By Ana Pararajasingham –
In a brief opinion piece for Asia Times published on 4 October 2017, I argued that the persecuted Rohingya’s fate will be decided not by humanitarian concerns but by geo-politics. This was despite the United Nations and Human Rights Watch agreeing that the violence amounted to “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”
I also argued, as the violence unleashed by the Myanmar authorities against the Rohingya is underpinned by the intent to eradicate their identity as a distinct ethnic group, it meets the UN’s Genocide Convention. And in this situation, international law demands direct and immediate intervention.
In this article, I propose to show that at the end of the day it will be the self-interests of international actors that will decide the fate not only of the victims, the Rohingya, but also that of the perpetrator, the Myanmar state. This is the nature of realpolitik which is entirely devoid of moral or ethical considerations.
A good example of the potency of realpolitik in shaping the lives of people persecuted by the state giving rise to armed uprising is that of Sri Lanka’s Tamils. Targeted by the Sri Lankan state-orchestrated pogroms since the 1950’s, the Tamils embarked on a violent campaign against the state in the late 1970’s. The state responded by unleashing the worst pogrom of all in July 1983.The scale of the violence was such that within just two weeks over 3,000 Tamils were murdered; properties destroyed and tens of thousands were forced to flee to the Northeast of the island-the Tamil Homeland. The intensity of the violence gave rise to it being dubbed ‘Black July’. International outcry followed. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) declared the violence to be “a series of deliberate acts, executed in accordance with a concerted plan, conceived and organised well in advance” and concluded that these actions “amounted to acts of genocide’”. Canada opened its doors on humanitarian grounds to all Tamils fleeing the violence. Australia was more circumspect by permitting just those Tamils who had families to sponsor their migration under a Special Humanitarian Program (SHP). The definition of ‘families’, under SHP was extended to include those well beyond one’s own immediate family permitting many survivors to escape the violence. The actions of Canada, Australia and several European countries in this instance were driven by humanitarian concerns. However, as the conflict intensified, geo-politics became the main driver with US, China and India vying to bring Colombo under their respective spheres of influence. As a consequence, Sri Lanka’s Tamils paid a huge price in terms of death, destruction and dispossession. The Sri Lankan state, the perpetrator of these atrocities did not get away either. Sri Lanka’s much vaunted sovereignty has been severely compromised as international actors have intervened directly bringing about regime changes and taking control over several ports. Today, the management of Hambantota port is no longer under the direct control of the Sri Lankan state. Its operation is controlled by China via its state-owned company, China Merchants Ports Holdings. India has a presence in the northern Sri Lankan port of Kankesanthurai (KKS) where it has been involved since June 2011 mapping, as well as removing and disposing vessels sunk during the civil war. Furthermore, India has made its intentions clear that its primary interest lies in controlling the eastern Port of Trincomalee and in this regard has taken several measures to bring Colombo in line. Meanwhile, the US is in a position to influence Colombo thanks to Ranil Wickramasinghe , the right-leaning Prime Minister of the country.
In the case of Sri Lanka and Myanmar ‘political Buddhism’ was a crucial factor in the attacks mounted against the Tamils and the Rohingya. And in both cases the violence worsened after the persecuted decided to strike back. Violence against the Tamils intensified when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ambushed and killed 13 army men in July 1983 and against the Rohingya after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked 30 police posts in one night killing several policemen. The more telling comparison will be when the various international actors begin to respond in pursuit of their own vested interests.
The posturing by India, China and the US has begun in earnest. India, mindful of developing access to ASEAN markets and countering Chinese dominance in Myanmar has taken a decidedly pro-Myanmar stance by strongly condemning the ‘terrorist attacks on Myanmar security forces’. China which competes with the US for influence in Myanmar, has endorsed Myanmar’s offensive against Rohingya Muslim insurgents. Washington, while expressing concern about the violence has stopped short of criticizing the country’s government or its de facto leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Aung San Suu Kyi’s ‘western credentials’ explain Washington’s disinclination to condemn Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi can prove to be a useful ally in countering China’s influence. Then there is the ‘Islamic’ threat that looms large as experts warn of Islamic State (ISIS) recruiting fighters from the Rohingya.
Regional and global powers will not want to distance themselves from Myanmar, however, repugnant its treatment of the Rohingya. Instead, attempts will be made to demonise the Rohingya to justify the actions that geo-politics demand. The recent well publicized news of the Rohingya Muslims turning on the Hindu Rohingya based on photos released by the Myanmar Government is perhaps the beginning of this process.
It is only a matter of time for geopolitics to outweigh any humanatrian concerns. The internationalisation of the conflict is bound to shape Myanmar’s future. A Reuter report indicating that China is seriously pushing Myanmar to give it an 85 percent stake in a strategically important sea port at Kyaukphyu point to yet another parallel between these two countries.