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China’s Chance to Rethink its Rohingya Diplomacy
By JOE FREEMAN | AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL > AUGUST 25, 2020
Armed Myanmar Border Guard Police scanned the horizon beyond the rusty bridge to Bangladesh, but months after the crackdown that drove Rohingya women, men and children from their villages in northern Rakhine State, the landscape was eerily quiet.
It was March 2018 and I was on a government-arranged trip for journalists, five months after vicious “clearance operations” forced more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee their homes in terror. Remains of burned-down villages were everywhere, many razed with what appeared to be military precision. Close to where Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh were supposed to return to Myanmar stood new trailer homes displaying stickers of China’s flag.
China is far from being the only country to offer expertise, supplies or funds to Myanmar’s government after the military’s campaign of violence subsided in Rakhine State: the list also includes the United States, United Kingdom, Norway, India, Japan, and Israel. But for a government strident about staying out of the internal affairs of other nations, Beijing’s unusual attempts to play mediator have set it apart from others.
Early on, senior Chinese diplomats announced a three-phase plan aimed at easing tensions; hosted several foreign minister meetings between Myanmar and Bangladesh; reportedly encouraged repatriation with cash incentives for Rohingya refugees; donated trucks to Myanmar to help ferry Rohingya across the border; and tried to facilitate a visit by Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to Myanmar to investigate conditions on the ground – an idea that Myanmar later rejected. China also helped form a tripartite working group with Myanmar and Bangladesh that held informal talks on the sidelines of last year’s United Nations General Assembly.
Three years after the Tatmadaw launched its ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya, on August 25, 2017, what does the Chinese government have to show for its attempts to broker solutions to the crisis? Not much.
Two large-scale repatriation efforts fizzled out almost a year ago. There has not been another significant push to start repatriation since then. Myanmar-based diplomats say Chinese efforts have focused on starting repatriation, instead of first creating suitable conditions for Rohingya who return.
But there is little domestic political will for repatriation in Myanmar, where elections loom and anti-Rohingya sentiment remains strong among many voters. The security situation in Rakhine and neighbouring Chin State has also deteriorated. Rohingya who did not flee to Bangladesh are caught in the middle of violent clashes between the Tatmadaw and the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army. That conflict has killed civilians – including children from Rohingya, Rakhine and Chin families. A government-imposed internet shutdown that lasted for more than a year in several townships in Rakhine and Chin states has meant that many of these atrocities go unreported. This month, Myanmar eased internet restrictions in eight townships, but only allowed limited 2G services.
The plight of the Rohingya people in Bangladesh and Myanmar has also faded from view as COVID-19 dominates headlines and leaves governments with even less empathy than they had before. This was illustrated most vividly in recent months when boats carrying Rohingya refugees were initially pushed away as they tried to land in Malaysia.
However, the pandemic provides a rare opportunity for China to reassess its approach to Rohingya mediation. Beijing will always be an important player in the process, despite the current lull in activity.
“I believe that they [the tripartite working group] will become quite active after COVID,” professor Shahab Enam Khan, an international security expert who teaches at Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka and has been involved in some of the bilateral mediation efforts, told me. “I would give it a chance.”
If China wants to help the Rohingya return, it needs to encourage Myanmar to promote the right conditions in northern Rakhine. Myanmar must guarantee safety, freedom of movement and citizenship rights to Rohingya who want to return. The only way to achieve this is to dismantle the apartheid regime in Rakhine. Beijing could push Myanmar to review its 1982 Citizenship Law, the grossly discriminatory legislation that provides the legal framework for denying Rohingya people their rights, as well as to remove other discriminatory laws, policies, and local regulations, orders and practices affecting the community in Myanmar. The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State appointed by the Myanmar government, and led by the late Mr Kofi Annan, recommended in its final report in August 2017 that the government review the 1982 Citizenship Law, and many human rights groups have made similar calls.