"One man's meat is another man's poison" sounds clichéd, but reflects reality along Bangladesh's southeast border. Dispensing its Cold War "Bamboo Curtain" nametag, Myanmar almost roared, to the delight of a neoliberal world, like another "Tiger" Asian economic powerhouse: inviting investors, shifting the capital (from August 2005) to herald a construction boom-time, and earmarking multiple infrastructural megaprojects. Struggling amid the Great Recession, an eager western world applauded as Myanmar opened windows of long-term opportunities for that crowd. Nobel Laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi's March 2016 victory in the country's most democratic election in one generation seemingly sealed the case of Myanmar's much-awaited transformation. Once in office, though, matters deteriorated: the Rakhine genocide turned off the west, while foreign investors withdrew. Magnifying its hitherto sedate presence with Belt Road Initiative (BRI)-related projects to rescue a dangling country, China won out.
Myanmar's pariah global reputation may play second-fiddle to China's iron-hand management of Myanmar. Happily nestled under General U Ne Win's dictatorship (1962-88), hard-core Communist China permitted cross-border transactions, even promoting the idea of connecting Kunmin (in Yunnan province) with World War II-fabled Mandalay, in central Myanmar. With a BRI green signal in 2013 (when it was also known as the One-Belt-One-Road project, or New Silk Route, echoing the Great Silk Route from thousands of years ago), Myanmar's Chinese friendship turned strategic.
Chinese Premier Le Keqiang's India encirclement policy-approach from 2014 was the dividing line. Translated into building "corridors" between India's neighbours and China, it spawned the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), between the China-built Gwador port on the Arabian Sea, through the highest highway in the world, to Xinjiang province; and China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), among other highly-touted segments.
Dubbed as "higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the ocean, and sweeter than honey," the China-Pakistan friendship paved the way for the $60 billion CPEC project, and inspired the CMEC replication. Le Kequiang also toyed with a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor in 2014, but without stirring interest in partner countries, China signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in November 2018 with Myanmar to extend the Kunmin-Mandalay infrastructures to Sittwe on the Bay of Bengal, with oil pipelines and highways.
Its extension through Rakhine province in Myanmar deepened embedded disgust and discrimination against the Rohingyas (historically the wealthiest group inside Myanmar, because of the same maritime accesses and transactions that the CMEC planners seek). It also produced ethnic cleansing and genocide: infrastructures were preferred to hosting Rohingya ghettos, and forced mid-2017 expulsions into Bangladesh served as some sort of a finale.
China was not the only causal force. India's parallel infrastructural projects from its own Seven Sister States, through Rakhine, and into the Sittwe area, more than sealed the case against the helpless Rohingyas, not to mention burdening Bangladesh. Given the downright hatred of Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar's Buddhists (exacerbated after the Bamiyan Buddha statue destruction by Afghani Taleban in the early 1990s), Rohingya refugees understandably resist returning to Rakhine. Yet again geopolitics trumped humanitarian considerations.
CMEC developments worsened matters on other Myanmar fronts. In one swoop the fledgling democracy installed in 2016 fell, besmirching Suu Kyi's name and global reputation, while forcing western investors to pack up and depart. By 2018, foreign commitments fell by half, from $9.0 billion to $5.6 billion, while Chinese projects almost doubled, from 65 to 113 (Bertil Lintner, "As west retreats, China surges in Myanmar," Asia Times, July 31, 2019). As diplomatic tables shifted from a western orientation to eastern, Myanmar's China debt accounted for almost half of Myanmar's $10 billion debt last year.
Though Myanmar has grumbled about project-specific Chinese heavy-handedness, the emerging pattern of on-site disarray seems to be ironed out politically at the highest level. Behind those political manoeuvres within Myanmar seem to be less political leaders, such as Suu Kyi, than military generals, with Suu Kyi merely sugar-coating one-track minded military decisions. With China's autocratic leadership, this equation has fared better than the democratic equation Pakistan's Imran Khan brought to the table: he managed to get China's support to bail his country out, but the diminished size of that support, counterpart support from Arab countries (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates particularly), and his resort to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expose how matters are not too rosy on the CPEC front. Given the glossier CMEC experiences, apparently the military does make a difference in any BRI analysis, in other words, democracy and BRI funding may not be compatible. For whatever other reasons, the current democratic era might be slipping partly because of that, and indeed, bidding its own sayonara if the developing world prefers economic betterment than political development.
Bangladesh is paying the price of this CMEC dalliance. It is one thing to not just manage 1.1 million refugees from the latest influxes, but also deal with the increasing social resistance they have fostered, the monetary costs of maintaining them, and the inevitable environmental degradation during monsoon rains on some very delicate hills. It is quite another to square this burden off with our largest trading partner, China, when that country is also part perpetrator of these influxes. Indeed, our second largest trading partner, India, also straddles a similar boat on another front, which is another story for another occasion.
Against the most heinous episode to ever visit our shores, Bangladesh is left with only a tight-rope to walk on. Most perplexing from that viewpoint is how Bangladesh's only silver-lining, support from the global community, also stops at the water's edge: there is plenty of moral support and empathy, but no effort to repair ground realities in Myanmar. Rakhine land confiscation for CMEC-type projects under global eyes means no Rohingyas will ever return, a predicament worth noting in this BRI century.
As the morality-reality dilemma unfolds across the rest of the world, the BRI partnership has helped snatch Myanmar back from western allurements into China's fold. The more it stays in that confine, the stronger Myanmar's military presence will become behind policy-making and the longer its influence upon the country. With election due next year, this moment of global democratic distress is unlikely to evaporate in Myanmar (let alone permit any foreseeable return to the swaying democracy we last saw in the 1990s): the military will continue, be strengthened, and exacerbate Bangladesh's plight.
Behind it all will be China's BRI back-up plan. Just as the BRI idea of building infrastructures with Chinese money keeps government-level coordination and management active, among the back-up plans are to (a) introduce Chinese business groups into recipient countries; and (b) promote social-level, non-governmental interactions. Of course, Confucian Institutes have played the most prominent part on this second front, but lest we forget to connect the dots, Chinese tourists, and with them Chinese-controlled tourist-spots in recipient countries, will also be dotting the global map. In Myanmar, such visitors have been climbing at astronomical rates, so much so that Myanmar's eclipse from the west and democratic practices can only become permanent.
Counting costs alone will not help Bangladesh, but there are lessons galore for other countries willing to learn.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.