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Enough! High Time to Put an End to Rohingya Crisis

Shariful Islam

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The world has witnessed a renewed genocide in Rakhine State over the Rohingya minorities. Such atrocities were also manifested in October last year which was also termed as the ‘ethnic cleansing’ by the UN official. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Rohingyas have been forcedly displaced by the state-sponsored violence.

Against this backdrop, around 1,30,000 Rohingyas fled into Bangladesh amid escalating violence.  This massive Rohingya entrance in Bangladesh has raised security concerns for the country.

Reportedly, Bangladesh has been hosting nearly half a million documented and undocumented Rohingyas since 1991 and has not deported any Rohingya refugee. Large-scale infiltration of Rohingyas into Bangladesh is observed in five phases: during 1978, 1991-92, 2012, 2016, and in 2017.

Myanmar government claims that Rohingyas are the illegal migrants from Bangladesh which the latter vehemently denies and argues that they should be repatriated. In fact, many Rohingyas say that their ancestors had lived in Myanmar for generations. Some ( Choudhury 2006; Kipgen 2013) claim that Rohingyas have lived in Myanmar for centuries and they are the descendants of Muslim Arabs, Moors, Persians, Turks, Mughals and Bengalis who came mostly as traders, warriors and saints through overland and sea-route. On contrary, Bangladesh disowns the Rohingyas on the legitimate grounds and has therefore denied them the refugee status since 1992. Although Bangladesh is not a signatory of 1951 Refugee Convention, the country hosts half a million Rohingyas in the country considering the humanitarian aspect of the problem and also the prospect of repatriation of the refugees to Myanmar. But the role of the UNHCR and international community regarding the repatriation is highly negligible. Instead of developing country, if Bangladesh would be a developed one, the response regarding the repatriation would be quite different. In fact, power-politics still guides the international politics and policy.

Rohingya refugees are found in different parts of Bangladesh. In his scholarly work, Ehsanul Haque contends that “The massive flow of them continues to pose major problems of food, health, accommodation, employment, access to land and business opportunities. The worst result is that all these problems in turn, jeopardise the public order and national security in Bangladesh” (Haque 2016:113). From the media reports, it can be claimed that Rohingyas are involved in different kinds of organized crimes including smuggling, arms and drugs trafficking, human trafficking. In addition, there is serious allegation that Rohingya refugees are fanning Islamist militancy in Bangladesh. They are also involved in passport forgery cases in Bangladesh which is a serious criminal offence.

Against the plight of the Rohingyas, the pertinent question is what can be done to resolve the crisis? In different times, Myanmar operationalized atrocities over Rohingyas in the Rakhine State. In fact, the world did very little to resolve the longstanding man-made humanitarian crisis. The role of the international community is also negligible to pressurize Myanmar government to resolve the Rohingya issue. In addition, the role of the UNHCR and IOM needs to be looked at very critically. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees did little to resolve the Rohingya crisis which merits serious attention.

The role of the international media and international human rights organizations also need to be looked at critically to this particular issue. In fact, the gross violation of human rights of the Rohingyas in Rakhine state received very negligible coverage throughout global media. I often wonder that if the same level of atrocities would occur in the United States or in the Europe, would the global media or the international human rights organizations or even the international community respond on the same pace?

Power-knowledge nexus is also manifested in this Rohingya issue. The volume of scholarship in this issue is very poor. This issue also becomes marginal in the agenda setting whether in media or in the academia which should not be the case.

There is also international politics over this issue. Human Rights Watch, for instance, thinks that “Bangladesh Should Accept, Protect Rohingya Refugees” and open her border for Rohingya refugees. International community also thinks that Bangladesh should let them in. It raises question that first of all, it’s not legal obligation for Bangladesh since she is neither a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention nor its 1967 Protocol. Secondly, why Bangladesh? Why not Europe, India, China, Australia, Saudia Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Indonesia or the United States where there is ample space and opportunities? Thus, a coordinated approach from the international community is needed to resolve the longstanding Rohingya crisis.

Unfortunately, there is also politics over the Rohingya issue among our political parties who often prioritize their regime interest instead of national interest. For the sake of humanitarian grounds, long-term negative implications for Bangladesh are left out which merits serious attention. Thus, for the greater interests of Bangladesh, Rohingya issue should not be used as a political means by the political regimes in Bangladesh to uphold their narrowly defined regime interest.

It is time to recognize that Rohingya issue has created serious problems in Bangladesh in national security dimension considering the growing involvement of Rohingyas in different criminal activities in the country. The international community needs to acknowledge that Bangladesh has already done a lot in the Rohingya issue. Now it’s the turn for the Myanamr government and the international community to resolve the crisis. The role of China and India becomes important to resolve the crisis. In addition, the role of ASEAN to resolve the crisis becomes critical. It must intervene to stop the genocide over the Rohingya minorities.

Most importantly, Myanmar needs to stop genocide over Rohingyas from a more democratic and humanitarian ground. In fact, historical evidence candidly suggests that Rohingyas are the descendants of Muslim traders who have been in Myanmar for more than one hundred years. Thus, it raises question that why these Rohingyas will be subject to discrimination, torture and chauvinism by the Buddhist majority there?  Why the plight of the Rohingyas will not be heard, and resolved by the international community? In fact, coming in this 21st century, such genocide is quite unexpected and hence, unacceptable.

Thus, Myanmar needs to stop denying the basic rights of the Rohingyas for the sake of humanity and greater interests of Myanmar. In fact, due to the Myanmar’s transition to democracy, along with the world, Bangladesh also expected that there will be qualitative shift in Myanmar’s policy to resolve the longstanding Rohingya crisis. But unfortunately it did not happen. Resolving the contentious Rohingya issue is a must to explore and harness the untapped potentials in Bangladesh-Myanmar relations. From Bangladesh side, a strong, and united stance is expected with regard to dealing with Rohingya issue. Bangladesh needs to use friendship with India and China to pressurize Myanmar government to resolve the issue. Finally, the international community needs to wake up and act to resolve the crisis at the earliest at least for the sake of humanity or it will be too late.

The writer is an Assistant Professor in International Relations, University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh. His works appeared in India Quarterly, Journal of Bangladesh Studies, Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Journal of South Asian Studies. Mr. Islam has authored a number of book chapters. He can be reached at shariful_ruir[at]ru.ac.bd

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Southeast Asia

Will Mahathir Reset China-Malaysia Trade Relations?

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A shock electoral upset has just returned 92-year-old Dr Mahathir Mohamad to the prime ministerial chair in Malaysia. The run-up to this climax was muddled by a miasma of fake news, lurid allegations and outright conspiracy theories from eitherside of the political divide. China-baiting was inevitably drawn into this tawdry mix despite mainland investments being a stabilizing main stay of the local economy.

According to an Economic Intelligence Unit report last year, Malaysia was the fourth-largest recipient of mainland Chinese direct investments – right behind Singapore, United States and the autonomous Chinese province of Hong Kong. Although the sum total of Chinese investments in Malaysia has not been adequately tallied,the US$100 billion Forest City project provides a snapshot of the staggering amounts being invested into the local economy.

While former Prime Minister Najib Razak hailed these investments as an imprimatur ofhis government’s investor-friendly policies, the opposition camp (and new government) accused him of “selling out to China”. In reality, one doubts whether foreign consortiums canmatch the scale, cost-effectiveness and speed of execution of many Chinese-led projects in Malaysia.

Business Compradors

Dr Mahathir has particularly taken issue with the inadequate number of local jobs created by Chinese investments in Malaysia. It is an argument not without merit.Overseas Chinese infrastructure projects are known for their heavy reliance on mainland labour, machines and supplies – of the lock, stock and barrel variety – tokeep costs, graft and middlemen interference to the lowest possible scale.

Curiously, the backbone of Dr Mahathir’s electoral tsunami came from the ethnic Malaysian Chinese community who openly hailedthe global ascent of China. That was until theydiscovered thatmainland business models accommodated as few middlemen as possible.It was Alibaba on a massive scale, missing 40 thieves and in perennial need of 40innovators.

Many Malaysian consumerssave thousands of ringgit each year by purchasing a variety of consumer products directly from China instead of forking out a hefty mark-upat local stores.Unsurprisingly, there are now growing calls to tax online purchases from China. This is not going to help budget-strapped Malaysians who voted in the new administration on the back of complaints over rising living costs. Malaysia’s shadow economy has been estimated by various studies to range between 30 percent and 47 percent of its GDPup till 2010.

The anti-China narrative therefore may be couched in terms of multifaceted grievances like jobs and the South China Sea but it primarily boils downtoincentives for middlemen who contribute little or nothing in terms of value-additions to projects, productsor services offered by mainland companies. These modern-day compradors have an ally in another area bereft of value – added or otherwise.

Media Compradors

The biggest impediment to the Malaysian economy is not China, its business modus operandi or the lack of local talent. It is the Malaysian media which has abjectly failed to relay grassroots ideas and innovations to national policy-makers for decades.

The author himself vividly remembers the lament of Dr Mahathir’s former national science advisor on the dearth of science journalists in Malaysia. This translates to recurring losses in taxpayer money.There is an oft-told account of how a fact-findingdelegation to the United States, seeking particular expertise in renewable energy technology,were told that the expert they were looking for was a Malaysian academic back in Kuala Lumpur!

Researchers needing critical economic or scientific data on Malaysia are likely to get them from foreign sources as even google cannot cope with the bottomless insipidity and juvenile meanderingsof the local media. Publicity-seeking experts with dodgy backgrounds are routinely sought for their banal insights and quotes in return for guaranteed filler spaces in a lack lustre media.Malaysia is gradually losing its economic and intellectual competitiveness due to the entrenched practise of mediocrity promoting mediocrity – egged on by Western interests.This forms the main backdrop to the current anti-China narrative.

Local media stalwarts privately blame politicians, in particular Dr Mahathir himself (during his previous 22-year reign) for the lack of media vigour and freedom in Malaysia. While media restrictions undeniably exist, one wonders how proposed articles on topics such as Open Governance could be seen assubversive.

It is high time to drain the swamp in Malaysia. Dr Mahathir has already indicated that the bloated 1.6 million-strong civil service in Malaysia would be pruned to promote economic and government transparency. For decades, successive governments had rewarded personal loyalty with plush posts and contracts. Malaysians now have another chance to demand efficient, meritocratic and transparent governance. Not mass-mediated bogeymen, viral passions and pies-in-the-skies.

The billion-dollar question now is whether the new administration will be able tousher in a transparent and vibrant media – one that can explore greater synergies within and abroad.Otherwise, Malaysia’s relations with its neighbours and trading partners are bound to deteriorate, along with its economy.

An abridged version of this article was published by CCTV’s Panview on May 14, 2018

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Changing dynamics of China-India and China-Japan ties

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Over the past year, there has been a growing interest with regard to the vision of a Free and Fair ‘Indo-Pacific’. While this term has been used in recent years by policy makers from the US and Australia and has been pushed forward by a number of strategic analysts, a number of developments since last year have resulted in this narrative gaining some sort of traction.

US President Donald Trump during his visit to South East Asia and East Asia in November 2017, used this term on more than one occasion, much to the discomfort of China (which prefers ‘Asia-Pacific). On the eve of his visit to India last year, Former Secretary of State, Richard Tillerson while speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS, Washington DC) spoke about a larger role for India in the Indo-Pacific, and the need for India and US to work jointly. Said Tillerson:

     ‘The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. and India, with our shared goals of peace, security, freedom of navigation, and a free and open architecture, must serve as the Eastern and Western beacons of the Indo-Pacific, as the port and starboard lights between which the region can reach its greatest and best potential’.

In November 2017, the Quad grouping (Australia, US, India and Japan) met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit pitching not just for a rules based order, but also in favour of enhancing connectivity. Commenting on the meeting, US Department of State had said that the discussions were important and members of the Quad were:

‘committed to deepening cooperation, which rests on a foundation of shared democratic values and principles.”

Earlier too the four countries had coalesced together, but as a consequence of Chinese pressure, the grouping could not last.

There have also been discussions of coming up with connectivity projects. While this was discussed during Australian PM, Malcolm Turnbull’s meeting with Donald Trump in February 2018. In April 2018, representatives of Japan, US and India met in New Delhi and committed themselves

Indo-Pacific and China factor 

While members of the Quad continuously denied, that the Indo-pacific was specifically targeted at China, it would be naïve to believe, that this assertion. In fact, during a visit to Australia, French President Macron who is trying to position himself as one of the frontline protagonists of liberalism in the Western world, spoke about the need for India,  Australia and France to work together in order to ensure a rules based order.  Commenting on the need for India, France and Australia to jointly work for a rules based order, and checking hegemony (alluding to China), the French President, Emmanuel Macron, stated:

   ‘What’s important is to preserve rules-based development in the region… and to preserve necessary balances in the region….It’s important with this new context not to have any hegemony,”

Changing dynamics of China-India and China-Japan ties

While it is good to talk about a rules based order, and Free-Fair Indo-Pacific, it is important for members to do a rational appraisal, of ensuring that the Indo-Pacific narrative remains relevant . especially in the context of two important events. First, the reset taking place between India-China, and second the thaw between Japan-China.

This has already resulted in some very interesting developments.

First, Australia was kept out of Malabar exercises in June (Japan, US and India will be participating).  Australia is a member of the Quad alliance, and has been one of the vocal protagonists of a Free and Fair Indo Pacific Narrative, and a greater role for India in the Indo-Pacific.  Australia has on more than one occasion, expressed its desire to participate in the Malabar Exercises.

Many argue, that the decision to exclude Australia from the exercises, is a consequence of the significant shift taking place in India-China relations. Though India has been dismissive of this argument,

Second, Japan has expressed its openness to participate in the (Belt and Road Initiative) BRI,  as long as international norms are met. During meetings between the Chinese and Japanese Foreign Ministers (Wang Yi, in April 2018, such a possibility was discussed. During Wang Yi’s meeting with Japanese PM, Shinzo Abe too this possibility was discussed. The Japanese PM who is seeking to improve ties with China, reiterated the potential of the Belt and Road Initiative in giving a boost to the regional economy.

It would be pertinent to point out, that a number of Japanese companies are already participating in countries which are part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Interestingly,  Japanese led Asian Development Bank ADB which has been funding many projects (spearheaded by Japan) which have been projected as a component of the Indo-Pacific strategy has even gone to the extent of stating, that it does not perceive AIIB as a threat. Commenting on the possibility of cooperation between ADB and AIIB, President of ADB, Takehiko Nakao  stated:

“AIIB, it’s not the kind of threat to us. We can cooperate with AIIB because we need larger investment in Asia and we can collaborate.”

Where does Indo-Pacific go from here?

In terms of strategic issues, especially ensuring that China is not unfettered influence in the region, the narrative is relevant. The Chinese approach towards Indo-Pacific and Quad as being mere froth is an exaggeration. Addressing a press conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress, Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi had stated, that there was:

‘no shortage of headline grabbing ideas” but they were “like the foam on the sea” that “gets attention but will soon dissipate”,

Similarly, in terms of promoting Democratic values it certainly makes sense. The real problem is in terms of connectivity projects (beyond India-Japan, none of the members of the Quad have elaborated a coherent vision for connectivity). The US has spoken about an Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, but given the Trump Administration’s approach, it remains to be seen to what extent this can be taken further. While Australia has been steadfast in its opposition to China’s growing economic clout, it has its limitations, in terms of funding any concrete connectivity projects. Possible regions where Australia could play a key role should be identified. It has been argued, that Australia could play a key role in important infrastructural projects in the South Pacific.

Conclusion

It is fine to speak in terms of certain common values, but to assume that China can be the only glue, is a bit of a stretch, especially given the fact that it has strong economic ties with key countries pushing ahead the Indo-Pacific vision. It is also important, for the Indo-pacific to come up with a cohesive connectivity plan. Currently, the narrative seems to be driven excessively by strong bilateral relationships, and the individual vision of leaders. In the ever evolving geo-political and economic dynamics in Asia, with China re-examining its relations with both Japan and China, the key stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region need to do some serious thinking.

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Southeast Asia

Infrastructure Drive, Strong Domestic Demand to Sustain Philippine Growth

MD Staff

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The Philippines’ economic growth is expected to sustain its quick pace in 2018 and 2019 as the government’s infrastructure program is rolled out, says a new Asian Development Bank (ADB) report.

In its new Asian Development Outlook (ADO) 2018, ADB projects Philippine gross domestic product (GDP) growth at 6.8% this year and 6.9% in 2019, up from 6.7% in 2017. Rising domestic demand, remittances, and employment, in addition to infrastructure spending, will drive growth. ADO is ADB’s flagship annual economic publication.

“Along with domestic demand, the government’s infrastructure investments will fuel the country’s growth in the next few years, supported by a sound economic policy setting,” said Kelly Bird, ADB Country Director for the Philippines. “We expect this growth to further lift wage employment numbers, add to household incomes, and benefit more poor families across the archipelago.”

The Philippines remained one of the strongest growing economies in Southeast Asia in 2017. Domestic investment recorded 9% growth last year, moderating from a brisk 23.7% in 2016, although growth in fixed investment in industrial machinery, transport equipment, and public construction remained robust. Household consumption grew by 5.8% in 2017, from 7% in 2016, on the back of higher remittances and employment, with the unemployment rate falling by 1.3 percentage points to 5.3% in January 2018 as 2.4 million jobs were added. Public spending rose by 7.3% last year from 8.4% in 2016.

Consumer price inflation reached 3.2% last year from 1.8% in 2016 due to strong economic growth, higher international fuel prices, and Philippine peso depreciation, but well within the 2% to 4% target by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas—the country’s central bank. The country’s external debt further declined to 23.3% of GDP in 2017, from 24.5% of GDP in 2016.

Moving forward, ADB projects services will continue to drive GDP growth, along with manufacturing and construction industries. The approval of the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion law in December 2017 will augment tax revenues and provide additional fiscal space for more progressive public spending. The policy reforms are expected to yield additional 90 billion to 144 billion Philippine pesos ($1.73 billion to $2.76 billion) in tax revenue collection in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

With economic growth gaining momentum, inflation is projected to reach 4% in 2018 as global oil and food prices rise, and higher excise taxes on some commodities take effect. In 2019, meanwhile, inflation is expected to marginally decline to 3.9%.

The report notes there are external risks to the Philippines’ growth outlook from heightened volatility in international financial markets and uncertainty about global trade openness, although the country’s strong external payments position would cushion these effects.

A major policy challenge to the country’s growth outlook, according to the report, is managing the rollout of the government’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program, which is expected to raise public infrastructure spending to 7.3% of GDP by 2022 from 4.5% in 2016. The report provides suggestions on ways to enhance government capacity, including strengthening coordination between government agencies and improving technical capacity of staff within these agencies, and fostering stronger partnerships between government agencies, the private sector, and development partners.

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