What of the controlled experiment of repatriating a thousand Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar before the onset of the monsoons?
This step: that seeks to transition these refugees from camps in Bangladesh to vetting camps in Rakhine, then decant them to holding camps, and, after a month or so – if everything goes well – their resettlement in former homes?
Indeed, egos in Myanmar’s military junta and geo-political pressure permitting – their eventual rehabilitation?
It’s a daunting arithmetic – a thousand refugees out of an estimated million. Zero point one per cent. Yet, for refugees in the teeming, seething camps beset by malnutrition, hopelessness, joblessness and growing incidence of trafficking and crime, it is an optic fiber-thin lifeline.
For their inadvertent hosts Bangladesh, it is this most delicate of dances with Myanmar’s bloody-minded military junta, largely chaperoned by China, and watched over by a wary India and an audience of several member states of Association of Southeast Asian Nations and G7 who are unevenly split between backing the junta and leveraging opposition forces.
It’s a bit of a monster’s ball. And a positive dénouement is entirely dependent on the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s Army establishment that has in turn run and ruined that ethnic tinderbox of a country.
The Tatmadaw and its reigning strongman and premier, Min Aung Hlaing need to stay the course to reverse Myanmar’s governance implosion – and be seen to save face while doing so.
There are no guarantees except those negotiated by the chaperones and observers. In the end, the best guarantee might be everyone’s self-interest to reverse the wreck that is Myanmar.
What is sometimes called Myanmar’s “triple transition” has had a mixed run from its initiation in 2011 with the help of a transitional military authority. One transition was to evolve from military rule to civilian rule. The second, to transition from a rigid command economy to a market-friendly one. The third: Initiate talks to bring to a ceasefire and resolve Myanmar’s myriad ethnic conflicts.
Democratic elections in 2015 appeared to seal Transition One. The effects of Transition Two, built upon awakened financial institutions and economic liberalisation, boosted the economy. The World Bank records that poverty reduced by nearly half, from 48% to 25%, between 2005 and 2017.
Transition Three was more patchy, but as welcome: from 2012 onward several rebel groups were welcomed for peace and reconciliation talks.
There was one notable exception despite the vaunted onset of democracy with the Aung San Suu Kyi wave: the persecution of the Rohingyas in their home in Rakhine.
The genocidal repression of early 2017, only the latest cycle in state-led ethnic cleansing, this time as a deliberate over-reaction to a rebel attack, showed the hollowness of Transition Three.
A year into the Covid pandemic, with the country’s economy weakened and ethnic fires relit, it all began to unravel. The final trigger was the military coup on February 1, 2021.
A year on to 2022 showed a decimation of the socio-economic gains of the previous decade, with 40% and more back below the poverty line.
In fact, in the first nine months after the coup, there was a staggering 18% contraction of the economy. It grew by 3% in the year to September 2022. Even so, the World Bank noted that Myanmar’s gross domestic product had shrunk by 13%, pre-coup to post-coup.
Conflict with rebels in its north-western arc has in the past few months come dangerously close to Myanmar’s borders with both Bangladesh and India. Indeed, last week Myanmar’s military choppers were observed by some in India’s Manipur state to have strayed into Indian airspace in a chase after anti-junta forces.
Refugees from some indigenous tribes have steadily trickled into Manipur and another Indian state that shares a border with Myanmar, Mizoram. On March 30, Manipur announced its second “shelter home” for such refugees.
As much as it is a risk to itself, Myanmar’s implosive state is seen as a risk to the neighbourhood. It is significant that, on December 21 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2669 was not vetoed by Myanmar’s traditional and recent allies.
China, Russia, and India abstained from a 12-to-nothing vote for the resolution that urged an “immediate end to all forms of violence” and the release of all political prisoners.
China’s abstention is hugely significant – and in all probability showed the junta the writing on its weakened wall. For long Tatmadaw-friendly, China also maintains close links with several groups in the Wa, Shan and Rakhine regions, among others, to safeguard its strategic interests and economic interests that range from trading and mineral concessions, to protecting a near 800-km hydrocarbon pipeline that cuts across Myanmar, from the Bay of Bengal to southwestern China.
The other significant presence in the neighbourhood, India, has largely thrown in its lot with Myanmar’s military leadership. Some Indian foreign policy experts – retired senior diplomats who remain in the establishment – have gone as far as to say that Tatmadaw is the “only player” capable of providing solutions for Myanmar’s “distress” that goes beyond sustaining ethnic conflicts to the equally implosive domain of a sliding economy, tanking currency, and rising poverty and unemployment.
India’s hawkish reading is that the so-called National Unity Government that has taken on Myanmar’s junta, and the myriad ethnic groups to that country’s north, northwest, northeast and east are unlikely to aid in safeguarding India’s interests. These include transhipment and trade, energy security, and securing its far-eastern borders against both anti-India rebels and China. The doves in this policy domain are still fledglings.
Bangladesh’s tango with the Tatmadaw retains this neighbourhood overhang. There are whispers of strategic sweet-somethings into Myanmar’s ears, such as some Bangladeshi policy dons suggesting in the past days that Bangladesh remains an interested party, for instance, in the on-again, off-again Thailand-Myanmar-India roadways knit.
The outcome of the repatriation experiment will indicate if this diplomatic dance receives repeated encores or ends with a stubbing of Bangladesh’s freshly painted toes.
This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune.