Conflict Ahead for India, Myanmar: Drowning Bangladesh

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Atlanta – The primary news story out of Myanmar these days is the gradual opening of the nation and its ongoing political reforms. Former political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, is now a member of parliament. Not only is the Nobel laureate no longer under house arrest; she’s been on a tour of Europe. The reasons for this rapid liberalization of a nation, which until recently had been completely controlled by a military dictatorship, are complex. The growing food crisis may factor more heavily into the situation than is generally acknowledged. The need for food can override the fear of guns. Maybe the dictatorship realized this just in time.

No matter what the reasons for the change and no matter what direction the government ultimately takes, there is another source of unrest in Myanmar. This impending conflict will also directly involve India and Bangladesh and is essentially unavoidable. This conflict will be initiated neither by the clash of armies nor ideologies. Rather, this conflict will be initiated by nature. As a by-product of climate change sea levels are slowly rising. The rate at which sea levels are rising varies depending on various assumptions but the overall trend is indisputable. Even the most conservative estimates of rising sea levels indicate that Bangladesh will be underwater by 2050. Other projections put the time as soon as 2025.

What then? What happens to the more than 150 million people of Bangladesh? More importantly, where do they go? If simply moving into India were the answer then Bangladesh likely would not exist in the first place. Moving into Myanmar however, seems even more implausible. Despite the aforementioned political reforms in Myanmar, one area where matters have not improved and may have even worsened is the treatment of the Muslim minority in the mostly Buddhist country. The Muslim minority, mostly of South Asian descent, are the targets of open discrimination and marginalization. According to a report on Reuters News Service, the Rohingya, as they are known, are denied citizenship and are forced to live as refugees within their own nation. Given their treatment, what is the likelihood that Myanmar will welcome millions of more Muslims?

The conflict is not desired, it is inevitable. The previous solution of segregation by religious affiliation cannot continue. More than a 150 million people are going to be displaced at some point over the next thirty years into areas where they are neither wanted nor want to go. Something has to give and it will affect the whole region.

The areas of South Asia and South East Asia are among the world’s most densely populated areas. The scarcity of resources, including such basics as water and food, exhibit great stress upon the entire region. The already omnipresent food insecurity in the area will only get worse as farm land goes underwater. Here is where conflict becomes unavoidable. Food goes beyond political and religious ideology. Survival trumps all else.

This disaster is already underway and will continue in slow motion for decades. That will not make the results any less tragic and may make matters worse by postponing action. None of the countries that will be most affected appear ready to accept even small numbers of refugees. Yet people will have to move because there will be no other choice. It is not at all clear what path will be taken as this uncontrollable population shift occurs among ethnic and religious groups that have been historically at odds. What seems most likely is large numbers confined to the margins, a type of South Asian Palestine. No one can want that alternative. What can be done?

Conflict appears to be unavoidable. This looming problem is too big for individuals to effectively have any real impact. It will require the coordinated efforts of the governments of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, at the very minimum, and must rise above creating another class of refugees within their own lands. There are numerous barriers to addressing this possible catastrophe, and there is no ready solution. Inaction, however, will only make matters worse.

Thankfully this debate must happen in India and can avoid the idiocy of global warming deniers that would prevent discussion of such matters in America. 

Ray Bawarchi
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Ray Bawarchi (b. 1962) is an American author, environmentalist, and columnist. Born in North Carolina, Bawarchi has lived throughout the US. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina and holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Auburn University. His early career in psychology involved working in inpatient psychiatric facilities and correctional institutions. He subsequently practiced in a diverse and extensive private practice in Colorado. At present Bawarchi is a professor of psychology at a large public university.

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