Western focus on the Rohingya crisiscan divert attention from broader, more pressing issues affecting Myanmar and its neighbours, claims G Parthasarathy
International attention has focused in recent months on the plight of nearly one million Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar. India, which is now hosting around 30,000 Rohingyas, also faces problems of periodic cross-border attacks by insurgents operating from Myanmar soil close to and across Myanmar’s borders with China.
India shares a sensitive 1,640-km border with Myanmar across four of its north-eastern states – Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh – where some residual armed separatist groups exist. While Myanmar and India have traditionally cooperated and exchanged intelligence on dealing with such insurgencies on both sides of the border, insurgents from India have been based in Myanmar, in areas where the Myanmar army is not adequately deployed. There have been at least three instances in recent years when Indian Special Forces have crossed into Myanmar to take out insurgent bases, in operations undertaken with the concurrence of the Myanmar Government.
Myanmar faces challenges from 26 well-armed insurgent groups. Only 17 of these groups have agreed to observe a ceasefire called by Aung San Suu Kyi, while the others still periodically resort to violence. Talks have been held with these groups, but the Suu Kyi Government and the Myanmar military differ on how to navigate the road ahead,which has led to deadlock in evolving an integrated strategy for ethnic peace.
These present efforts for ethnic peace have been marked by an extraordinarily active Chinese role to shape events, including in areas close to Myanmar’s borders with India. Sun Guoxiang, China’s Special Envoy on Asian Affairs, has emerged as a virtual mediator in the peace process with Myanmar’s armed groups,including the Kachin Liberation Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Kokang Alliance Army and the heavily armed United Wa State Army (UWSA). All these groups operate on both sides of the China-Myanmar border.
This Chinese involvement with armed separatist groups in Myanmar has been accompanied by the close links that these groups have developed with Indian separatist groups operating along the India-Myanmar border. Such developments have, in turn, been accompanied by the formation of an association of separatist insurgent groups, labelled as the ‘United National Liberation Front of Western Southeast Asia’ (UNLFW), which is based in Myanmar and operates in India’s north-eastern states. These groups have ties with Chinese-linked groups like the Kachin Liberation Army. They travel across the Myanmar-China border to the border town of Ruili and to Yunnan’s Provincial capital, Kunming.
While New Delhi is confident it can overcome challenges posed by cross-border insurgencies, it is keeping a close eye on increasing Chinese investments in road, rail and mining projects, and on oil and gas pipelines linking China’s Yunnan Province to the Bay of Bengal at the port of Kyaukpyu. China is planning to invest $7.3 billion in building a deep-sea port in Kyaukpyu and $2.7 billion for an industrial park, in a Special Economic Zone around Kyaukpyu. This port is also the terminal for oil and gas pipelines to Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan Province. These pipelines are designed to bypassthe Straits of Malacca, by enabling supplies of oil and gas to the landlocked Yunnan Province from Kyaukpyu.
Myanmar is now carefully assessing the impact of these Chinese projects on its growing external debt. There are serious misgivings across Asia about the implications of getting into a debt trap through excessive dependence on Chinese credits, on near commercial terms, for infrastructure projects.Take the example of Sri Lanka, which was forced to hand over a majority stake to China in the Chinese-built Hambantota Portafter it was found that the port was not financially viable. Myanmar’s Finance Minister U Soe Win has confirmed that the port, pipeline and industrial park projects, which were described as ‘crazy’ and ‘absurd’ by Suu Kyi’s economic adviser Sean Turnell, are being downsized.
There are similar concerns about such infrastructure projects in other Asian countries. Even in Pakistan, where China is building a $40 billion ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ (CPEC) linking the Karakoram Mountains to the strategic Arabian Sea port of Gwadar (which is almost exclusively managed by the Chinese), the economic viability of projects in the corridor is being questioned.
India has been cautious in proceeding with such projects in Myanmar. Apart from a project to establish road connectivity through Myanmar to Thailand, Indiahas focused its attention predominantly on a project labelled the ‘Kaladan Transport Corridor’, linking its landlocked north-eastern states to the Bay of Bengal port of Sittwe in Myanmar, the construction of which has been fully financed by India. There has also been a successful effort by India’s state-run Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) in offshore exploration for natural gas.
An Institute for Information Technology has also been set up by India in Mandalay. Particular attention is paid to undertaking projects for the development of Divisions and Provinces in Myanmar, bordering India. Moreover, hundreds of Myanmar students study on scholarships and participate in courses in professional institutions in India, under India’s Technical and Economic Cooperation Programmes.
There have been close consultations between New Delhi and Tokyo in complementing each other in economic projects across the Indian Ocean, including in Myanmar. It is a pity that the West is so focused on the Rohingya issue that attention gets diverted from larger matters, such as Suu Kyi’s efforts to strengthen democratic governance and the geopolitical situation in the region. One hopes that OECD countries and institutions like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank will play a greater role in reinforcing democratic institutions, and in financing projects for economic and social development in Myanmar.