The Rohingya issue is the biggest challenge for Myanmar, jeopardising both its internal situation and external relations. If the US decides to impose sanctions on Myanmar’s military, the country would be pushed towards China, said Yohei Sasakawa, Japan’s special envoy in Myanmar. “India, with her old relationship, should play a more proactive role in Myanmar,” he told journalists this week in Delhi, here to meet senior government functionaries to champion Myanmar’s cause.
The US, he said, was a problem. “The Trump administration is unclear what their approach to Myanmar should be. In fact, the US ambassador has refused to see Aung San Suu Kyi yet.” This is even as the west, which welcomed Suu Kyi earlier, appears to be getting ready to slap sanctions on Myanmar’s army.
China has been trying to get back into its previous pre-eminent role in Myanmar using the peace process with 15 ethnic groups and the Rohingya crisis to play a bigger role. Sasakawa said the China-Myanmar relationship was old and deep but both Myanmar government and military were wary of moving back to a closer relationship with Beijing.
But they may not have a choice if the west turns its back on them. “The Japanese government is supporting the Myanmar government. We would like India to do more. Because of the US attitude, India must step up,” Sasakawa said.
China has been taking a greater interest in the Rohingya issue, he added. “If this happens, there will be security problems for Japan and India.” China is building a foothold in the Rakhine province, with its promise to develop the Kyaukphyu port into a deep-water port at a cost of about $7.3 billion, a very big investment for Myanmar. Sasakawa said there was little coordination between Japan and India on Myanmar, which was surprising given how close the countries have become on the security front.
As for India, it has stepped on the accelerator to complete the trilateral highway that connects India, Myanmar and Thailand. Transport minister Nitin Gadkari recently said, “Next year (2019), by the end of December, we will be in a position to get connectivity… We are giving highest priority to this (trilateral highway project).”
In December, the government announced a $25 million socio-economic development project for the troubled Rakhine province, including building pre-fab houses for returning Rohingya refugees. On January 3, the cabinet decided to “approved an agreement to facilitate border crossing between India and Myanmar on the basis of valid passports and visas”.
Sasakawa said Japan was deeply involved in helping Myanmar work on its peace process — eight groups signed the national ceasefire agreement (NCA) two years ago. “Two more groups are ready to sign the agreement any time now,” he said.
Japan’s role, he said, is to bring the two sides together to the table, and after the reconciliation pact, Japan moves to provide rehabilitation assistance for which $100 million has been earmarked.China too has been involved in the peace process, though it continues to provide assistance to some of the biggest armed groups like the Kachin army. This gives China a unique place in Myanmar, as one who supports the government as well as some of those that oppose the government.
However, since mid-January, the Kachin International Army has been engaged in armed clashes with the Myanmar army, which has put even greater international pressure on Myanmar.