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Bangladesh faces growing strain in Rohingya crisis

Dhaka must be cautious over ties with China

| Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan
Caring for Rohingya refugees is likely to cost Bangladesh $1 billion or more annually and burden the country's development budget.   © Reuters

The numbers continue to rise. Over 640,000 mainly stateless Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar's western Rakhine state have fled on foot since late August to escape mass killing, arson and rape by the Burmese military.

They join several hundred thousand who fled earlier waves of Rakhine violence. Western powers, despite stern rhetoric, have so far stopped short of reviving or imposing new sanctions on Myanmar. At the end of November, Pope Francis visited Myanmar and left without uttering the name "Rohingya" publicly: The pontiff's deference to Myanmar's sensitivities perfectly reflects a world in moral retreat. Bangladesh, generous in hosting the refugees, has also signed a repatriation deal with Myanmar which makes no mention of the name "Rohingya."

What was clearly a planned purge of the minority Rohingya by the Myanmar government is remarkable not only in its scale and thoroughness, but also in the world's willingness to abet what amounts to an erasure of identity, even though the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has described the Burmese operations as "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing."

The positions taken by various global and regional powers are of critical importance to the Rohingyas' ultimate fate. They will also determine how much strain is imposed on Bangladesh and how Dhaka responds.

China, a close ally of Naypyitaw, initially brushed off the Myanmar army's violent reprisals as an "internal affair." But as multitudes spilled into Bangladesh -- a country also friendly with China -- Beijing changed tack. It still does not acknowledge that crimes against humanity have transpired, but it reportedly played a behind-the-scenes role leading to the recently inked repatriation deal between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Indescribable misery

Stripped of citizenship in 1982, persecuted for decades, and newly subjected to periodic purges since 2012, the Rohingya face a unique dilemma in 2017: whether to surrender their identity for the right to return home. We are rapidly leaving behind a world order based on rights and rules and heading toward an older formation of interests and alliances. One could easily date the onset of this transition to any number of events: the American invasion of Iraq, the world's passive response to Syria's use of chemical weapons, or Russia's violent intervention in Ukraine.

In all these instances, there were arguable strategic interests at play; the cost to civilians was grotesque collateral damage. The Rohingya crisis is unique because there is no national or security interest driving the violence against a defenseless community. The sole purpose is to cause indescribable misery -- such as the babies torn from the arms of their mothers and thrown into fire -- and force a people from their homeland.

The Rohingya are now concentrated in camps around Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. The strain of such a large influx is starting to show, as locals grumble about prices of essentials spiking, and some refugees venture out of the camps to take up odd jobs in the area. If there is no quick breakthrough with Myanmar on a comprehensive resettlement deal, it is entirely possible that broader Bangladeshi attitudes will rapidly harden into resentment.

Bangladesh's economy has been growing at an annual rate of more than 7% since last year. Providing a minimum standard of amenities for the refugees is likely to cost $1 billion or more per year, well below the rate of aid inflows since the crisis began. Bangladesh is likely to be saddled with a hefty bill that will burden the development budget, including funds for critical infrastructure projects.

The response of China, the U.S, and other powers is critical.

China is said to be backing the Myanmar position as it has extensive development plans in Rakhine state, including access to a strategically critical port. But the presence of the Rohingya posed no risk to Chinese access. China's support for such a total purge cannot be reduced to mere tactical considerations..

What is in fact at play here is the drawing up of borders along lines of geopolitical allegiance. The border of Bangladesh and Myanmar marks one flashpoint -- the Baltics and the Korean peninsula being other examples -- where Western-led liberal-democratic countries come up against a sphere of influence dominated by Russia and/or China. In this second region, primacy of the state trumps all other considerations, including any rights of communities and individuals. It is China, which has blocked moves to admonish or restrain Myanmar in the U.N. Security Council

Western alternatives

Bangladesh, perched between a traditionally-liberal India and a still military-controlled Myanmar, marks a limit zone. Given its Commonwealth roots, Bangladesh has been a member of the prevailing Western-led world order. But, like many Third World countries, Bangladesh also has a past of dallying with socialism. By contrast Myanmar is an autocratic state like China, and enjoys a deep historic bond with it, albeit as a client state, and the force of that affinity has influenced China's decision as much as any tactical calculations.

In Dhaka, China's pronounced public support during this crisis has come as an embarrassment for the Bangladesh government, to say the least. Bangladesh's ruling Awami League has often been wary of the U.S. and tried lately to get closer to China.

Meanwhile, while Washington's role as the West's moral leader has been undermined by President Donald Trump, the U.S. has still come through with full support for Bangladesh, and with more aid for the Rohingya than other countries. The American backing shows that even a White House that wants to draw in its foreign policy horns remains an important -- if diminished -- force in the world.

In this context, it is time for Bangladesh to move away from seemingly ad-hoc foreign policy gestures toward Beijing to a more considered strategy based on friendship with countries with shared democratic values. Bangladesh will certainly still wish to remain friendly with China, but it may be time, for example, to reconsider the country's excessive dependence on Russia and China for military procurements and consider good-value Western alternatives too. Bangladesh not only needs to ramp up its defense capabilities, but also build alliances that will prove more predictable and sturdy in testy times.

In an increasingly uncertain world, Bangladesh cannot expect to be treated with due respect by its neighbors and by regional powers if it lacks military and diplomatic backing. Without such support, there is little chance of Myanmar following through on its promises in taking back refugees, and every risk that the costs to both Bangladesh and the refugees it shelters will rise.

K.Anis Ahmed is author of the story collection "Good Night, Mr. Kissinger," and publisher of the English-language daily newspaper Dhaka Tribune.

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