Prolonging the Rohingya crisis will work to China's disadvantage
The Rohingya crisis, if not resolved soon, may haunt the entire Southeast Asian region. And China is a critical player in all this. It is in China's best interest as well as that of the region to bring about a sustainable conflict resolution without losing any time.
Once the ARSA resistance gains momentum and links up with international terrorist networks there would be a real threat of radicalisation in this region. The difficult terrain of mountains and forests is most suitable to sustain long-term guerilla warfare both against Myanmar and China, and that would be extremely costly to endure. Prominent military generals have conceded that there is no military solution to neutralising radicalised groups. The deep-rooted issues that give rise to them must be addressed.
If the past is any reference, ignoring the causes of radicalisation has fuelled the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East. Since 9/11, instead of addressing the grievances and injustices, the Western powers undertook a military strategy called the War on Terror to quell rebellion. The strategy has failed even after spending hundreds of billions of dollars for over a decade. Terrorism has increased many folds since then.
Tunisia has proved that a conflict resolution is the most powerful deterrent against radicalisation and violence. As the previously conflicting groups came together to establish a functioning democracy, a polarised and confrontational society became more pluralistic and tolerant. The case of neighbouring Nepal is an example of that constructive process and so is El Salvador in the 1990s. The Balkans have a similar story.
China is the biggest stakeholder in this turmoil. A radicalised region is going to be a major roadblock for China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as to maintain the gas-oil pipelines carrying 80 percent of China's imports that come from the Middle East and Africa.
For a peaceful, stable region nothing short of a comprehensive approach is going to work. That means Myanmar should take Rohingyas back, giving them full citizenship status, respecting their rights and dignity under the supervision of the international community. Rohingyas need to be rehabilitated, their homes rebuilt and their lives restored.
A few isolated terrorist attacks were used as an excuse to commit crimes against humanity and unleash a campaign of ethnic cleansing on the entire Rohingya population. Satellite imageries have confirmed that many areas of Rakhine were burned to ashes. Countless Rohingyas have lost everything they had. The horrible tales of torture and persecution, family members being killed in front of their very eyes and babies thrown into fire in front of mothers, have been echoed from one end of the vast refugee camps to the other.
This crisis indeed is going to be a stain on the leadership of China and other countries for a long time to come. Even a drop of conscience should compel Chinese policymakers to act responsibly for about one million refugees—according to the most recent UN assessment—are living in dire and desperate conditions in Bangladesh, a poor country itself.
Looking back, when Rakhine residents including Rohingyas revealed the damages they faced due to the Chinese gas-oil pipeline project (from Rakhine to Yunnan province of China), had China given the local residents fair compensation for the expropriated lands for China's pipeline project, things might have turned out differently. The compensations for Rakhine residents would have been only a tiny fraction of the enormous benefit China would receive every year by bringing in gas and oil through Rakhine instead of through the distant Strait of Malacca and the risky South China Sea.
A stable and developed Rakhine would have been conducive to China's expressed greater vision of the regional developments in which China would remain an indispensable and dominant player. The possibility of a win-win state of affairs was nipped in the bud. Now, a costly quagmire in the form of a mega humanitarian crisis has emerged.
How costly can it become? China does not need to go far to look for an answer. The story of Vietnam is good enough. More than half a century ago, if America had spent USD 500 million to help build the infrastructure of Vietnam (then an American ally) after the World War II devastation, and addressed the economic crisis the Vietnamese were facing, as was suggested by an expert and American official posted then in Vietnam and as Ho Chi Minh himself was eager to work with America at that time, the entire Vietnam war could have been avoided. Instead, the American leadership abandoned the path of helping others who needed it most—the path advocated both by President Woodrow Wilson in the 1920s and Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1940s to help build a peaceful and progressive world—and embarked on a path of prejudice, cynicism and military confrontation. The vigorous persuasion of the vested interests, the military industrial complex, and the neoconservatives using fear-mongering has helped derail the decision-making process of the superpower. The consequence: a futile war that took about 55,000 American lives, killed over one million people in the region, and cost American taxpayers 2,000 times (USD 1 trillion in 2011 valuation) that of the meagre USD 500 million that was to be given to help Vietnam. The trust and political capital that this sum of money could have earned at that time would have brought about new heights of America's position in the world and a paradigm shift in our time. A golden opportunity was squandered in the early 1950s, which, if used, could have brought the Cold War to an end much sooner. Moreover, it could have achieved many of the foreign policy goals at the fraction of the price the US paid later.
This is the price for deviating from principles, for ignoring the sufferings of a people, and for having the arrogance to think that military power is going to fix everything. China and Myanmar today have a lot to learn from America's blunder.
Ruby Amatulla is Executive Director of the US-based Muslims for Peace, Justice and Progress, and the Bangladesh-based Women for Good Governance.