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The Rohingya Crisis Making Geopolitical Waves

Sept. 8, 2017 States and non-state entities outside the region are beginning to take a greater interest in Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis. Sign up here for free updates on topics like this.

Xander Snyder: Hi and welcome to the Geopolitical Futures podcast. I’m Xander Snyder and I am joined today by senior analyst Kamran Bokhari. How you doing Kamran?

Kamran Bokhari: I am doing good Xander, how you doing?

XS: Doing great. Today we’re going to be talking about a story that has been receiving a lot of attention recently in the media but has actually been going on for quite a while and that is the situation with Rohingyas in Myanmar.

And the Rohingyas are a minority Muslim ethnic group that reside in the Western state of Myanmar called the Rakhine State. And they’re basically not particularly welcomed by the Myanmar government. There’s some accusations of the Rohingyas committing terrorist acts and then the government has responded by going and basically driving out tens of thousands of Rohyinga from that state and we’re seeing now some ramifications in parts of the world in response to this crisis that we haven’t really seen before. Kamran, what’s going on right now?

KB: Xander from what I’ve been able to make sense of this situation, I see a few things going on. So if there was to be a sequence that we would place, a sequence of events, this latest episode began somewhere around August 25th when an unspecified number of Rohingya militants, if we can call them that, from a specific group attacked security forces, Myanmar security forces.

And then that triggered a massive response from the state and allied militias or vigilante groups as well where in an effort to crack down on these militants, the authorities essentially created a situation where I would say and if we are to believe the reports you know around 100,000 people have been forced to flee from Rakhine State to Bangladesh. The last time I checked, the number was a little under 150,000. It’s difficult to say if they’re that many people who have been pushed into Bangladesh. Mind you that they’re already 400,000 some Rohingya refugees inside Bangladesh.

So that’s the sequence of events and what lead to the flight of these people, these internally displaced well they’re not internally displaced but they’re transnationally displaced people, is that entire villages were reportedly burnt. And there’s apparently some sort of scorched earth policy that’s being pursued by the government, not the first time that we’re hearing about this. But this is sort of what has happened and it is really elicited a strong backlash in the mainstream media especially BBC and other such outlets. But also from a variety of Muslim actors.

XS: And now the Rohingyas have been described by some as stateless people essentially. Why is it that the Burmese government given its diversity of ethnic groups within the country, why have they and why are they still continuing to reject the Rohingyas? Why are neighboring countries generally not opening their borders to the influx of refugees?

KB: So as I understand it, the Rohingya people are, there’s a if you will contested view of where they actually belong geographically and a lot of this is you know also goes back to the way borders were set up in this nation state era in the 20th century especially after the British left this region. So the Rohingya according to the Myanmar government are actually people from Bangladesh, that’s their narrative, who happen to live in Rakhine or who happen to move into Rakhine at some point in time. And they were never really recognized by Myanmar as an indigenous people.

Conversely, the Bangladeshi authorities believe that yes they have some Rohingya who are on their side but because of the attitude of the Myanmar government, a lot of these Rohingya have been forced to come into this area which is creating a social and economic problem for Taka. So in many ways, they’re like a stateless people who are not really considered or at least it’s a contested thing who they really belong to originally, what territory are they indigenously connected to.

XS: Right. For the sake of some context for folks who maybe aren’t as familiar with what’s been going on in Myanmar, it is as I mentioned an ethnically diverse country and it’s a country where the central government for a while has essentially struggled to assert control over all of its states. And this is especially true of its northeastern states on the other side of the country from where the Rakhine province is and from where the Rohingyas are coming from.

And these areas have seen for decades insurgencies often and frequently supported by China because some of the rebel groups in the northeast are ethnically Chinese. And over the last couple of years, we’ve seen some signs that some sort of peace negotiation might be occurring at least as it relates to those northeastern rebel groups might be getting to a point where they can push their own strategy in Southeast Asia for more by promoting peace so that they can construct different infrastructure through Myanmar into the Hunan province in China, that would let them achieve one of their own security imperatives which is bypassing the Straits of Malacca and gaining access to the Indian Ocean.

Before then, it made sense to create some degree of disarray for the Burmese government so that China could assert leverage over these negotiations when they did come. And it looks like China has generally been pushing for some sort of, if not firm agreement, then at least the continuation of negotiations. China really has fewer interests in the Rakhine province and what’s going with Rohingya, is that correct to say Kamran?

KB: I think you’re right. I think that the Chinese interests are more, you know it’s a function of geography. You know they’re more interested in northern part, for at least right now because I think it’s a struggle that the Chinese have to go through to be able to establish a foothold within Myanmar, have that sphere of influence, have that influence over the Myanmar regime. And so, I think that’s where they’re largely active. This is too far south of where the Chinese are operating at present.

However, as you said, ultimately their goal is to use the entire sort of length of Myanmar as sort of like a corridor to gain access to the Indian Ocean from where they are, from their areas that are on their side of their joint border with Myanmar. So this is an issue, the Rohingya are an issue for the Chinese, but to me it seems like it’s not an immediate for them and in many ways the give and take between the Chinese and the Myanmar regimes. It seems to me that this is one where Chinese interest is a function of looking the other way and not really joining the international chorus of condemnation that the Myanmar government is receiving.

So I think that if the Chinese want Myanmar to cooperate with them on other issue areas, than this is where they would have to give. And I think that’s what’s happening if I am reading the situation right.

XS: Yeah there’s a lot of interest from countries that usually wouldn’t be publicly focusing on Myanmar that has come about more recently. So for example while Bangladesh and India and Thailand, countries that all border Myanmar that are right in its neighborhood, they’re all essentially rejecting the influx of Rohingyas or trying to prevent that influx from happening.

But now from farther away, we’re seeing interest from Turkey and even in Chechnya with their leader Ramzan Kadyrov, putting on and supporting really a massive rally from the numbers that we’ve been able to find given the size of Chechnya. I mean I’ve seen some numbers that over 50,000 people were rallied in support of the Rohingya cause and Kadyrov has an institution where he’s going to begin funneling some aid, support to the Rohingyas.

Since this is not really something that we’ve seen before at least not to this degree, Kamran, what do you think Erdogan and Kadyrov are trying to get out of inserting themselves into this issue that is further away from their own home base now?

KB: That is the interesting part in all of this. I mean if we are to look at the geopolitics of the Rohingya crisis, these responses, reactions coming from Turkey, coming from the Chechen authorities lead by Ramzan Kadryov and of course other places, you know have other actors such as Iran, even the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab, the Afghan Taliban, even some Central Asian countries like I think Kazakhstan and Kurdistan. So these are all very unusual as you point out and I think there’s a bit of nuance here that needs to be parsed out.

So far what I’ve been able to detect in the sort of flood of responses, and we just named a few, I mean there are many others, there are protests taking place in a lot of Muslim countries even in the Indian state of Kashmir which is again you know so, although it’s in India but it’s on the other end of India that has really nothing to do with the Rohingya. So, on one level, I mean one can say this is sort of a pan-Muslim, pan-Islamic solidarity because the Rohingya people are Muslims, these are all Muslim actors and therefore it makes sense for them to at least raise their voice or issue a statement or organize a protest so that’s one way of looking at it.

But given the fact that they’re just the volume of these actors is so diverse geographically and just based on who they are, we need to go a bit deeper than just sort of say this is pan-Islamic pan-Muslim solidarity. So from the point of view of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, it’s very clear. He sees himself as sort of a neo caliph of the Islamic world. I mean he romanticizes the Ottoman Empire. He sees himself in the light of the old Sultans of the Ottoman Empire and it makes sense for him to come out and speak out and organize things. Apparently, his wife has travelled to Bangladesh and she’s spearheading some initiative to provide material help to the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. So that makes sense and it’s in keeping with you know the imperatives and objectives of Erdogan and the Turkish government.

When it comes to Ramzan Kadyrov, it gets far more messier because he is not at that stature. He is not an Erdogan, he is a much smaller player. In fact, as you and I were discussing earlier off the record, he is seen as an ally of the Kremlin specifically President Putin. And so, it doesn’t really makes sense for him to mobilize a religious movement if you will for the Rohingya. In fact, his own government has been threatened by radical Islamists and Jihadists over the years. His father was assassinated by them and therefore it doesn’t really make sense for him to do this unless you look at it from, you do an empathetic analysis.

He needs to be seen as more than just a Putin lackey, that’s the perception that many people have of him internationally and in his own home country of Chechnya. So, for him I mean this is not the only thing that he’s doing on this sort of religious level. He’s positioned himself as the defender of the faith. There’s been a lot of reported, if you will, crackdown on homosexuals in Chechnya spearheaded by Kadyrov’s police force. And he has been promoting religion, we wrote about it a few months ago in one of our reality checks.

So, for him to come out and it’s a low-cost thing to try and position himself as much more than just a pro-Kremlin government. He’s establishing his own regime as very much, not just from a Caucasus point of view, the geopolitics of Caucasus in terms of this sort of pan-Muslim solidarity. He’s going beyond that and he’s saying I am much bigger player than, he’s trying to at least project that. I am much bigger player than you think of me and that’s sort of his incentive.

But he has to be careful. If he miscalculates and he takes this sort of trend of using religion too far, then it’s only going to work to the advantage of radical Islamists and so I think he’s well aware of that. But this is a gamble that he’s engaged in. So, I think so that’s what’s happening with these two set of actors. There are others, we can talk about them.

XS: Do you think that given the risk that Kadyrov and also Putin, there’s a large Muslim population in Russia and Putin’s certainly aware of the risk of militant Jihadism spreading in Russia. Do you think that Kadyrov is attempting to maybe gain control of what could otherwise be a divisive political landscape in Chechnya in order to kind of get a better handle on the movement himself so that he can be in control and actually kind of stamp down what some of what otherwise challenge him or does that not seem like his play here?

KB: That’s very much his play here. That is what he’s trying to do. He knows that Chechens have become a deeply religious society. He also knows that transnational Islamist tendencies, those currents run through his country and so he’s trying to control them. He’s trying to reign them in and his play is, his strategy is, you know his goal is to own this space. As opposed to cracking down and opposing it, he’s trying to own this space.  He’s positioning himself as quote un quote the commander of the faithful. And therefore, he is establishing himself as the pol, if you will, of all things religious when it comes to Chechnya and beyond.

And in this way, he hopes he can negate the perception that he is a puppet of Moscow and he can essentially counter any rival tendencies especially the Jihadists. I mean he has to be wary of that. There’s a very large contingent of Chechen Jihadists that operate outside the Caucasus. There’s a large Chechen contingent of ISIS that is based within Syria. In fact the military chief until very recently of ISIS was a Chechen. So that is not lost on him and I think that is a driving factor for him trying to own this, become the leader of all things Muslim. And of course, when Chechens are, if the plight of the Rohingya is resonating with Chechens then he has to do something about it.

XS: So far we’ve been talking about state actors, Turkey, Chechnya, that are sort of far away and taking an interest in this ongoing crisis in and around Myanmar. But you also mentioned or at least hinted at non-state actors, these trans-nationalists. So first off, maybe you can provide like a very quick definition of what you mean by trans-nationalists, what groups you are referring to when you say this? And what are their interests in Myanmar?

We saw a bomb go off in Bangladesh a couple of days ago earlier this week. It doesn’t seem to be related to the Rohingya refugee crisis. But it seems like there’s some elements that at least kind of make one’s eyebrows raise when you see something like that happening so close by.  So how do the trans-nationalists play into this Kamran?

KB: So, they’re a variety of trans-national Islamic actors. Some of them are, many of them are Jihadist groups but they vary. So let’s start with those who are trans-national but geographically in far more closer proximity to Myanmar. So the first stop is Bangladesh. Bangladesh has a very diverse, very significant radical Islamist sector in the country. It starts from the Islamist party known as Jamaat-e-Islami which has a very extensive network throughout society. It’s a political party, it has a significant civil society presence. It captures something around 5 percent of the vote of that country. It’s aligned with the opposition party called the Bangladesh National Party. It runs you know financial entities, banks and it runs you know educational institutions. So there’s that infrastructure.

Then there’s the infrastructure of those who overtly engage in violence. Although Jamatt-e-Islami’s cadre has been known to engage in violence, but then there are groups that are armed groups, that are insurrectionist Islamists. They are the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, there is Ansarullah Bangla. ISIS has a presence there. They’re a significant number of Bangladeshis who are part of al-Qaeda in the Indian sub-continent which is an trans-national entity.

Now all of these entities, there’s some fluidity in this space so these are not neat categories and groups that are separated with firewalls from each other, that’s not the case. But nonetheless, this space if we can call it a radical Islamist space, it looks at this Rohingya thing and says this is something that we need to jump on and exploit to the fullest extent possible. And they are going to you know from Jamatt-e-Islami provide humanitarian relief through its various outfits to the Rohingya refugees, to ISIS and al-Qaeda trying to recruit from these people who have been displaced and who have suffered the loss of you know family members and exploit their grievances. That’s sort of one trans-national response to the Rohingya.

You keep moving further away from this region, you have groups you know like al-Shabab which has issued a statement, you know the Afghan Taliban. Now the Afghan Taliban are not necessarily trans-national because their ambitions are confined to the Afghan state, the nation state of Afghanistan. But nonetheless, they need to respond because as an Islamist actor that has trans-national relationships, they just can’t remain silent on it, it makes them look bad. Especially when they’re competing with ISIS and ISIS is invading their turf and giving a run for their money. And so, they have to respond.

al-Shabab is in Somalia. It is so disconnected from this area where the Rohingya are and the wider Jihadist space. But they’re a regional player. They’re trans-national because they’re not just in Somalia. They spill over into Kenya and Tanzania and the wider Horn of Africa region and they have relations in that area. Nonetheless, you know they mobilize and they use the plight of the Rohingya and say here’s another reason why you join al-Shabab because Muslims are being persecuted not just in our country and in our region but all over the world.

And then you can go all the way from there to groups like ISIS. ISIS which claims to have a caliphate although that caliphate is crumbling right now given the territorial losses that ISIS is suffering. ISIS has an imperative to own this and say you know it considers itself as the vanguard of Jihadism and Islamism so it can’t not say anything about it and therefore it’s going to look at this and say let’s exploit it. The question is how much exploitation it can do. Well most likely, it will have to do it through its recruitment. It’s another area and another tool to use to recruit just like other outfits that I’ve mentioned. So, it’ll do that but because it’s focus right now is in Syria and Iraq, I am not sure to what extent they can exploit it beyond rhetoric in terms of actually recruiting people for you know because they were moved by the plight of the Rohingya people.

So that’s the kind of you know trans-national space you know that is or trans-national waves that the Rohingya crisis is creating. Ultimately, the state actors in the Muslim world and the mainstream groups that are also responding and reacting to the crisis and they’re condemning the Myanmar government and trying to show solidarity to the Rohingya people, that works to the advantage of these various radical Islamists because once you create that, you operate on that pan-Muslim, pan-Islamic level. That’s a turf on which radical Islamists and radical Jihadists, they are the ones who know how to use that. That’s a space that they literally own. So anything that comes from mainstream actors benefits these radical entities.

XS: Yeah I think some folks are a little surprised when the discussion of militant Jihadism comes into the fray when talking about Southeast and East Asia but the thing to remember is you know the most populous Muslim country in the world is Indonesia, it’s not in the Middle East. And we’ve been seeing a spread of certain forms of more radical Islamism throughout this area. What happened with the attack in Marawi in the Philippines and the Martial Law instituted by Duterte and coming in and really needing some U.S. assistance to really put down that insurgency.

It’s just one reflection of how these influences spread far beyond the Middle East. So it makes sense then that in a situation where tens or hundreds of thousands of Muslims are basically being pushed out of their homes and they have nowhere to go that these more radical Islamist groups would be seeking a foothold there. And that would let them expand out past the Middle East and begin to challenge what they see to be their adversaries on multiple fronts.

KB: No absolutely and the key thing that these radical groups, the argument that they make when they go out and try to make use of the Rohingya crisis or any other similar crisis in any Muslim country, Muslim-majority country, what they say is that we will be the ones to carry this burden, shoulder this responsibility of caring for the interests of Muslims around the world and in specific countries because the governments can’t be trusted.

And in many ways, the governments that are responding, are responding because they don’t want radical actors to use this to enhance their position in their respective countries in many ways. So for Erdogan it may be an opportunity to exploit but as I mentioned for Ramzan Kadrov and other Muslim state actors, they are responding in large part because they don’t want the radical Islamists to own this crisis.

XS: So if this is a topic that interests you our listeners, we’ve written quite a lot on Southeast Asia and Myanmar specifically as well. We’ve recently done in the last two months, a “Deep Dive” on Southeast Asian geopolitics, sort of how that peninsula sits in our broader model. A couple months back we also did a “Deep Dive” on Myanmar in particular, we’ve done some “Reality Checks” on Myanmar as well, tracking some of the developments with these peace negotiations and the Chinese supported rebel groups in the northeast over the last four months or so, we’ve been following those developments.

We’ve also covered the developments in the Philippines in a fair amount of detail as well because the Philippines actually plays a quite critical role in our model as it sits in a strategic chokepoint that prevents China from getting out into the Pacific. So if you’re interested in that, be sure to check out some of our writings. Kamran, thanks for joining me today and for the interesting conversation.

KB: It’s always a pleasure.


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