Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed his support for Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who has found herself abandoned by her erstwhile European and US supporters over the so-called Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
The conflict is one of the many fronts in the Burma/Myanmar Civil War which has been waged through a series of regional, asymmetric conflicts since 1948. This makes the internal conflict in Myanmar one of the world’s longest running conflicts along with the occupation of Palestine and the crisis in Kashmir. However, unlike Palestine and Kashmir which are comparatively straight forward disputes, the civil conflict in Myanmar is in reality, a series of largely unrelated conflicts stemming from the independence of a country whose borders were the result of a post-colonial map of the region that incorporated a variety of ethno-linguistic and religious groups into a single state.
The Rohingya Conflict involves the Muslim population of Rakhine State, who in spite of settling in Myanmar, are thought to have primarily originated from post-colonial East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. The present phase of the conflict in Rakhine developed when armed Muslim groups clashed with armed Buddhist groups, both of which in turn clashed with the security forces of Myanmar, who arrived in Rakhine in order to attempt and preserve a fragile peace. There have been innocent losses of life on all sides, as well as violent militants from both the Buddhist and Muslim populations who have antagonised the state security forces as well as one another. There is also an added foreign element to the conflict whereby a still unknown number of foreign ‘jihadists’ entered Myanmar to stir up tensions.
Fearing Myanmar’s increasingly intrinsic role in China’s One Belt–One Road which looks to establish a potentially game changing China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, the US jumped at the chance to take the side of the Rohingya in an attempt to weaken central authority of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s politically powerful military government).
However, China’s quiet and assured diplomacy lead to a mutually agreed peace process between Myanmar and Bangladesh. The agreement has solidified an existing ceasefire, while Myanmar and Bangladesh are arranging the orderly and safe repatriation of refugees, many of whom have already been safely resettled. Lastly, China has promised to increase investment in both Myanmar and traditional Indian ally Bangladesh, as a means of staving off future conflicts via the incentive of shared prosperity. Thus far, the only hitch in the plan has been that some Rohingya appear to want to remain in Bangladesh against the wishes of Dhaka. This is something of an irony given that many Rohingya originally fled East Pakistan/Bangladesh for Myanmar. Nevertheless, China is working with both countries to realise a smooth legal normalisation of all refugees and other stateless individuals on the Myanmar/Bangladesh border and thus far the process has been largely successful, while still in its early stages.
While Philippines has nothing to do with the conflict in Myanmar, President Duterte has seized the moment to once again openly align himself with China in front of other ASEAN members and in so doing, sending a clear message to the wider world.
While India remains an ally of Myanmar, it was the Chinese peace process, the first of its kind for Chinese diplomats working on a foreign conflict, that ultimately calmed tensions and set the stage for the future recovery of Rakhine. This was a clear example of the Chinese “win-win” model beating out India’s zero-sum model that offered a great deal of flattery towards the leadership in Myanmar, but few concrete proposals for ending a crisis which at its nadir could have seen the US militarily intervene in the sovereign affairs of an ASEAN member state. Furthermore, while the US and EU unilaterally sided with the Rohingya and India unilaterally ingratiated itself to the government of Myanmar, China, like Russia, were careful to support the territorial and political unity of Myanmar, while showing sensitivity to the losses of life within a complex and long burning conflict. It is the Chinese and Russian style of diplomacy which Duterte has aligned himself with.
Duterte, in openly offering his support to Myanmar’s public head of state, has not only shown that Philippines endorses the dignified, anti-hysterical and productive Chinese model of regional conflict resolution, but he has also sent a wider message to the US that its violent model of so-called “conflict resolution” is not welcome in ASEAN. Finally, Duterte has exposed the fact that many western countries hide behind the devalued buzzword of “human rights” to protract genuine conflicts. Duterte had come under fire from Filipino Liberals and their US and EU political masters for his tough approach to both the drug problem in Philippines as well as the ISIS aligned Maute Group’s insurgency in the Mindanao city of Marawi. In both cases, Duterte was vindicated by a swift end to the Battle of Marawi as well as a largely successful, though still on going, war against drugs and the crime and terrorism associated with drug culture. Thus, by ditching the insincere concept of western “human rights”, Duterte has helped the genuine human rights concerns of ordinary Filipinos who want to live in a society free from drug crime, violence, social rot and terrorism.
China and Russia both lent diplomatic support to the security operations in Myanmar and Philippines. As such, Duterte knows who the true friends of ASEAN are and he has once again articulated this while on Indian soil, thereby telling India once again that ASEAN’s interests are not going to be used as a political football in the ongoing disputes between New Delhi and Beijing.