China And India Come Together Against Rohingyas
As international condemnation mounts against Suu Kyi, China and India reach out to her
NEW DELHI: As international condemnation of Myanmar’s purge of Rohingya muslims mounts, two of the country’s neighbours have found common ground in their silence on the crisis.
For a second time within a span of a week, one of Myanmar’s top leaders is making an official trip to Beijing. Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto civilian leader of the country, arrived on Thursday to attend a conference for international political parties hosted by China’s Communist Party.
Meanwhile, in India, the BJP-led central government is pushing ahead with moves to identify and deport Rohingya muslims settled in the country, labelling them “illegal immigrants” and a threat to “national security.” The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, recently visited Myanmar where he praised Suu Kyi’s “leadership” in September this year. The visit came after the crisis in Rakhine escalated in August, with Myanmar’s military being accused of huge high rights violations.
Since August, over 600,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee, as Myanmar’s military carry out a ruthless campaign in the volatile Rakhine province. The army and government maintain that the onslaught is to target militants, but reports from the ground detail gross human rights violations, as stories of rape, plunder and assault have emerged. Entire villages have been torched to the ground, forcing the Rohingya community to flee in large numbers.
The crisis has prompted international condemnation, with the United Nations defining the violence as “ethnic cleansing.” Countries including the United States, United Kingdom, France and Sweden have taken a solid stand on the violence, calling for urgent and immediate action. The Oxford City Council has moved to strip Suu Kyi of the Freedom of the City of Oxford award. The United States is currently contemplating sanctions on Myanmar’s government.
In South Asia, Bangladesh has taken the lead, as a large majority of the 600,000 Rohingya who have fled Myanmar since August have sought shelter in the neighbouring country.
Two countries in the region, however, have stood out in their silence on the Rohingya issue, and their overt support for Suu Kyi -- China and India.
The Chinese Premier, Xi Jinping, even described current Chinese-Myanmar relations as the “best ever.” Beijing’s decision to offer to broker the deal between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the repatriation of the Rohingya is indicative of the Asian giant’s interest to build its sphere of influence in the region -- but on the side of the ruling powers that be.
The repatriation deal that was concluded recently is full of loopholes, as it’s brokered on the back of a 1992-1993 agreement where Myanmar would accept those who could present identity documents issued to the Rohingya by previous governments. Since a majority of Rohingya refugees do not possess such cards, it’s unclear how the repatriation will progress. Additionally, there is concern how the army will respond when the Rohingya are returned to Rakhine.
Myanmar’s willingness to accept Chinese intervention -- in the deal and even in the form of stepped up efforts to extend aid and infrastructure -- is indicative of the country’s own desperation. Although Myanmar got its first civilian government in decades in 2016, at the helm of which sits Suu Kyi -- albeit in an unofficial capacity, the balance of power remained with the military. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won the elections by a landslide, but the military was able to protect its position by reserving 25 percent of the seats in parliament. In recent months, the military has begun to assert its dominance, as is evinced in the violence targeted at the Rohingyas. Myanmar’s military -- facing fresh sanctions from the US that has now stopped contracts with Myanmar’s military in light of the Rohingya crisis -- is keen on relations with China, as it will now need military equipment from other countries.
Suu Kyi seems to be toeing the line, careful not to upset the military. In the process, she has lost international support, going from being a western darling of “democracy” to a political pariah overnight. Her willingness to reach out to China -- a country that many in Myanmar have viewed with skepticism historically -- is located in this context.
“Myanmar values China’s understanding of the Rakhine issue, which is complicated and delicate,” Suu Kyi said recently during a visit by the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, to Myanmar. Suu Kyi, as always, is careful not to use the term “Rohingya” -- as Myanmar maintains that the minority muslim community are “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh and refuse to grant the Rohingya citizenship on this account. The Rohingya, however, have been settled in Myanmar for decades and rightfully consider the country their home.
India, meanwhile, has also taken a stand in opposition to the Rohingya, with the central government in August issuing an order directing state governments to identify and deport “illegal immigrants” -- a term that includes and is directed at the Rohingya. The order was issued despite the escalation of violence in Myanmar.
The Indian government has defended its order in Supreme Court, where two petitioners have challenged the proposed deportation on the basis of their fundamental rights and the international law of non-refoulement. The Indian government said that the deportation is in line with “national interest” as Rohingyas have links to terror groups based in Pakistan and the Islamic State, and have been found engaged in “anti-national” activities. Not a shred of evidence that can substantiate these claims exists.
Prime Minister Modi concluded his first bilateral visit to Myanmar in September, soon after the violence in Rakhine broke out. “We are partners in your concerns over the loss of lives of security forces and innocent people due to the extremist violence in Rakhine State. Be it a large peace process or be it to resolve a specific problem, we hope that all the stakeholders can work together in the direction to find such a solution that will ensure peace, justice, and dignity for all by respecting the unity and territorial integrity of Myanmar,” a statement issued by the Prime Minister at the time reads. The wording -- specifically of “extremist violence in Rakhine state” -- condones the Myanmar government and military’s stand, as the official narrative in Myanmar is that the violence is a response to a targeted attack by militants and extremists on security forces.
Interestingly, while China’s extension of a hand of of friendship to Suu Kyi and Myanmar is rooted in Beijing’s economic and foreign policy ambitions, India’s decision to remain mum on the Rohingya violence is in line with the government’s domestic affairs.
China has recently pumped in a huge amount of money in Myanmar, floating a number of infrastructure projects. It is particularly interested in the Rakhine state, as Beijing is calling for a corridor linking India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and China that would run through Rakhine. A Chinese construction company is scheduled to start building a $7.3 billion deep-sea port next year at Kyaukpyu, a port town in Rakhine. Pipelines from the port will carry oil from Rakhine to southern China.
In India, the decision to deport the Rohingya has little to do with India’s geopolitical interest in the region of Myanmar, and more directly linked with its domestic policy. The right wing BJP government has come to power largely on the mandate of the majority Hindu population of the country, and the deliberate linking of the Rohingya to their Muslim identity and by extension to terrorism in Pakistan is a direct play to the majority Hindu sentiment in the country.
It’s worth noting that the BJP government in 2015 made amendments to the Passport (entry to India) Rules 1950 and the Foreigners Order 1948, thereby making a “certain class of foreigners” -- namely, non-Muslim minorities from Bangladesh and Pakistan, eligible for long term visas.
The Rohingya, in contrast, have been classified as “illegal immigrants’ and ordered to be identified and deported. This despite well-established international law on non-refoulement, that prohibits countries from returning refugees or asylum seekers persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, political or social affiliation or opinion. The government of India has argued that its not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, and hence, is not bound by the law of non-refoulement. However, India remains a signatory of several other UN conventions that have upheld the principle of non refoulement, including the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants that explicitly upholds non refoulement.
While the ruling party in India carries out a deliberate anti-Rohingya campaign and has gone as far as to issue an order that goes against a fundamental component of international law, Beijing is stepping up its presence in Myanmar and extending a warm welcome to Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s military generals. This, while hundreds of thousands of Rohingya muslims languish in refugee camps with no resolution in sight.