COLOMBO: The notion of “national sovereignty” is acting as a stumbling block in efforts by the UN and the Western powers to find a solution to the Rohingya refugee issue facing Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The 15 member UN Security Council was expected to pass a resolution critical of Myanmar’s military onslaught on the Rohingya Muslims which had led to the flight of 600,000 people to Bangladesh. But the UNSC finally decided to issue only a Joint Statement, apparently to avoid a veto by Russia and China.

In the mildly worded statement, the UNSC urged Myanmar to "ensure no further excessive use of military force", and expressed "grave concern over reports of human rights violations and abuses in Rakhine State".

Britain and France gave up their bid to get the UNSC to pass a resolution because both China and Russia are strongly against foreign interference, especially by the Western powers.

Unlike China, which has deep economic and political interests to protect in Myanmar, and which considers Myanmar to be in its sphere of influence, Russia does not. But Russia has a deep interest in keeping national sovereignties inviolable in the context of the Western powers’ bid to interfere everywhere using concepts like human rights, Right to Protect, and Universal Jurisdiction for alleged crimes against humanity.

Right from the beginning of the Rohingya crisis in late August, China has held the view that the matter should be settled bilaterally between Myanmar and Bangladesh because foreign interference would “only complicate matters.”

Being Myanmar’s traditional friend and armament supplier, China also did not want its hold on Myanmar to be loosened by the entry of outsiders in the guise of peace makers.

China’s stand against foreign interference or involvement accorded with the view of the Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar military (the Tatmadaw), the latter having the final say in all matters in the country.

Strictly adhering to its neutral stand, and unlike other powers, Beijing neither came out with a public endorsement of the military action against the Rohingyas, nor did it express sympathy for the suffering Rohingyas. It left issues to be sorted out by Dhaka and Naypyitaw bilaterally.

The Chinese Special Envoy for Asia, Sun Guoxiang, visited the Bangladeshi and Myanmar capitals following which the Interior Minister of Bangladesh Assaduzzaman Khan visited Naypyitaw to talk to his Myanmar counterpart. They signed a 10-point agreement which included a commitment on the part of Myanmar to take the 600,000 Rohingya refugees back.

But Khan’s visit to Bangladesh failed because the Myanmar government unilaterally issued a press release on the agreement, with paragraph 7 containing the repatriation of Rohingyas deleted!

With Myanmar reneging Bangladesh was left with no alternative but to seek the help of the West, which continued to take an active interest in the issue to checkmate China’s influence in the region.

However, the West has been moving cautiously in order not to annoy China very much. US President Donal Trump needs Chinese Supremo Xi Jinping to help tackle an increasingly belligerent North Korea.

To add to this, the Myanmar regime led by the pro-West Aung San Suu Kyi has to be protected against the pro-China Myanmar military which can take over at anytime and join the Chinese camp.

Understandably, the US State Department has been reluctant to use strong language against Myanmar. Washington is not in sync with the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s description of Myanmar’s anti-Rohingya actions as a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.” The State Department spokesman merely said that something close to ethnic cleansing might be taking place.

There has been talk of the US blocking military supplies to Myanmar and the US Congress is likely to discuss this issue. But US government spokesmen have been soft pedaling the issue by saying that Maynamar has begun addressing the repatriation issue.

Aung San Suu Kyi did visit Rakhine State, her first since the crisis began on August 25. But in Rakhine, Suu Kyi said nothing worthwhile during the visit other than calling upon people to live peacefully together without quarreling.

On the repatriation of the 600,000 in Bangladeshis she said Myanmar would take back only those Rohingyas who could prove with documents that they are from Myanmar. But that is an impractical stipulation in the absence of documentation denied to Rohingyas in Myanmar for decades.

On the UNSC statement, Suu Kyi’s office said that the statement will only hamper bilateral negotiations between Myanmar and Bangladesh which it claimed “have been proceeding smoothly and expeditiously."

It pointed out that the Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali had been invited to come to for talks on November 16 and 17.

Lauding China (and Russia), the Myanmar statement said it appreciated the stand taken by some members of the Security Council (China and Russia) “who upheld the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries.”

Zaw Htay, a spokesman for Suu Kyi, said Myanmar is ready to begin the repatriation process any time, based along the 1992 agreement that covered returns of Rohingya to Myanmar. But he pointed out that Bangladesh had not yet accepted those terms.

Zaw Htay linked the delay by Bangladesh to the money raised so far by the international community to help build gigantic refugee camps for the Rohingya.

"Currently they have got $400 million. They have got international subsidies. We are now afraid they would have another consideration as to repatriation," Htay said insinuating that Bangladesh will delay repatriation to get more aid in the name of refugee rehabilitation. He said this in a front-page article in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper on Wednesday.

In continuation of its efforts to put pressure on Myanmar to toe its line, the West is likely to use the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) of Foreign Ministers to be held in Myanmar on November 20 and 21.

ASEM , which has been in existence since 1996, has 53 members including the US, Russia, China, Japan and India.

Prior to the summit, the Foreign Ministers of Sweden, Germany, Japan and China will be visiting Dhaka for talks with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and will visit the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.

While the Swedish and Japanese will be in Dhaka on November 18, the date of arrival of the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has not be finalized.