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China's changed policy on Rohingya refugees

Published : Aug 10, 2019 07:00 IST

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Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of a meeting in Beijing on July 5.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of a meeting in Beijing on July 5.

At a market at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia, Bangladesh.

At a market at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia, Bangladesh.

China, which is now the largest foreign investor for Bangladesh, seems to appreciate the problems that Rohingya refugees pose for the country and is expected to play a mediator’s role between Bangladesh and Myanmar to find a quick and effective solution.

China is understood to have taken a new position on the Rohingya refugees to help settle the impasse between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Instead of internationalising the issue, China said it would try to persuade Myanmar to resolve the crisis through bilateral dialogue. The return of the forcibly displaced people to their homeland would be a solution, China felt.

China’s position was clarified by President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s state visit to Beijing in the first week of July.

Bangladesh is currently hosting an estimated 1.1 million Rohingyas, most of whom fled their homes in Rakhine State after the military launched a brutal offensive against the ethnic minority in August and September 2017. This followed an earlier wave of violence in October 2016, which forced over 80,000 Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s gesture of providing shelter to a million refugees is laudable at a time when most countries are building walls, pushing asylum seekers back at the borders, and deporting them. An estimated 9,00,000 Rohingyas now live in the Kutupalong mega camp, the largest in the world, which is built on a deforested hilly landscape in the Cox’s Bazar area (see “Collage of Rohingya testimonies” at https://frontline.thehindu.com/world-affairs/article10009683.ece/photo/1/ and also “Refugees in limbo”, May 18, 2018). Rakhine had been their home for centuries. President Xi Jinping said there should be a quick solution to the Rohingya crisis so that the displaced people can go back to their homeland. “The two leaders agreed that the Rohingya crisis will have to be solved quickly. It can’t be kept unsolved any more. There’s no difference in opinion,” said the Bangladesh Foreign Secretary after a bilateral meeting between Sheikh Hasina and Xi Jinping.

Sheikh Hasina’s visit was focussed more on the Rohingya issue than on economic priorities over which Bangladesh is closely linked with China. She told the Chinese leaders that the refugees posed challenges for the environment and security, and trafficking was a major problem. She sought Chinese “goodwill” to facilitate the return of the refugees to their homes. The Chinese leaders appreciated Dhaka’s humanitarian response to the crisis and accepted that it was “a big challenge” for Bangladesh.

Xi Jinping said his country would do its best to resolve the problem as both Bangladesh and Myanmar were “close friends” of China. Significantly, the Communist Party of China came up with an assurance that it would contact senior Myanmar leaders to amicably solve the crisis and start the repatriation as soon as possible. The Bangladesh foreign office hoped that China’s influence would lead to a solution to the problem. Though Myanmar signed a bilateral deal with Bangladesh in November 2017, and a tripartite repatriation deal with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)and the U.N. Refugee Agency in June last year, repatriation could not be started as Rohingyas said there was no guarantee of safety, citizenship and other basic rights in Rakhine State, where things had only further deteriorated.

From bad to worse

A U.N. investigator has likened the living conditions of Rohingyas in Myanmar to those of the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. Christopher Sidoti, a member of the U.N. fact-finding mission into crimes against the Rohingya, accused Myanmar’s military of genocide.

“What has happened in the past two years has strengthened the genocidal intent. Villagers are still isolated, and their movement restricted; fishermen can’t go to fish and kids can’t go to school. They need written permission from the authorities to travel any distances, and permission to marry and have children,” said the investigator. The observations came at a time when the U.N. warned that civilians in Rakhine and Chin States might be suffering fresh war crimes and human rights violations as fighting between the military and rebel groups like the Arakan Army had intensified.

Some diplomatic analysts say the latest Chinese position has created new hope for Rohingyas. Sheikh Hasina told the Chinese leaders that their displacement had consequences for peace and stability in the region. She further stressed that the crisis would worsen with the passage of time and, therefore, needed to be resolved quickly.

Understandably, there is a fear in Bangladesh that certain global players may be pursuing a dubious role to aggravate the crisis. Remarkably, Sheikh Hasina recently criticised, rather strongly, a United States lawmaker’s suggestion that Rakhine should be part of Bangladesh. The Prime Minister saw the remark as motivated and undesirable.

Matters are serious in the refugee camps, and security is poor. Many Rohingyas are fleeing the camps to join criminal networks. There have been increased incidents of rape and human and drug trafficking. Rising crime rates have given rise to concerns of social instability, economic issues and other environmental problems.

Drug menace

Obviously, the drug abuse problem is a huge concern at a time when Bangladesh is grappling with the problem of widespread addiction to the yaba , a pink methamphetamine-based pill, which has broken all social barriers. In the first five months of the current year, more than 48 lakh pieces of yaba , mostly produced in Myanmar, have been confiscated by Bangladesh law enforcers.

Over the last few months, scores of boats full of Rohingya refugees have been stopped on their way to the deep sea. Rohingyas are falling victim to human trafficking. Bangladesh Police prevented dozens of Rohingyas, mostly women, from being trafficked out to Malaysia by boat. A report said human-trafficking networks committed crimes against Rohingya civilians at sea and in camps in Malaysia and Thailand.

Sino-Bangladesh ties

Most pro-establishment think tanks in Bangladesh believe that Beijing’s latest position is based on genuine concerns in the context of the growing economic transactions between China and Bangladesh. During her recent visit, Sheikh Hasina urged China to invest in the 100 special economic zones that her government was setting up. The two countries signed nine instruments to boost cooperation in the power, water resources, culture, and tourism sectors and provide 2,500 tonnes of rice for displaced Rohingyas. Sheikh Hasina sought Chinese assistance for implementing Delta Plan 2100, setting up a Climate Adaptation Centre, and mobilising resources to implement the Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration project. She also urged China to expedite the implementation of Dhaka-Chattogram-Cox’s Bazar high-speed train service project.

In 2016, during the Chinese President’s visit to Bangladesh, Dhaka had signed a number of important agreements and MoUs with Beijing to implement scores of projects. Bangladesh has provided preferential visas to Chinese nationals under the umbrella of “on arrival visa” arrangements and expected the gesture to be reciprocated. Dhaka and Beijing also gave importance to the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor, stressing that the initiative would have to be revived together with India. The Chinese premier noted, “We value our relationship with Bangladesh and would like to take it to a higher level... we’ve a strategic partnership and we hope that it’ll be deepened and strengthened further.”

China has emerged as the top investor in Bangladesh in recent years. Besides, there has been a spike in people-to-people contacts and cultural relations. An increasing number of Bangladeshi students are being granted scholarships by Chinese universities.

Pro-establishment think tanks in Bangladesh say that moves to strengthen ties with China will pay off. Their perception is that amid a changing geopolitics that has seen a de facto U.S. withdrawal from South Asia, Sheikh Hasina’s government has managed successfully Bangladesh’s relations with both India, a close friend, and China, an economic success story.

However, the balance is not easy to maintain. Sheikh Hasina is asked in international fora how Bangladesh maintains friendship with both India and China. “In reply, I tell them that there is no problem in maintaining good ties with the two countries,” she has said. “We follow Bangabandhu’s [Sheikh Mujibur Rahman] principles in this regard—we’ve no hostile relations with anybody.”

She also pointed to the peaceful resolution of the decades-old land boundary dispute with India and the complex maritime boundary disputes with India and Myanmar. “It is seen that war takes place across the world on exchanging of enclaves. But the Indian people remained united about Bangladesh, as the Indian Parliament, irrespective of parties and opinions, unanimously passed the land boundary law.... We exchanged enclaves in a festive mood, and it’s a unique example in the world.” Amid hope there is also a fear of disappointment over the bilateral dialogue that might take place following the latest Chinese position.

Repatriation was supposed to have taken place by the end of 2018, but the process never started. Instead of showing remorse for the atrocities committed against an ethnic minority, Myanmar started claiming that Bangladesh’s “intransigent attitude” prolonged the crisis. The two countries had exchanged a series of visits and struck a deal, but not a single Rohingya could be sent back to Myanmar. The reality is that Myanmar has not yet acknowledged that its all-powerful army had committed grave crimes against humanity. With the perpetrator unwilling to accept the responsibility of a grave crime, a way forward becomes truly difficult.

Many observers say that given the gravity of the situation, a fresh bilateral dialogue may be inadequate without an effective intervention from outside. They also feel that a country like China, which has huge stakes in Myanmar, can become the mediator along with India, which too has a big stake, to exert pressure on Myanmar to come to a solution.

It is to be seen whether China, which has been backing Myanmar rather strongly, will play a serious role as a mediator. Unfortunately, no major country has so far exerted any effective pressure on Myanmar apart from condemning its treatment of Rohingyas. They have refrained from directly underlining the failure of Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership. Of late, a number of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members, including Malaysia, are seen taking an interest in the issue.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 16, 2019.)

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