatigrama, Chatgaon, Chatgam and Chateeg[xv], in particular. Because of its geographical proximity to the southeastern parts of Bengal, Arakan developed both political and cultural ties with Bengal.[xvi] Being attracted to the splendid port privileges of Chattogram[xvii] in the Indian Ocean, the interest of Arakanese in this part revolved around one hundred and fifty miles up the coast from the Mrohaung (Mrauk U), the capital of Arakan.[xviii] The kingdom based in the city of Mrauk-U encompassed what is now known as Rakhine State, Myanmar, and Chattogram.

The recorded history shows that after 24 years of exile in Guar, the capital of Bengal sultanate, King Narameikhla (Min Sowa Mun, 1404-1434), the ruler of the Kingdom of Mrauk U in the early 15th century, regained control of the Arakanese throne in 1430 with military assistance from the Sultanate of Bengal, becoming a tributary[xix]and remaining subordinate to Bengal until 1531.[xx] Following the death of King Narameikhla, Arakan and Chattogram were involved in conflicts. The Arakanese king had firmly established his authority over Chattogram in 1575 and continued their rule up to 1666[xxi] when it lost control of it after a war with the Mughal Empire.[xxii] After the fall of Chattogram in 1666, the kingdom of Arakan was reduced to vassalage.[xxiii]

Various parts of Burmese territories, including Arakan, were annexed by the British after their victory in the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26). The First Anglo-Burmese War arose from friction between Arakan in western Burma and British-held Chattogram to the north.[xxiv] The lower Burma was annexed in 1852 after the Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852-53). The annexed territories became the minor province of British Burma in 1862. Arakan became part of the province of Burma of British India in 1886 eventually becoming part of the Crown Colony of British Burma which was split off from British India in 1937. After the end of British rule in the sub-continent, Rakhine became part of the newly independent state of Burma. In 1973, Arakan became a state of Burma.

China and India’s interests and stakes in Myanmar

Myanmar’s interaction with the rest of the world has been limited until the country initiated democratic reforms in post-2010s, resulting in low growth and development. However, since its transition to democracy, the country witnessed higher GDP growth, although in recent years, growth has shown a declining trend (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Myanmar’s annual GDP growth rate (%)

Source: Financial Times, September 29, 2017

It is interesting to note that Bangladesh is in better-placed vis-à-vis Myanmar when it comes to trade relations with almost all the major regional and global powers. As reported in Figure 2, even the two-way trade between China and Bangladesh is higher than Myanmar-China trade. Similarly, Bangladesh is ahead of the country when it comes to trade with India, Japan, and the United States. Then what makes Myanmar so crucial to big powers, notably China and India?

Myanmar importance lies in its geographical location. Thanks to its favourable geography, the country is becoming avital connectivity hub of Asia. There are at least three cross-border transport corridors being developed in Myanmar. They are:

East-West Corridor: Pathein-Yangon/ Thilawa-Bago-Thaton-Hpa An- Kawkareik-Myawaddy-Mae Sot-Tak-Bangkok:promises a strong potential to become an economic corridor in Myanmar providing easy access to regional and global markets and value chains.

The Northern corridor: Ruili – Muse – Lashio-Mandalay –Monywa-Kalewa-Kale-Tamu-Moreh-Imphal.It is a strategic corridor of India, Myanmar, and China with strong potential for growth in the medium and long term. It could potentially benefit Bangladesh as well if BCIM EC eventually takes off.

The Southern Corridor: Dawei - Kanchanaburi - Bangkok (Thailand) - Cambodia - Vietnam[xxv]

Figure 2: Bangladesh and Myanmar’s trade with China, India, United States and Japan (in Billion US$, 2016)