Myanmar crisis and its impact on Bangladesh’s politics

Myanmar crisis and its impact on Bangladesh’s politics

Afsan Chowdhury,
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at Rohingya refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar

Unlike Myanmar where the politics is fairly one sided, Bangladesh has two parties slugging it out. The current PM Sk. Hasina belongs to the Awami League while the Opposition is the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, BNP which handled the Rohingya crisis in 1978 and 1992. AL is facing it for the first time in 2017.

In 1978, the refugees returned home who were still Myanmar citizens but in 1982 Rohingyas lost that identity and in 1992 it was easier to push them out. Though many returned in the mid 90s, many did not. In this phase, few Middle Eastern countries supported insurgency groups. However, these groups later disbanded as they usually do in Rakhine zone which may mean there is lack of institutionalized support though the cause exists.

The current deluge has coincided with global attention and scrutiny of international bodies. Bangladesh reportedly had considered shutting the borders to the refugees initially which would have been a near impossible task anyway and ultimately the gates were kept open. This decision though difficult imaged Sk. Hasina as the ‘humanitarian’ while her Myanmar counterpart, Suu Kyi has been obviously demonized as ‘henchwoman’ of the killer Myanmar army.

This has already paid international dividends to Sk. Hasina who has the world’s ears when she spoke at the UN recently and achieved an international status she never had before. It translated into popularity and energy of her party workers and people. Some have even insisted publicly that she be given a Nobel prize. Since Suu Kyi the ‘killer’ has one so she the ‘saviour’ deserves one.

For the moment, matters are very fluid and the focus is on international diplomacy and not refugee management. Her words that if she could feed 180 million people, she could feed another million went down well globally. Thus, Myanmar’s lady has harvested all the bad press, her Bangladeshi counterpart has benefited most from her callousness and perhaps helplessness as well.

Hasina, ARSA and playing in the big league

While Bangladesh is not backed by any super power several are pushing Sk. Hasina to go heavy against ARSA, the alleged Rohingya armed insurgency group. Many including the Myanmar government blames ARSA for the latest round of violence and refugee influx. A recent article published in the Asian Times sort of appealed to Sk. Hasina to crush ARSA and save a panicky ASEAN from jihadis.

While Hasina did mention ARSA while visiting the Cox’s bazaar camp, she has not mentioned it after that. She seems to be focusing on the bigger players and issue rather than ARSA which doesn’t worry Sk. Hasina much given her enviable record in counter-terrorism in Bangladesh. India, Russia and the ASEAN group are taking the ARSA threat line along with Myanmar.

In this melee, India has come out looking a bit less as its ‘support Myanmar’ strategy didn’t get it extra mileage there compared to its arch foe, China. Bangladesh popular opinion has felt badly let down by India and politically Sk. Hasina may prefer a touch of distance with India now which suits her fine.

This may make India slightly nervous as it’s the only country through which there is an existing transit to its troubled North East minus Doklam. Plus, Bangladesh has also not sheltered any NE rebels after AL came to power. Popular perception is therefore rather anti-Indian and relief supplies for the refugees are not impacting on public opinion. Erasing a pro-Indian image may help Sk. Hasina more.

China is moving in?

This leaves China with some advantage as its too entrenched in Myanmar to be pushed away by either Russia, Myanmar’s most vociferous if not its biggest ally and the hopeful ally, India. China therefore may make a move in the crisis as a mediator. This may give China greater access not just to Bangladesh’s development projects and its loan business but also the general commercial market now largely under Indian control.

Bangladesh’s retail market potential is higher than that of Myanmar and that is why China may seek more entry and by exchange, some sort of a dialogue on the Myanmar issue. Sk. Hasina will benefit from this move which does seem possible given China’s ‘let’s solve the problem mutually’ tone at the Security Council.

And BNP?

The absence of BNP chief Khaleda Zia from the national scene has hurt the party and she has not said or done anything to enhance her personal or party profile. BNP has been prevented from distributing relief and but nobody is paying much attention to that. So, the Rohingya crisis under the AL has not benefitted the BNP whose party structure is weak anyway. With 2018 elections not the man issues right now, party rebuilding has also faltered. But it’s still too early to tell what will happen next.

How the next round is played out may not depend on Bangladesh just as the previous round didn’t. But domestic politics wise, its Sk. Hasina who has come out looking better.