Home Commentary Sanction China for enabling Myanmar’s genocide

Sanction China for enabling Myanmar’s genocide

Since 2016, Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, has been able to murder over 24,000 Rohingya, rape over 18,000, and thereby drive approximately 1.8 million refugees from their homes in Rakhine State with impunity.

Out of 2.5 million globally, only 250,000 Rohingya remain in Myanmar.

During a Dec. 10 presentation at Harvard University, Professor Mohshin Habib, a Bangladeshi economist who teaches at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, provided a number of revelatory statistics on the matter. He has done extensive polling in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.

There are particular threats to overpopulated countries into which the Rohingya have been forced to flee. This includes India and Bangladesh, the latter of which is under severe climate stress as sea levels rise, and the country’s intricate system of rivers and tributaries will be flooded from global warming. A three-foot rise in sea level will submerge approximately 20 percent of the country and displace approximately 30 million Bangladeshis. 

At 0.21 hectares of arable land per capita, Myanmar has more than four times the agricultural land per capita of Bangladesh, which only has .05 hectares per capita. Thus, Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing is a particular affront from a global equity perspective. 

Bangladesh is losing land, and gaining refugees by the hundreds of thousands. Meanwhile, Myanmar is high and dry, and literally forcing people, based solely on their language and religion, into what will soon be the sea.

Rohingya living in a tent at a refugee camp in Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh in October 2017. (shutterstock.com photo)

Only about 250,000 Rohingya remain in Myanmar. Of those, up to 80 percent are detained in internally-displaced person (IDP) camps, Habib said in an email.

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“The Tatmadaw provide security and [manage] these IDP camps”, he wrote. “IDP camps are set up by the government and in [a] few cases, INGOs [international non-governmental organizations] contributed to building the camps and play some role in food rationing.” 

While speaking at Harvard on Dec. 12, Habib unveiled time-stamped satellite imagery that showed the evolution of lush green Rohingya villages that, over the years, were burnt down, bulldozed, and finally used to construct new IDP camps. Habib claims the residents of these camps do not have the option to leave. They are detainees.

It is not known whether China played a physical role in building the IDP camps.

However, Habib said there are claims that China is assisting or offering funding to build holding facilities for Rohingya refugees returning from Bangladesh.

He claimed that China is offering $10,000 USD per Rohingya to return to Myanmar, but that few if any have accepted. His polling suggests that over 90% of Rohingya demand citizenship rights, prosecution of war crimes, and financial compensation prior to any interest in returning to Myanmar.

The table below is the product of Habib’s research. It attempts to account for the total Rohingya population globally. Most Rohingya now reside in Bangladesh-based refugee camps, but there are also large populations in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya is an affront to global norms set forth in the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion, culture, and language. 

This should give us all serious pause. If Myanmar can act with impunity against human rights, any country can. This could happen in my country, and it could happen in yours. 

Nobody is safe when crimes against humanity go unpunished.

How has Myanmar been able to execute this atrocity? How can such a country still set foot in the United Nations, head held high, when they have so egregiously violated the norms set forth in 1948? 

I would argue that they believed they could do this without facing major reputational or economic repercussions. They believed that the United Nations would idly stand by as its most cherished principles were trodden underfoot. I also believe that Myanmar miscalculated.

The United Nations should vote to further censure Myanmar, and economic sanctions should give bite to Myanmar’s new status as a near-pariah state. Nothing less is necessary to ensure deterrence of future human rights abuses by not only Myanmar, but by other other countries watching what happens to Myanmar to determine the limits on their own ability to discard minorities like trash.

The International Conference on Sustainable Development, where Habib presented his data, issued a communique the following day by unanimous consent. It reads, in part:

“Participants agreed that our moral responsibility as development actors does not allow us to keep quiet in view of the developing Rohingya genocide, after a two-day discussion on the sustainability of people and the planet.

The conference notes that the state of Rohingya populations is worrying and the world should stand more firmly with them to protect them from deprivation of rights and dignity that is happening in the form of a genocide with over 24,000 Rohingya killed, over 18,000 rapes of women and children (Habib et al 2018), since 1972 approximately 1.8 million forced to flee the country, entire villages and other assets destroyed, and with more than half of the 200,000 Rohingya remaining in Myanmar detained in ‘internal IDP camps’ that approximate concentration camps. 

The conference commends the efforts made especially by Bangladesh and international non-governmental organizations deployed in the form of a humanitarian response to assist the Rohingya who went to seek refuge in Bangladesh. These refugees make today’s largest and most densely populated refugee settlements in the world. The participants call for immediate action by the international community to work together to find an enduring response to save the lives of the Rohingya people threatened by death, hunger, diseases, exploitation, lack of identity and dignity, by giving them full citizenship in Myanmar, prosecuting to the fullest extent of the law those responsible for crimes against humanity, and providing for their other wants and needs including financial compensation and return of their land and homes to the extent that they feel comfortable returning to Myanmar.”

The first draft of the communique was written by Maurice Kwizera, director for WaterAid in Rwanda, a country subject to genocide in 1994. He noted at the conference that genocide has two requirements: 1) government support, and 2) advance planning.

China’s role

Myanmar has not acted alone against the Rohingya. The Tatmadaw operate within an international network of alliances and relationships that has allowed them, perhaps even advised them, to do what they have done.

Myanmar is a relatively small country, with a small GDP and military. International trade accounts for approximately 45 percent of Myanmar’s GDP. That makes the country highly vulnerable to economic sanctions.

Myanmar would likely not run the great risk of international isolation if it did not have strong allies. Myanmar has only been able to carry out atrocities in Rakhine State with relative impunity with the help of its “friends,” including China and to a lesser extent Russia.

China seeks to present itself as a peaceful and constructive mediator in the Rohingya tragedy. In 2017, they gave thousands of tents and blankets to the Rohingya. They published photos of at least two blue tents, with large white Chinese lettering on the side. The lettering reads — “Disaster Relief.”

We know the immediate cause of the disaster, but who is the mediate cause? A child in one of the photos is scratching his head while gazing at this crisp blue tent in the midst of the refugee camp’s squalor.

China and China’s ally Russia have given sufficient diplomatic cover to Myanmar to allow it to act with impunity. Since at least 2017, China has blocked, watered-down, and voted against multiple United Nations Security Council and General Assembly resolutions that condemn government violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. 

Rohingya refugees in Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh after fleeing from persecution in Myanmar in October 2017. (shutterstock.com photo)

China protects Myanmar under the principle of non-intervention in other states’ affairs, but China heavily intervenes in Myanmar, including through little-publicized support to over 30,000 rebel troops in the north. The Kokang and Wa armies speak Chinese, use Chinese currency, and have fought pitched battles with the Myanmar military. Chinese-supported troops have retreated into and maneuvered around Myanmar troops within Chinese territory.

In the border conflicts, refugee flows have moved into China, and Chinese citizens have been killed on both sides of the border, including by the Myanmar military. So China’s ideal of non-intervention clearly does not apply to China’s actions in Myanmar, which are so robust as to have elicited a military response by the much smaller Myanmar military.

China does not have to cover for Myanmar’s genocide in Rakhine State. Beijing instead could have positively influenced Myanmar from the start. In addition to China’s ability to influence rebel groups in Myanmar, which would be a major carrot if offered, China, at 30 percent, is the biggest importer of Myanmar goods. China also supplies Myanmar with 90 percent of its military transport.

The Tatmadaw claim their violence against the Rohingya is a form of counter-terrorism. This follows China’s approach in Hong Kong and its so-called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, of responding to protests and scattered violence with accusations of terrorism. 

In Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Myanmar, we see that such accusations are typically an excuse for government violence. In Myanmar’s case, government troops massacred and raped tens of thousands. That started in earnest in 2016 after just nine deaths allegedly caused by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). 

Some experts suspect that ARSA is a fake group supplied by the Tatmadaw. But even if ARSA were a terrorist group, the massively violent government response is clearly disproportionate to any ostensible security need. This disproportionality is arguably a war crime per Rule 14 of Customary International Humanitarian Law as published by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Why would Myanmar flout international law and the human right to freedom of religion and language, established by the U.N. in 1948? Decades after Myanmar’s independence, the country still has not given the Rohingya the citizenship that is the foundation for equal political rights in every peaceful nation. 

Top Myanmar generals benefit personally from business with China, according to the United States Institute of Peace. Habib said the Myanmar military benefits from $1 billion per year in Chinese security contracts for the oil and gas pipelines that run through Rakhine State.

 We cannot discount the possibility that China knew in advance of the genocide, or even that China nudged Myanmar in the direction of genocide. Further investigation is required.

China may think that it benefits because of the strategic location of Rakhine State on the Bay of Bengal. Chinese developments in the area give the country a commercial and potentially military foothold close to India, with which it increasingly finds itself in competition.  China is now developing a port in Rakhine State that will reduce the costs of transport to its impoverished Yunnan province. Goods flowing to and from Europe, the Middle East, and India could go overland direct from Rakhine to Yunnan, rather than through the Malacca Straits, South China Sea, and then overland into China.

With the reputationally-harmful conflict, China has also trapped Myanmar diplomatically. Myanmar increasingly depends on China to block U.N. Security Council actions, and to mitigate trade risks should international economic sanctions be imposed. This leaves Myanmar indebted to China, when the opposite should be true.

In sum, China’s economic power projection, checkbook diplomacy, purposeful destabilization of neighbors, systematic sheltering of human rights abusers and global attack on the 1948 U.N. human rights norm, are the roots of the Rohingya problem. China has allowed, if not encouraged Myanmar’s military in its abuse of the Rohingya. 

Of course Myanmar should be condemned publicly for its actions, and economic sanctions levied. But we must look more deeply for the root causes of the Rohingya tragedy, including China’s involvement, and consider condemning and sanctioning China as well. 

China has the power to influence Myanmar in the right direction. Let’s make China hear, loud and clear, that we hold it responsible for state-sanctioned human rights violations in its self-professed sphere of influence.

Anders Corr holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University and has worked for U.S. military intelligence as a civilian, including on China and Central Asia.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LICAS News.

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