Is China mending the Myanamr-Bangladesh ties and solving Rohingya crisis looking for startegic interest?

Hindustan Times reports that Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang has reiterated Beijing’s offer to mediate between Myanmar and Bangladesh in “improving” their bilateral ties in China’s latest attempt to both project itself as a negotiator in global conflicts and emerge as a key player in India’s neighbourhood.

Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing (right), head of Myanmar’s military council, shakes hands with Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang during their meeting in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, on Tuesday. (AP) 

Qin, who is the highest-ranking Chinese official to meet Myanmar’s top leadership since the military coup over two years ago, also pledged to support the country in “exploring” a development path with “Myanmar characteristics”.

China has maintained close ties with the internationally isolated junta government and refused to condemn the military takeover.

Hailing China-Myanmar ties, visiting foreign minister Qin told the country’s military leader General Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw that Beijing was also ready to “expand” ties among China, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Qin, according to a Chinese foreign ministry statement, told the Junta general: “China supports Myanmar improving its relations with Bangladesh, with related issues to be resolved through consultation, adding that China is willing to work with the two countries to expand China-Myanmar-Bangladesh pragmatic cooperation.”

China has worked with both countries to resolve the Rohingya refugee crisis since it erupted in 2017 partly to keep its own border with Myanmar safe and protect its economic interests across the boundary.

Qin’s latest announcement, however, is bolstered by the role China recently played in bringing about rapprochement between rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Ties between Naypyitaw and Dhaka have been strained since 2017 over the Rohingya refugee crisis with hundreds of thousands from the marginalised ethnic Muslim community fleeing to Bangladesh from Myanmar to escape persecution.

New Delhi has maintained ties with the military junta as well and is part of the recent conversation to repatriate Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar. 

Beijing, however, is using its economic heft to forge closer ties with Myanmar. “China supports Myanmar in advancing its political transition process and backs relevant parties in the country to properly address differences and seek national reconciliation under the constitutional and legal framework,” Qin said.

“The international community should respect Myanmar’s sovereignty and play a constructive role in helping Myanmar achieve peace and reconciliation,” he added, according to the ministry statement.

Referring to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, Qin said: “China will continue to provide assistance within its capacity for the development of Myanmar, accelerate the promotion of key cooperation projects in the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, and carry out projects benefiting the people such as agriculture, education and medical care.” Qin also met Myanmar’s foreign affairs minister, Then Swe, during his visit.

“Myanmar is ready to work with China to safeguard security and stability in the border areas, and to promote the China-Myanmar-Bangladesh economic corridor with China and Bangladesh,” Than Swe told Qin.

The 2021 coup in Myanmar deposed elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, triggering widespread peaceful protests, which were violently suppressed by security forces. Thousands were killed in the crackdown, leaving the country in a volatile situation.

Meanwhile, reports from Yangon said Myanmar’s military regime on Wednesday pardoned 2,153 prisoners jailed for criticising the junta following the coup. “The amnesty follows the release of more than 3,000 prisoners last month,” Bloomberg said in a report from Yangon, adding: “The regime has been accused of using increasingly brutal tactics to subdue its opponents as it struggles to curb a reinvigorated civil conflict, which has seen ethnic armed groups and resistance forces take on a military unable to stabilise the country since the coup.”

Questions have also been raised as to why China is suddenly putting so much emphasis on the Rohingya repatriation issue. Bangladesh is moving closer to an embrace of the Indo-Pacific Strategy pursued by the Americans and its partners in the region, which revolves around countering China. This move comes as the US and a few key allies have signalled that Bangladesh should be a part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, according to the brief. Dhaka has friendly ties with the USA, and other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad) including India, and Europe. Beijing now wants to get more confidence and trust from Dhaka countering the USA and China, Japan. South Asian strategic triad is also concern for China. 

The current governments in Bangladesh and India are very close, and New Delhi is likely to have encouraged Dhaka to embrace the strategy, according to the brief by Wilson Centre. Even as Bangladesh embraces the Indo-Pacific Strategy, it is still trying to placate China. Dhaka’s draft Indo-Pacific Outlook stipulates that it seeks to avoid rivalries and has no security goals.

The country may be thinking that international pressure on Myanmar’s military government will ease once the repatriation begins. Besides, Beijing also thinks that some acceptance of the junta government may be created. At the UN General Assembly session in September 2019, a tripartite mechanism was formulated by Bangladesh, Myanmar and China for the repatriation of Rohingya living in Bangladesh. But repatriation has not been possible so far due to the security situation in Rakhine State. China started the first round of trilateral meetings in 2018 and held a virtual trilateral meeting on January 20, 2021. In that discussion, it was decided that the repatriation will begin by June 2021. But it hasn’t started yet.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui attended a virtual meeting between Myanmar and Bangladesh on January 19, 2022 to discuss the repatriation of Rohingya Muslims. After discussions, all parties agreed to begin repatriation. China is making earnest efforts to resolve the underlying issues of the crisis and improve the situation there. Due to China’s influence over Myanmar, China can play an important role in resolving this dispute.

The stability of Rakhine State is crucial to protect China’s interests in Myanmar. The infrastructure China has built in Rakhine State will have a major impact on the region’s economic growth. Human resources are required to manage all these facilities. If these Rohingyas and Rakhines are given opportunities to acquire various benefits and skills, they will be useful to the Chinese. A stable Rakhine will also attract tourists and the region’s tourism industry will grow. Rakhine and Rohingya can also work in that sector. It will deal with the unemployment problem of that state. As the economy improves, the level of ethnic hatred will gradually decrease and harmony will be easier to achieve. The Rakhine region is essential for China’s military plans as well as ensuring its presence in the Indian Ocean.

The Western world has not put much pressure on resolving the Rohingya crisis and repatriating them to Myanmar. They are talking about various decisions including economic sanctions. But the reality is that their words have only served as ‘lip service’, they have no practical application. We have always said that China’s role and cooperation in solving the Rohingya crisis is very important. If China is proactive, this crisis can be resolved quickly. Bangladesh government should take the initiative of tripartite agreement with China as well as Myanmar. Finally, the government has started walking on that path. This is very positive and is gradually paving the way to solving the crisis. Myanmar has a multidimensional historical relationship with China. China has been providing extensive cooperation in the country’s agriculture, industry and trade. Despite Myanmar’s internal conflict and civil war, economic ties between the two countries are expanding.

Myanmar may want to convince the ICJ with the international community that they are taking steps to improve the situation. According to legal experts, the initiative to start repatriation has the potential to brighten Myanmar’s image.

However, ongoing talks on Rohingya repatriation mediated by China are very positive. Thanks to China for coming forward in this regard. Needless to say, China is Myanmar’s closest friend. While the whole world is against Myanmar, China is increasing its influence over Myanmar. Their friendship is bound by strong bonds. Therefore, China can play the most influential role in solving the Rohingya crisis. It has been proven that no matter how many threats the Western world, including the United States and the United Nations, make to Myanmar regarding the repatriation of the Rohingya, it will not help. China is Bangladesh’s top trade and development partner. Besides, Bangladesh and China have close political and military relations.

If the Rohingya issue is to be resolved, it must be done in Myanmar. And only China can convince Myanmar to do that. As part of that, China has begun to make a major contribution to the repatriation of the Rohingya. We believe that China’s role in this regard will serve as a model for future efforts to advance world peace. Rohingya repatriation has repeatedly failed due to the blatant apathy of the Myanmar government and neglect of the international community. We hope that in the future, when it comes to finding a long-term solution to the biggest refugee crisis in history, we can remember China’s contribution.

In a nutshell, the repatriation plan will reduce Bangladesh’s burden at least to some extent. The pilot project will also increase Bangladesh-Myanmar engagement. The World community should not go against it; instead, they should come forward and engage effectively to ensure the rapid repatriation of the rest of the refugees. The NGOs and Advocacy networks should also scale up their activity rather than reacting compulsively.

Myanmar and Bangladesh really trying to mend their ties. Bangladesh’s Independence and National Day’ was celebrated with great enthusiasm and enthusiasm at the Bangladesh Consulate at Sitte in Myanmar. A grand reception was organized at Sittwe on Sunday evening to mark the day. The Rakhine State Government Ministers along with the Chief Minister of Rakhine participated in this event organized in spite of the ongoing civil war and deteriorating law and order situation in Myanmar.

 According to pro Myanmar government newspaper, Global New Light Of Myanmar, a dinner party marking the successful export of high-quality rice to Bangladesh was held in Nay Pyi Taw yesterday (April 05, 2023) The event was attended by Union Ministers Dr Kan Zaw, U Maung Maung Ohn, U Hla Moe and U Aung Naing Oo, Deputy Ministers U Kyaw Myo Htut, Daw Than Than Lin, Dr Aung Gyi and U Nyunt Aung, permanent secretaries, chairpersons of the Myanmar Rice Federation, Myanmar Rice Miller Association, Myanmar Rice and Paddy Traders Association, vice-chairpersons, executive members, entrepreneurs and invitees.

After mortars landed on Bangladesh’s soil as the Myanmar military attacked the Arakan Army (AA) in Rakhine State in last year, soldiers from Bangladesh and Myanmar’s junta met to mend ties. The north-western Rakhine region in Myanmar, which borders Bangladesh, has seen a number of airspace violations over the past few months as border guards there have fought local militants. Yet high-level military personnel from the Bangladesh’s Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) and Myanmar Border Guard Police (BGP) met at a major refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar on October 30.

Dhaka based Newage newspaper wrote, Myanmar army are seeking warm relations with Bangladesh Army. A few days earlier, Lt Gen Phone Myat, from Myanmar’s Command Bureau of Special Operation, met Bangladesh Army Chief Gen SM Shafiuddin Ahmed at the Army Headquarters in Dhaka on October 26.

On the other hand, Dhaka Tribune writes, a  Rohingya delegation will visit Rakhine State of Myanmar as part of confidence-building measures to encourage Rohingya repatriation.

The 20-member Rohingya team, along with Bangladeshi officials, is scheduled to visit the western Myanmar state on Friday to monitor whether a supportive environment has been created for repatriation.

Depending on their opinion, preparations are underway to send back more than 1,100 Rohingyas in the first phase. If all goes well, they will be sent back quickly.

On April 18, Bangladesh and Myanmar met in Kunming in cooperation with China to implement this pilot project on Rohingya repatriation. Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen held a meeting with high-ranking officials from Myanmar and China. The meeting discussed the initiation of the pilot project for pre-monsoon repatriation.

Apart from this, last March, diplomats from 11 countries, including the ambassador of Bangladesh, were shown various structures made for Rohingyas in Rakhine State.

Wishing anonymity, an official said that the Rohingyas must be given the confidence to return. For that, they will visit Rakhine State to experience the situation on the ground. 

A week after the Rohingyas’ visit, a delegation from Myanmar will come to Cox’s Bazar to meet with them. He also said that the initiative to repatriate the Rohingyas was taken twice through the mediation of China. Despite all the preparations, it was not possible due to the unwillingness of the Rohingyas.  From that experience, the relevant authorities are proceeding with extreme caution.

International pressure

Myanmar will have to submit the Rohingya genocide case papers to the International Court of Justice on May 24. Before that there is an urge on their part to start the repatriation of Rohingya.

According to a source in this regard, Bangladesh wanted to know the Rohingya repatriation plan during the meeting in Kunming, China. There are still differences of opinion on some issues. Apart from this, the repatriation of another 6,000 Rohingyas this year has also been discussed.

When asked about the differences, the official said that according to the agreement, 300 per day and five days a week are to be repatriated. But Myanmar wants to take in 30 per day due to their lack of preparation. He said that there will be a meeting again in December to decide on the current repatriation initiative and the possible repatriation of 6,000 Rohingyas.

Recently, Bangladesh and Myanmar have launched a bilateral pilot project to repatriate the Rohingya. Myanmar has dedicated 15 villages to repatriating Rohingya refugees from Cox’s Bazar. Initially, Myanmar will take 1000 Rohingya. A Myanmar delegation has already visited the camps in Cox’s Bazar. But the initiative is facing harsh criticism from INGOs and NGOs such as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Human Rights Watch (HRW). NGOs are against such initiatives citing the situation in Myanmar.

Pilot Project

The bilateral pilot project is initiated by Bangladesh and Myanmar. The initiative is largely backed by China. The country has become active recently to mitigate the dispute between Bangladesh and Myanmar over the Rohingya crisis. The United Nations (UN) is also partly backing the initiative. Recently, a leaked document revealed that the Myanmar government used UN boats authorized by UN Country Coordinator for Myanmar.

Under the pilot project, Myanmar will take 1000 refugees initially. If the initiative sustains, more will follow and return to their ancestral home. Recently, a delegation from Myanmar visited Cox’s Bazar for verification and to prepare lists of returnees. At this moment, a list is being prepared.

Can Bangladesh Ignore Junta?

For more than two years now, Junta is administering the state of Myanmar. The international community and the great powers did little to pressurize the Junta to repatriate the Rohingya. Prior to Junta, the international community also failed to convince the democratic government to repatriate the Rohingya and bring the perpetrators to justice.

At this moment, Junta is formally in power, even though it faces a serious legitimacy crisis and resistance at home. But it is the only formal authority in Myanmar.

Bangladesh has been facing a refugee crisis for six years now. It has tried bilaterally, trilaterally, and multilaterally for the past six years for a viable solution. It has left no stone unturned, yet found nothing. Now as China is brokering the deal with approval from the UN, Bangladesh eagerly wants to explore the initiative as something is better than nothing. Moreover, Bangladesh cannot remain indifferent to the Junta question. Owing to bilateral political, economic, connectivity, and economic issues, Bangladesh has to engage with the authority of Myanmar- that is Junta currently. 

We now have a new hope for solving the Rohingya crisis. Myanmar has suddenly taken the initiative to take back the Rohingyas. Diplomats from eight countries stationed in Yangon have flown to Rakhine as part of this initiative. Diplomats of Bangladesh, India and China were also there. Myanmar itself wants to take back more than 1000 Rohingya from Bangladesh. In November 2017, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement to take back the Rohingyas. The agreement came within three months of the Rohingya fleeing Rakhine. Beijing was also behind that agreement. But in the last six years, there has been no progress in the repatriation of Rohingyas. In 2018, the two countries failed to ensure repatriation within the stipulated time.

Attempts were made again in 2019 but ultimately nothing happened. In February 2021, the country’s military junta overthrew the democratic government and seized power. Talks on Rohingya repatriation have virtually stalled since that incident.

Then on March 10, ambassadors of eight countries including Bangladesh, India and China visited Rakhine. These diplomats were taken there to show preparations for repatriation. Discussions have been going on since 2020 to repatriate a small number of Rohingya. At that time, China joined the repatriation talks. China has been putting pressure on Myanmar over this issue for the past few months. While not delving into the Rohingya issue, ASEAN, an alliance of Southeast Asian nations, is also pressing Myanmar to begin repatriation. As part of this, 11 diplomats from 8 countries were shown around the international camps in Maungdoo and Sittwe, Myanmar.

Three years ago, Beijing brokered talks on family-based repatriation of Rohingya to specific villages in Rakhine. But the Rohingya repatriation process stalled due to the corona epidemic and the seizure of power by the Myanmar army. After a long hiatus, Myanmar is now active in repatriating Rohingyas. However, what is the real purpose of this program and whether repatriation is actually possible, these questions are coming to the fore. The situation in Rakhine is good at the moment. The Arakan Army had fought a fierce battle against the Myanmar military government a few months back. But now the situation is much calmer. In this situation, it is not impossible to start repatriation with thousands of Rohingyas. China is pushing for repatriation before the monsoon season starts in full swing next June. ASEAN also wants repatriation to begin, albeit in small increments.

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