China pursues national interest with Myanmar and Rohingya repatriation takes back seat


In 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Ri­ghts in Myan­mar, Yanghee Lee, appealed to Aung San Suu Kyi to “open your eyes, listen, feel with your heart, and please use your moral authority before it is too late.” Prof. Lee was referring to a newly published report by the UN on the risk to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya still remaining in Myanmar, who were described as being at “serious risk of genocide.”

Since then a lot of water has flown down from the rivers in Myanmar into the Bay of Bengal. The world has watched the evolving scenario with great interest- particularly because of the evolving judicial paradigm in the International Court of Justice in The Hague. There has also been careful international scrutiny and monitoring in Geneva and New York in the corridors of the United Nations.

In this context one is reminded also of former UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s recently released memoirs, in which he recalls his meeting in London in October 2013 with Myanmar’s leader Suu Kyi. When Cameron told her “the world is watching,” her only response was “they are not really Burmese. They are Bangladeshis,” thus repeating the racist accusation that the Rohingya are illegal interlopers from Bangladesh and do not belong in Myanmar. 

It would be important at this point to note that the world knows that Suu Kyi’s civilian government has little authority over matters of security, and is unable to order the Myanmar military to halt further operations or alter the way in which they are conducted in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. It is nevertheless acknowledged by everyone that Suu Kyi holds power over the political discourse in the country and certain aspects of international relations. However, Suu Kyi has continuously opted to use her government’s power to support the military campaign against the Rohingya, block international efforts to investigate and document events on the ground. Instead their support has always been for the Buddhist-nationalist narratives used to justify the removal of the Rohingya from the country of their birth.

It was against such a background that Bangladesh watched with great care the recent two-day state visit of Chinese President Xi Jingping to Myanmar. Analysts realized that this visit would be much more than symbolic. It would set the course of the future bilateral relations between the two countries and also define Myanmar's geo-economic future.

This was the Chinese leader's first foray abroad in 2020 and the first visit by a Chinese president in almost two decades, since Chinese President Jiang Zemin's historic visit in 2001. It also reflected the significance Beijing places on its relations with its southern neighbor.

The pre-trip briefing to journalists and diplomats in Beijing given by Vice-Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui stressed the importance of the country's bilateral relations with Myanmar, and said that the two countries would seek closer economic and trade cooperation through Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and also suggested political issues, including the problems in Rakhine would form part of the visit's bilateral dialogue.

This led the world in general and ASEAN and Bangladesh in particular to wait and watch what might eventually appear in the Joint Statement that would be issued on 18 January from Nay Pyi Taw on the conclusion of the visit. This monitoring brought forth several expected denotations and connotations.

Leaders of both these countries signed 33 agreements shoring up key projects that are part of Beijing’s flagship Belt and Road initiative (BRI).

They agreed to hasten implementation of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, a giant infrastructure scheme worth billions of dollars, with agreements on railways linking southwestern China to the Indian Ocean, a deep-sea port in conflict-riven Rakhine state, a special economic zone on the border, and a new city project in the commercial capital of Yangon. Completion of the projects will mean faster and more reliable delivery of crucial energy supplies to China from the Middle East and Africa while increasing Chinese infrastructure and investment opportunities. For Myanmar there will be development and jobs.

China has been Myanmar’s main finance and trade partner and provider of weapons during decades of junta rule and Western sanctions until 2010, when political and economic reforms to spur development were announced. Investment from Japan, the United States and South Korea, among others, began pouring in and Beijing’s influence waned. At that juncture came the clampdown in Rakhine, a backlash from the West, and a fresh resurgence in ties. With China now Myanmar’s biggest investor and trading partner and source of tourists, and high-level visits of officials increasingly common, the friendship on show during Xi’s visit bodes well for closer relations between the two countries.

Myanmar’s embracing of the BRI in 2018 was a significant contributor to better ties. That year, the two sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding to jointly build the corridor. Chinese media has also been suggesting that with closer ties and promised development has emerged the possibility of settling Myanmar’s ethnic disputes to ensure stability, improving cross-border transport links and through its membership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, boosting regional relations. By moving closer, there will be mutual benefit through greater development and prosperity. Once the US$1.3 billion Kyaukphyu port is complete on the Bay of Bengal, it will also give Beijing another link to oil supplies from the Middle East. Kyaukphyu is at one end of a massive oil and natural gas pipeline network that runs to Kunming in China’s southwest Yunnan province.

The Joint Statement issued on the conclusion of the visit drew attention to the Chinese President’s meetings with Myanmar President U Win Myint and bilateral talks with State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi pertaining to the promotion of comprehensive strategic cooperation based on the aims of mutual benefits and equality. However, it did not contain any reference to the meeting held with General Min Aung Hlaing the Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces.

It was also indicated that both sides had agreed to step up the “Belt and Road” cooperation, push the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) to transit from concept sketching into concrete development, and endeavor to promote the three pillars of the CMEC, namely the Kyauk Phyu Special Economic Zone, Myanmar-China Border Economic Cooperation Zones, and new urban development of Yangon City as well as framework infrastructure projects of connectivity such as roads, railways, electric power and energy. It was also clarified that they will not only deepen cooperation in - economy and trade, agriculture, forestry, industrial capacity, investment and finance for the benefit of both peoples but also in the safeguarding of legitimate rights and interests, as well as national dignity, on the international stage.

It was also clarified that both countries had agreed to continue to enhance coordination and cooperation in regional and multilateral fora such as the United Nations, China- ASEAN cooperation and Lancang-Mekong cooperation platforms. There was obviously a connotative reference within this paradigm- particularly with the on-going efforts aimed at repatriating to Myanmar the more than one million Rohingyas who have sought sanctuary in Bangladesh after fleeing rape, arson and murder inside their homeland- the Rakhine State in Myanmar.

The Joint Statement mentioned very carefully that the Chinese side supports the efforts of Myanmar to address the humanitarian situation and to promote peace, stability and development for” all communities in Rakhine State”. Myanmar also reiterated its commitment to receive “verified displaced persons” based on the bilateral agreement reached between Myanmar and Bangladesh. The Chinese side reaffirmed its willingness to provide further support, “within its capacity, to Myanmar in the repatriation process and resettlement of the displaced person from Rakhine State”. Myanmar thanked China for its understanding of the “complexity of the issue” and for all its support to Myanmar. It was however not clarified what actually took place in the discussion between the two sides behind closed doors.

The hint, nevertheless, from the language was that this problem is still in square one. There is also a subtle indication that the views expressed by the International Court of Justice at The Hague might not draw clear subsequent support from China within the portals of the United Nations, either in Geneva or in New York. This also re-affirmed that for Myanmar's diplomats, the Rakhine issue, especially the recent ICJ proceedings, has left the country with no alternative but to turn to their Asian partners. Their efforts have paid dividends this time round.

In the meantime, just ahead of the ruling by the International Court of Justice, the so-called "Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE)" set up by the Myanmar authorities released the results of its probe on whether to impose urgent measures to stop alleged ongoing genocide in Myanmar. The commission was established in June 2018 to investigate allegations of human rights abuses during the 2017 crackdown. It conceded that some security personnel had used disproportionate force and committed war crimes and serious human rights violations, including the "killing of innocent villagers and destruction of their homes". However, according to ICOE the crimes did not constitute genocide. The ICOE Panel which included two local and two international members, Filipino diplomat Rosario Manalo and former Japanese ambassador to the UN Kenzo Oshima. According to them, there was “ insufficient evidence to argue, much less conclude, that the crimes committed were undertaken with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." It would however be pertinent to mention here that the UN Fact-finding Mission on Myanmar, which had been denied entry to the country, concluded last year that the panel was not an "effective independent investigations mechanism." 

From this point of view, Professor Fan Hongwei’s comment assumes particular importance-China’s support of Myanmar’s stance on the Rohingya issue will be crucial for Suu Kyi before a general election in November, 2020 as the West withdraws or imposes sanctions on that country following the ruling of the ICJ or any decision undertaken by the International Criminal Court or the UN General Assembly or the UN Security Council.


Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance