February 11, 2020

When the Rohingya issue takes a back seat

Dhaka Tribune 

Muhammad Zamir

Photo: Reuters
For China, the crisis in Rakhine state isn’t a big issue

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.”

Professor 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 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.

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 Jinping to Myanmar. 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 the 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 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.

The joint statement issued on the conclusion of the visit clarified that both countries had agreed to continue to enhance coordination and cooperation in regional and multilateral fora such as the UN, 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 million Rohingya 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. It was, however, not clarified what actually took place in the discussion between the two sides behind closed doors.

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 UN, 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 around.

In the meantime, just ahead of the ruling by the ICJ, 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 the alleged ongoing genocide in Myanmar.

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, crimes did not constitute genocide. The ICOE panel 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 ICC, the UN General Assembly, or the UN Security Council.

In the meantime, efforts towards an in-depth discussion on this issue have already been thwarted most unfortunately, in the UN Security Council.

Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. He can be reached at <

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