MANTRAYA ANALYSIS#29: 04 OCTOBER 2018
Myanmar versus the Rohingya: The China Factor
Bibhu Prasad Routray
A number of investigative reports have found evidence of Myanmar’s military role in the ethnic cleaning of the Rohingya leading to huge international uproar and censure. In response, Myanmar’s civilian as well as military have closed ranks and sought support of China. Beijing not only has attempted to protect them from international ostracism, but to impose a superficial solution to the crisis. In return, it appears, Beijing has been assured of furthering its economic and strategic interests in Myanmar. Shrewd diplomacy by Myanmar of using China as a trump card has unveiled the specter of Myanmar getting away with the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya; and procrastinating the repatriation of the refugees.
(Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi with Chinese President Xi JinPing in June 2015)
In the past months, reports after reports, some by human rights organisations and others by United States (UN) backed investigators, have pointed at Myanmar military’s direct role in a systemic persecution, brutal massacres, sexual assault, and other unspeakable atrocities on the Rohingya. They have called for pressing charges of genocide against Myanmar’s military leaders. In the name of acting against the insurgent outfit, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the Myanmar military joined forces with the ultra-nationalist Buddhists. Together, not only did they indulge in some of the worst possible human rights violations that drove over 700,000 Rohingya into neighbouring Bangladesh, but also sought to project the violence as one that was inflicted by the victims either on themselves or by the ARSA cadres. Amid international calls for taking the perpetrators to task, Myanmar’s military and the country’s civilian leadership headed by state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi have expressed little remorse and willingness to take corrective actions. Calls for Myanmar to be accountable for such acts have grown louder in Southeast Asia and the world beyond. And yet, the country remains defiant. And the one of the reasons for such defiance could possibly be the support it has managed to generate from its northern neighbour, China.
Will the state of affair change in the near term? With China being used as a trump card by Myanmar, can the UN achieve the twin objectives of repatriating Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh; and also seek accountability for violations and abuse in the Rakhine and punishing the military generals for their direct involvement in the genocide and other acts of complicity? Will shrewd diplomacy triumph over collective conscience? Will the failure to give justice to the Rohingya set a precedence for states to indulge in large scale human rights violations without any fear of accountability? These important set of questions will in a way shape the debate not just on the question of humanitarian intervention in conflict situations, but also on the global order marked by an ascending and assertive China.
The China Card
Aung San Suu Kyi’s high-profile meltdown as an icon of democracy continues to shock the world. However, the important thing to consider here is not just her reneging on the values she once stood for, but the way the ruling elite in Myanmar- the civilian and the military leadership- has closed ranks and played its China card in a display of shrewd diplomacy. This has occurred in the backdrop of heavy criticism of the military leadership responsible for the mayhem and carnage in Rakhine targeting the Rohingya to task. In return for, what appears to be, an assurance to protect Beijing’s economic and strategic interests in Myanmar and the Southeast Asian region, China has willfully turned into a protective shield to keep Naypyidaw safe from international condemnation.
In June 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi undertook her first ever state visit to China. Beijing went out of its way to roll out a red carpet for her. The visit was interpreted as the result of Chinese attempt to unveil a multi-faceted relationship with the civilian leadership as well as the military in Myanmar. Suu Kyi was then trying to find her feet in the country’s politics after adorning the chair of the state counsellor and was still seen as somebody who is in a power struggle with the Myanamr military, the Tatmadaw. Some of Tatmadaw’s pro-West steps had displeased Beijing, which was looking to retain its influence in Myanmar. During Suu Kyi’s visit, the Global Times noted,
“Suu Kyi used to be the most intense critic of the Myanmese junta, and she also raised objections to Chinese investment projects during that time. But since she was elected as a member of the House of Representatives, Suu Kyi has started to recalibrate her policy, stating on many occasions that she expects an improvement in Myanmar-China relations.”
Since that first visit, Suu Kyi and other civilian and military officials have been part of multiple delegations to Beijing, the net objective of which has been to forge very close bilateral relations. In May 2017, she travelled to Beijing for a forum on Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Trade Initiative” (BRI) of which Myanmar is a key part and in November-December 2017 again for a meeting between the Chinese Communist Party and political parties from other nations. A week prior to Suu Kyi’s arrival, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the architect of Myanmar’s scorched-earth military campaign to eject the Rohingya, met China’s president Xi Jinping. In a show of mutual admiration, Xi described Chinese-Myanmar military relations as the “best” ever. During the December 2017 meet with Suu Kyi, Xi was quoted as saying by state news agency Xinhua,
“China will maintain its friendly ties with Myanmar as it has in the past, and will see the China-Myanmar relationship from a wider, strategic point of view. China is willing to work with Myanmar to ensure the development of … relations stay on the correct path.”
In addition to these high-profile visits, a number of other visits by ministers from Myanmar to Beijing and vice versa, with the primary purpose of exchanging notes on the Rohingya issue have taken place. For instance, in June 2018, minister of Myanmar’s State Counsellor Office Kyaw Tint Swe travelled to Beijing to brief Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Myanmar’s plans was to resolve the repatriation of Rohingya issue. While Wang Yi himself visited Myanmar in November 2017, Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) Ding Zhongli visited Myanmar at the invitation of Myanmar’s House of Representatives in September 2018.
It is apparent that Myanmar’s smart diplomacy and China’s strategic objectives in that country have coalesced. The Chinese-led consortium CITIC group is building the Kyauk Pyu deep-water port in Rakhine. China has also invested in a 770 kilometres long and US$2.45 billion worth oil and gas pipeline project that went into operation in April 2017, linking the remote coast of Rakhine to southwest China’s Yunnan province. China is also a major provider of military hardware to Myanmar. According to the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, between 2013-17, China supplied 68 percent of the arms imported by Myanmar. And most recently, on 10 September, both sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the construction of China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. The 1700 kilometre-long corridor of roads and railroads will connect the Chinese city of Kunming with Mandalay, Yangon, and Kyaukpyu. Notwithstanding reports of declining Chinese influence in Asia, Beijing has dug itself deep in that country. And Myanmar’s desperate search for allies to defend itself vis-à-vis the barrage of charges of human rights violations in Rakhine has allowed China to entrench itself further in the erstwhile pariah state.
China’s solution for the Rakhine
On 27 September 2018, China, along with the Philippines and Burundi, voted against the UN Human Rights Council motion to establish the panel which will also look into possible genocide in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine. More than 100 countries were in favour. As has been explained in the previous paragraphs, this gesture by Beijing of guarding Myanmar’s interests, is part of a process that both countries have set in motion since 2015.
China’s position on the Rohingya issue is wrapped with the niceties and ambivalence of diplomatic expressions. Firstly, it holds the view that Rohingya problem is a bilateral issue between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Secondly, it says that Rohingya belong to Myanmar and should be repatriated from Bangladesh to their homeland. And third, it is against “approaches that tend to complicate, worsen, and internationalize the issue.” For instance, one of its press release mentions, China, “as a friendly neighbouring country of Myanmar and Bangladesh”, is willing to continue “setting up platforms for communication and consultations between Myanmar and Bangladesh, and continue providing humanitarian aid for refugees from the Rakhine State to return to their homeland”.
Interestingly, since November 2017, China has authored three plans, all defined as ‘result of discussions and based on consensus between the involved parties’ to end the Rohingya crisis. Each of them has aimed at merely addressing the symptoms of the conflict and speaks of the need to bring peace to the region and repatriation of the Rohingya from Bangladesh, while maintaining a stoic silence on the need to address the roots of the conflict and punish the perpetrators.
On 19 November 2017, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw after a stop in Bangladesh to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, President Htin Kyaw and military chief Min Aung Hlaing. Wang outlined a “three-stage plan” to address the Rohingya crisis.
“The first is to have a ceasefire and to restore order and stability, so the people can stop running away and live in peace. In the second stage, all parties should encourage and support Myanmar and Bangladesh to strengthen exchanges, to find a way to solve this issue through consultation on the basis of equality. The third stage was for the international community to help develop Rakhine”, he said. In addition, Wang promised Chinese help to develop Rakhine, which he described as ‘resource rich’.
Wang’s remarks came just weeks after the Chinese Communist Party endorsed plans for China to carve out a bigger role in world affairs with a more confident foreign policy. A day earlier, on 18 November, speaking in Dhaka in Bangladesh, Wang had said, the crisis was a complex situation that needed a comprehensive solution. Wang’s three-stage proposals were vague, to say the least and appeared to merely further Chinese strategic interests in Rakhine. Neither did not specify the nature of ceasefire, as violence led by ARSA had long stopped and no clashes had been reported since 5 September 2018, nor did he explain the impact economic development of Rakhine could have had on the conflict.
In June 2018, Wang Yi held a round of informal dialogue with Minister for the Office of the State Counsellor U Kyaw Tint Swe of Myanmar and Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmud Ali of Bangladesh. The meeting resulted in a ‘four-point consensus’. The four-points are:
(i) Immediately improve the situation in Rakhine State through stopping violence-repatriation-development; (ii) the priority at this stage is to repatriate refugees to Myanmar from Bangladesh, and take concrete measures to realize the repatriation; (iii) based on the two countries’ wishes, China is willing to provide assistance in resettling them, which includes emergency assistance and reconstruction; (iv) boost cooperation in developing the border areas between Myanmar and Bangladesh, and improve the living standards of locals.
It is clear that these four points were mere reiteration and elaboration of the three-stage proposal of November 2017 and in a way, an admission of the fact that no progress had been achieved in the last eight months.
On 27 September, Wang Yi held another trilateral informal meeting with U Kyaw Tint Swe and Abul Hassan Mahmud Ali at the UN Headquarters in New York. UN Secretary-General António Guterres was present at invitation. This time, a three-point consensus was reached, according to which:
(i) Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed to properly solve the Rakhine issue through friendly consultations; (ii) the Bangladeshi side said it is prepared to repatriate the first group of displaced persons fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine State to Bangladesh, while the Myanmar side said it is prepared to receive them; and (iii) Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed to hold a joint working group meeting as soon as possible so as to work out a roadmap and timetable for the repatriation and achieve the first repatriation as early as possible.
China’s rather innocuous reiteration of the need to repatriate the Rohingya refugees and repeated offer of facilitation of dialogue between Bangladesh and Myanmar, is clearly directed at protecting the civilian and military leaders in Myanmar from international censuring. The Chinese plan of action makes light of the serious charges brought against Myanmar military’s role in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya and further attempts to stop any international intervention in this regard. Rather than charting out a solution to the crisis and preventing a repeat of the same, Beijing’s initiatives merely provides a lip service to the issue of repatriation of the Rohingya from the camps of Bangladesh to what used to be their homes in Rakhine. Notably since the November 2017 iteration of the three-stage plan, not a single Rohingya has been repatriated into Myanmar. Not surprisingly, on 27 September, speaking at the UN, Bangladesh President Sheikh Hasina asked Myanmar to honour a verbal commitment to take back the Rohingya.
The lot of the Rohingya at present appear to be caught between two binaries. While the UN and some of the western countries wish to name and shame Aung San Suu Kyi and possibly prosecute some of the Myanmar military’s generals, Naypyidaw, with the support from China, appears well positioned to resist any such attempt. At the same time, the west, while attempting to ride the moral high horse, is clearly reluctant to bring back the sanctions regime with the fear of pushing Myanmar further into the lap of Beijing. A country like Bangladesh finds itself in a hapless condition, merely having to care for the 700,000 refugees and yet, with little influence over the future developments. And worst of all, the wretched refugees, living in miserable and sub-human conditions, with little hope of ever being able to go home, remain vulnerable to a range of exploitative instrumentalities by extremist as well as organized crime groups.
 “Aung San Suu Kyi becomes first person stripped of honorary Canadian citizenship”, Channel News Asia, 3 October 2018, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/aung-san-suu-kyi-canadian-citizenship-rohingya-10785572. Accessed 3 October 2018.
 “Suu Kyi’s China visit: the wider picture”, Global Times, 1 October 2018, http://www.globaltimes.cn/daily-specials/Suu-Kyi-visits-China/Suu-Kyi-visits-China.html. Accessed 1 October 2018.
 Jane Perlez, “In China, Aung San Suu Kyi Finds a Warm Welcome (and No Talk of Rohingya)”, The New York Times, 30 November 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/30/world/asia/china-myanmar-aid-sanctions.html. Accessed 1 October 2018.
 “China is committed to friendly ties with Myanmar, Xi Jinping tells Aung San Suu Kyi”, South China Morning Post, 1 December 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2122534/china-committed-friendly-ties-myanmar-xi-jinping-tells.
 “China says feels Myanmar ready to take back Rohingyas”, Reuters, 29 June 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-bangladesh/china-says-feels-myanmar-ready-to-take-back-rohingyas-idUSKBN1JP0R4. Accessed on 2 October 2018.
 According to reports Myanmar has sharply reduced the cost of the project from US$7.3 billion to US$ 1.3 billion after concerns it could leave the country heavily indebted. Deputy Finance Minister Set Aung, who was appointed to lead project negotiations, told the “project size has been tremendously scaled down”. Kanupriya Kapoor & Aye Min Thant, “Exclusive: Myanmar scales back Chinese-backed port project due to debt fears – official”, Reuters, 2 August 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-china-port-exclusive/exclusive-myanmar-scales-back-chinese-backed-port-project-due-to-debt-fears-official-idUSKBN1KN106. Accessed 2 October 2018.
 Trends in International Arms Transfers, SIPRI Fact Sheet, March 2018, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2018-03/fssipri_at2017_0.pdf. Accessed 4 October 2018.
 “Setbacks mount for China”, Business Standard, 24 September 2018, https://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ani/setbacks-mount-for-china-118092400381_1.html. Accessed on 2 October 2018.
 Bertil Lintner, “As West recoils, China surges south in Myanmar”, Asia Times, 24 September 2018, http://www.atimes.com/article/as-west-recoils-china-surges-south-in-myanmar/. Accessed 2 October 2018.
 “China Facilitates Informal Meeting at UN to Expedite Refugee Repatriation Process”, Irrawaddy, 1 October 2018, https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/china-facilitates-informal-meeting-un-expedite-refugee-repatriation-process.html. Accessed 2 October 2018.
 “China lays out three-point plan to ease Rohingya crisis”, South China Morning Post, 19 November 2017, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2120607/china-lays-out-three-point-plan-ease-rohingya-crisis. Accessed 1 October 2018.
 “Xi Jinping: ‘Time for China to take centre stage’”, BBC, 18 October 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-41647872. Accessed 4 October 2018.
 Wang Yi said that both Bangladesh and Myanmar are close neighbours and good friends of China and China is willing to play a role in properly resolving this issue between Bangladesh and Myanmar. “As a Chinese saying goes, “the palm of your hand and the back of your hand are both important”, he said. Press Release, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of China,“Wang Yi Introduces China’s Position on Issue of the Rohingya People”, 19 November 2017, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1512593.shtml. Accessed 1 October 2018.
 Press Release, Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “An Important Three-point Consensus Reached at an Informal Meeting Among China, Myanmar and Bangladesh”, 28 September 2019, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1601107.shtml. Accessed 1 October 2018.
 “Bangladesh point finger at Myanmar for Rohingya ‘genocide’”, Times of India, 28 September 2018, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/south-asia/bangladesh-point-finger-at-myanmar-for-rohingya-genocide/articleshow/65992255.cms. Accessed 1 October 2018.
(Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is Director, Mantraya. The author can be contacted at <firstname.lastname@example.org> and <email@example.com>. All Mantraya publications are peer reviewed.)
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