Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Can the Rohingya Crisis Lead to Ideological Realignment in Asian Politics?

Political realists have little concerns for morality as it is manifested in politics.  However human suffering from mass killings of wars and massacres can be, for realists, they are only perceivable as concrete actions to advance certain political interests.  Even the very idea of appealing to outsiders' sympathies toward those suffering incredible pains can be productive if propaganda featuring those episodes of suffering can help generate a sense of unity and motivate people into action (or inaction).  Realists who think this way must be watching with great interest what is unfolding among Muslims living Myanmar.

It is interesting because what is unfolding is quite different depending on who is telling the story.  For much of the Western media (and now, the UN), it is a story of one-sided ethnic cleansing, a state-sponsored massacre of a distinctive Muslim community by the military, with the civilian government quietly complacent.  The interpretation is a clear betrayal of universal values like human rights and basic equality by a Nobel Peace Prize winner who made her name fighting for those very principles.  In the eyes of Westerners, the current situation in Myanmar undermines the very pro-Western image of the newish democratic government.

The end of the West's honeymoon provides enormous chances for non-Western players to once again dominate the foreign relations of the Southeast Asian country.  Given the prevailing narrative of "Rohingya as victims" in the mind of most Westerners reading the news today, as long as the Buddhist majority continue to stick to their own narrative of Rohingya as illegal immigrants seeking to split the country apart, then it is predictable that Myanmar's relationship with the West will continue to worsen with little hope of recovery.  Realists can see how powerful public opinion in the West plays against Myanmar as this point.

Among the non-Western players, China and Russia will inevitably lead the pack.  If the UN demands renewed economic sanctions for Myanmar in the coming months, Myanmar will largely require Russian and Chinese support at the Security Council to defeat the sanctions.  The inevitable wave of divestment of Western firms due to popular pressure at home will only, once again, put Chinese firms in particular in position to monopolize a large chunk of the economy, as it was the case in the junta days.  Competition from Western firms will be minimized and domestic consumers will be worse off.

Yet, given the strategic position of an open Myanmar, non-Western players are likely loathe to simply let Chinese and Russians dominate the economic and political scenes of the country.  Japan and India, in particular, need Myanmar to actively counter what they perceive as the Chinese economic domination plan outlined in the Belt and Road Initiatives, under which Myanmar is an important transit point linking East and South Asia.  A Chinese-dominated Myanmar will hamper any effort to stop China from continuous overland access across all of Asian continent.  

But for Japan and India to maintain contact with Myanmar in the current state requires the kind of pure realism that neither country, as nominal members of the free, democratic world, can casually take up.  Within the Asian continent, both profess to uphold the same "universal" values of human rights and equality espoused by Western government.  For they to continue political relationships with Myanmar will likely in parallel strain ties with the West, much in the same way and for the same reasons as Myanmar itself is drawing the ire of the Western populace and political establishment.

Given the paramount importance of geostrategic competition of China's infrastructure-based grand strategy and an alliance of countries seeking to offset Chinese advances, each country's attitude toward Myanmar may lead to a fundamental realignment of international relations in Asia based on the prevalence of realist principles in each country.  Some, like India, will likely keep in touch with the government side, albeit much more quietly in order to avoid Western criticism.  Others like Malaysia and Indonesia, will increasingly call for open opposition to Myanmar using platforms as ASEAN, in the process chiding those who support Myanmar for their hypocritical stance on human rights.  

Ultimately, the biggest loser in the crisis may be the West itself.  After decades of openly supporting the current civilian government in the name of human rights and democracy, it nows faces a situation that reduce its own credibility, at home and abroad, as staunch supporter of human rights for relative inaction, possibility of further Islamic radicalization fueled by Rohingya suffering, and inability to contain Chinese and Russian advances in Myanmar after they choose to back the government actions.  From the realist perspective, the death of Muslims and Buddhists alike in Myanmar can trigger massive political changes in an increasingly important geostrategic region.  

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