The Bay of Bengal, which comprises one-third of the world and is relatively young, requires strategic stability more than any other region. This region is the demographic and strategic centre of the 21st century. The Bay of Bengal’s importance is due to its location at the intersection of SAARC, ASEAN, and BIMSTEC. Both South and Southeast Asia will be affected if the region becomes unstable. The main political goals of nations in this area are stability, economic development, and better living standards for their citizens. Any instability or threat to stability will significantly impede these political objectives.
Currently, the geopolitical situation in the Bay of Bengal is increasingly unstable due to the competition between two regional and possibly global powers. China seeks to secure its energy supply by utilizing a pivotal nation like Myanmar, where they invested billions of dollars in energy infrastructure, through which about 14% of China’s energy is transported. India also invested approximately $1 billion in the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project to gain access to its eastern states, which partially uses the Bay of Bengal. The geopolitical rivalry between the Quad (India, US, Australia, and Japan) and China in this region will have a significant impact on socio-economic development projects. Any issues in this region will be transformed into geopolitical problems, slowing down the efforts to find solutions. The Rohingya crisis is an example of this.
Moreover, any security issues in the littoral countries of the Bay of Bengal will have a direct effect on trade and commerce that utilizes the sea routes in this area.
It is important to note that historically, India and China were responsible for 60% of the global GDP, with the calm Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal playing significant roles. Therefore, all littoral governments and regional powers have an interest in maintaining peace and stability in the Bay of Bengal. If unrest persists in the area, Bangladesh will find it difficult to progress into a developed nation. Similarly, instability in the Indian Ocean would hinder the smooth transfer of power from the West to the East.
So, how does the issue of Rohingya repatriation relate to geopolitics? Along with other challenges, this specific issue has been linked to the national and regional geopolitical environment. While the West holds a different position, China and Russia have supported Myanmar in the Rohingya conflict on the global stage, primarily for strategic reasons. At the regional level, both China and India have also backed Myanmar. However, the military junta in Myanmar may alter its stance under pressure from abroad, as it increasingly aligns with China. The dynamics of the issue are different at the local level.
Under the current circumstances, the National Unity Government (NUG) would prefer to handle the Rohingya issue at the Union level. Nevertheless, the internal politics of the Arakan Army (AA) and United League of Arakan (ULA) are not particularly friendly to the return of Rohingyas. Although AA is quite strong and governs 60%-70% of Rakhine (where the Rohingyas will eventually return), China is their main source of support. As a result, AA is not the only factor in the repatriation of Rohingyas. Though we see considerable drama surrounding the repatriation initiative with Chinese mediation, Gen Min Aung Hla does not agree with the Junta’s decision to swallow the Rohingyas back.
China wants to give Bangladesh, who is in charge, the go-ahead. Arguably, it is China who should help Bangladesh find a solution to the Rohingya refugee problem. In the long run, Bangladesh’s inclination towards India may result in pressure being applied to resolve the Rohingya repatriation issue.
How crucial is Rohingya repatriation to maintaining the Bay of Bengal’s peace and stability?
In the tri-border zone between Bangladesh, India and Myanmar, in Bangladesh’s south-eastern region, are found the Rohingya refugees. This has long been a charged location. Numerous separatist/insurgent groups from these three nations are present there.
No government could effectively control them. Some of the factors that contribute to the prevalence of gun culture in this area are the porous border, the difficult terrain, the lack of communication, the population’s hostility toward the governments and lack of economic activity. Amphetamine Type Stimulant (ATS) production has replaced the earlier cash crops of marijuana and poppies as the main source of income for practically all armed groups. However, due to the area’s poor population, there weren’t many opportunities for other forms of employment there.
Some 400,000 of the 1.2 million Rohingya refugees that are currently present here are children and young adults. The majority of them will be adults by 2030.
They will be an easily accessible target group to be drawn into the vortex of the unstable atmosphere if they lack proper education, hope and dreams. The risky aspect is that these kids have endured horrific things in their lives and many of them have witnessed their mothers being abused. Only time will tell what they might become – with trauma still fresh in their brains and hatred burning in their hearts. As a Security Studies student, I frequently refer to this as a “ticking time bomb.”
This will not just be a problem for Bangladesh: it will also have implications for the rest of the world. The Bay of Bengal will become unsafe and expensive for trade and commerce due to non-traditional security issues like the exponential growth of drugs in the region, arms smuggling, human trafficking, boat people and sea piracy, which will have an impact on both regional powers’ strategic objectives. Over time, there would be a stage of desperation where different armed groups would emerge from among the Rohingyas and conduct operations within Myanmar, potentially straining relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar and raising old security issues.
The peace, security and stability of the Bay of Bengal will be in jeopardy in the event of both conventional and non-conventional threats.
In the south-east of Bangladesh, a new dimension is emerging that probably has religious overtones. There are only Christians in the Kuki Chin National Front Army (KNFA). On both the Indian side of the border and in Myanmar, there exist groups with similar ideologies. Muslims make up nearly all of the Rohingya population in the same operational area. If a religious ingredient is added, a new Pandora’s Box will be unlocked. To comment further or make a prediction, though, would be premature.
The immense danger from the situation is in the south-east is abundantly obvious. With the Rohingyas, this will exacerbate the situation for both larger and smaller countries in the Bay of Bengal region and even more impede our efforts to achieve peace, stability economic liberation and better lifestyles for our people. Therefore, the early, dignified, and sustainable repatriation of Rohingyas to their homes will yield benefits that are out of all proportion to the effort made.
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