The Refugee Crisis in Bangladesh and its role in South-East Asian Relations

Over the past few years growing oppression of and violence towards Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar has led to an ever increasing flow of refugees fleeing to the neighboring, and Muslim majority, Bangladesh. However, it is only now that the influx is reaching a fever pitch that the global media is taking a more vested interest.

An early October report cited a daily intake of four-to-five thousand refugees per day, as another ten thousand waited at the border for the right to entry. Plans have been announced to construct refugee camps with the capacity of over 800 thousand, in order to shelter the ever growing displaced population. This, unsurprisingly, will not be cheap: food, clean water, suitable shelters, first aid, and other necessities will be required. The amount of aid requested by UN officials is a sum of $430 million, so one would expect some wealthier nations to donate funds. This then leads to an interesting question: who will donate? And what do they have to gain?

Image courtesy of Mathias Eick, EU/ECHO, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Many would agree that the Southeast Asian region is one of great importance; the region is home to over 35% of global seaborne oil trade, hosts the economically and militarily burgeoning India, and, obviously, the constant military flexing and annexation in the South China Sea by China. Due to the growing strategic importance of the region this crisis may pose an opportunity for some of the larger powers to further assert their dominance by exercising soft power through conciliatory diplomacy.

Indian and Bangladeshi relations remain tense even after the famous Land Boundary Agreement (1971) and India’s assistance in ensuring Bangladesh’s statehood. This is largely due to the incumbent Bangladeshi party, the Awami League (AL), making seemingly endless concessions to New Delhi, which is largely viewed as a way to maintain superiority over their rival the Bangladesh National Party (BNP). This, however, has led many in the public sphere to question the efficacy of these actions, so some critics argue that in order to truly normalize relations India ought to seek to win the hearts and minds of the Bangladeshi people. The needs for funds to help solve this refugee crisis seems like a good start.

Since the mid 1970s China and Bangladesh have maintained an informal and tacit security relationship. China, noting Bangladesh’s close proximity to both India and India’s cooperation with the USSR, ,was more than happy to supply cheap weapons and other military assets along with training, to ensure they had a friend in the neighborhood. This was especially helped by Pakistan (another Chinese ally) acknowledging Bangladesh in 1975. In the past two decades the Chinese have integrated Bangladesh into its ‘string of pearls’ strategy, while also investing in bridges and roads. Furthermore, as the government of Bangladesh has weakened over recent decades, the political and economic implications of Chinese involvement has been heightened. In 2009, President Rahman even commented that China was the key to Bangladesh’s economic development. China may use this ‘opportunity’ as another stepping stone to strengthen ties.

America has had a variable relationship with Bangladesh. Despite seemingly ignoring the state’s creation, after its recognition that the US funded a quarter of the nascent country’s nest egg, providing it with approxomately $500 million. To this day the country remains the third largest recipient of US foreign aid in Asia. However, national interest likely plays a greater role than altruism, as the US is the largest destination for Bangladeshi exports. Not to mention, since the turn of the century the two have been willing to cooperate on the threats of terrorism, specifically Islamic extremism. Notably, during crisis moments that Bangladesh has faced, natural disasters chiefly, the US has arrived to the nation’s aid with both financial and material aid. Therefore this may simply be an expansion of the US’s aim to help Bangladesh through such moments, though there is also the terrorism angle as some fear that the purging of Rohingya Muslims, could lead to radicalization. One may term this interest-based perspective cynical. However, despite the humanitarian tragedy that is presently unfolding in Southeast Asia, great, wealthy powers are unlikely to be galvanised into action without the prospect of political gain.

It seems as though all involved great and regional powers have been eager to get some skin in the game. India has stated that it aims to maintain support for Bangladesh through both political and humanitarian means, and has been providing material aid, as well as encouraging doctors to help with relief efforts. China, on the other hand, has sent an immense amount material aid, though has kept quiet about the actual source of the refugees, as they are supporters of the government in Myanmar. The US has announced via its embassy in Bangladesh that they have contributed $101 million to the Rohingya cause this year alone, with medical consulting from the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC). All three of these major regional players have more than enough motivation to want to become involved in the situation, apart from pure altruism, it is therefore unsurprising to see they all have become involved. The question then becomes which, if any, nation will decide to champion this crisis as theirs to solve. For that would gain the political currency necessary to make a true difference between the nations in Bangladeshi eyes. China seems naturally removed from contention due to its support for Myanmar. Both India and the US could benefit from democratisation in Myanmar, and by pursuing of security strategies to prevent, or simply lower, the possibility of radicalization in the Muslim population. Like much of international politics, nations’ decisions boil down to a cost-benefit analysis, comparing how much needs to be invested and how much will be gained. It will be interesting to see in the coming months how these nations create these nebulous figures.