NEW DELHI: Amid worldwide criticism on her government’s policy on the Rohingya crisis, Aung San Suu Kyi turns to China for support and friendship. At the invitation of the Chinese government, the state counsellor visited Beijing this week from Nov 30 to Dec 3.
Though the official purpose of the visit was to take part in a meeting of the Communist Party of China in dialogue with world political parties, Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit is largely seen and construed by many as something else.
Her visit to China is of great interest to the international media and many observers who follow recent developments in Myanmar. Given China’s increased role in the region, and the tough responses of the United Nations (UN) and US government on the Rohingya crisis, China’s approach towards the Rohingya issue is notable.
STRONG TIES WITH CHINA
Although China has been partly responsible for sustaining Myanmar’s military regime which placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for about 15 years, it is the country she has visited most since coming to power in 2016. The latest visit is her third trip to the country in less than two years. She visited China in August last year, and May this year.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s August 2016 visit, her first trip to a foreign country outside of ASEAN, a regional grouping Myanmar is a member of, highlights the priority Myanmar places on its northern neighbour.
Her second visit in May this year, as the foreign minister, was to join government leaders and other heads of states around the world for a gathering of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.
In all three visits, Suu Kyi had a meeting with officials at the highest level in the Chinese government, including Chinese President Xi Jinping.
During their meeting on Friday (Dec 1), President Xi said: “China will maintain its friendly ties with Myanmar as it has in the past, and will see the China-Myanmar relationship from a wider, strategic point of view.” Aung San Suu Kyi similarly said the two countries are committed to forging closer ties.
China’s interests in Myanmar are economic and security in nature. The recently opened pipeline which runs through Myanmar carries oil from the Middle East and the Caucuses to China’s landlocked Yunnan province, thereby allowing it to bypass the Malacca Strait.
The pipeline starts at the Bay of Bengal in Rakhine state in Myanmar, the epicentre of the anti-Rohingya violence. Myanmar is also an important partner of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Moreover, China is a major provider of military hardware to Myanmar, and has supplied more than 90 per cent of Myanmar’s military transport according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Arms Transfers Database.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s latest visit comes just a week after Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s military, held talks with President Xi in Beijing during which President Xi assured him of the Chinese government’s support of Myanmar’s continued development, security and stability.
FROM STAUNCH SUPPORTERS TO STRONG CRITICS
In contrast, the UN and the US have officially described the systematic violence against the Rohingya by the Myanmar security forces as an act of ethnic cleansing, an allegation which the Suu Kyi government and the powerful military establishment firmly deny. They insist that the clearance operations was a proportionate response to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army coordinated attacks on Aug 25.
Yet, widespread reported cases of rape, murder and arson at the hands of Myanmar's military and the Buddhist ultranationalist groups have forced more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee into Bangladesh since late August.
Both the UN and the US were the two staunchest supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy movement previously.
For Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) government, it is a difficult change of circumstances which have resulted in her former friends becoming strong critics.
CHINA’S APPROACH IS OF NOTE
Against this backdrop, the Chinese government’s approach to the Rohingya issue is of note. After meeting the Bangladesh and Myanmar government leaders on Nov 19, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed a three-staged plan to address the Rohingya crisis.
The first stage involves a ceasefire to restore order, stability and peace to the situation. The second stage involves all parties supporting Myanmar and Bangladesh to find an amicable solution on the basis of equality. The third stage calls for the international community to help develop Rakhine state.
The Myanmar government is appreciative of the Chinese plan, partly because it calls for a bilateral solution between Bangladesh and Myanmar, and perhaps partly because the proposal does not mention the Rohingya specifically by name.
A peaceful settlement of the Rohingya crisis is in China’s interests. China would not want the Rohingya crisis to stand in the way of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor, a key component of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Peace and stability is necessary for Beijing to implement its economic projects across Myanmar’s and Bangladesh’s borders.
Beijing also would not want to see the situation get out of control and become a breeding ground for cross-border extremist Islamic terrorism which could potentially have spillover effects on its own Muslim minority population.
It is a positive development that Bangladesh and Myanmar have reached an agreement to repatriate the Rohingya refugees. However, the question is whether the two governments can find a mutually acceptable solution to the Rohingya problem.
There are some foreseeable challenges, including how many of these refugees will be willing to return and if they will be able to produce the necessary documents to prove that they belong in Myanmar, after Myanmar security forces and violent mobs burnt down many Rohingya villages and houses.
The other major challenge is whether Myanmar or the international community can guarantee against a recurrence of violence in Rakhine State; for now, there are no signs of reconciliation between the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims.
Even for those repatriated, will the Myanmar civilian government or the military leadership be willing to grant them citizenship? And most importantly, will authorities be willing to register or recognise them as Rohingya?
While the international community can do its part to help resolve the Rohingya crisis, the real solution lies in the hands of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD government, the Myanmar military leadership, and the Myanmar population who consider the Rohingya Muslims to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Aung San Suu Kyi may have her own strategic calculation for turning toward China but Myanmar cannot afford to ignore the UN and the US’s role in the country’s peace process with its ethnic minorities and its democratic transition.
Dr Nehginpao Kipgen is assistant professor and executive director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the O P Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including Democratisation of Myanmar.