The Irrawaddy

Chinese Whispers in Yangon as Myanmar Weighs Rohingya Deal With UN

Smoke is seen on Myanmar's side of the border as an exhausted Rohingya refugee is carried to shore after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal, in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh, in September, 2017. Myanamar is currently considering signing an MOU with the UNHCR and UNDP on repatriating the refugees. / Reuters

The Myanmar government is in a bind. In order to stave off Western sanctions for its alleged mistreatment of the Rohingya, it is considering signing a memorandum with UN agencies that would set terms for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. But China does not want Myanmar to sign it.

Chinese officials held two days of closed-door meetings with their Myanmar counterparts in Yangon on May 29 and 30, where the two sides shared views on how to establish peace in Kachin and northern Shan states and how to solve the Rohingya refugees crisis in Rakhine State, according to a source who took part in the talks.

China, which has economic interests in Rakhine, wants to build its sway over Myanmar, and does not want to see Western countries have influence in the country.

The result is a power struggle between China and the West over Myanmar.

Myanmar has signed one agreement with the UN to allow for the repatriation of 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh after the Myanmar Army launched a military offensive in Maungdaw in Rakhine State in reprisal for attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in August last year.

Some government advisors were opposed to the signing of the agreement on the grounds that the country would have trouble meeting international standards on the repatriation. However, it was viewed as a positive initial step by the Aung San Suu Kyi government to show it wished to cooperate with the UN and the international community to solve the Rohingya crisis.

Myanmar is also close to signing an MOU with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), following months of tripartite talks that started on February, according to the same advisors.

On signing the MOU, the UN agencies would have high expectations of being able to make visits to Maungdaw to inspect conditions on the ground. They would also want to check to see if the returning refugees would be able to rebuild their old lives. The UN agencies do not want the repatriated refugees to be sent to camps and instead want them to be able to return to their homes.

If they are forced to stay in camps, the returning refugees face a fate similar to that of other Rohingya who have been stuck in camps in Sittwe for six years. But, the Myanmar government may not agree to such conditions.

While signing an MOU with the UNHCR and UNDP would help repair the image of the Aung San Suu Kyi government in the eyes of the international community, China does not want Myanmar to sign the agreement, according to a Chinese source.

China’s approach to finding a solution to the Rohingya crisis is more low-key. China wants to have stability in Rakhine as it has many investments in the region, most notably a gas pipeline project in Kyauk Phyu.

China believes that if the UN agencies and international community have their way in Rakhine, ARSA may able to return to launch new attacks in the area.

But, ARSA has influence only in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships. The Arakan Army has a presence in many areas including Kyauk Phyu. ARSA thus should not be seen as a threat to China’s business interests.

China is getting close to the Myanmar government as the international community prepares to take action against Myanmar Army and government officials for human rights abuses committed against the Rohingya. China may offer some diplomatic protection to Tatmadaw generals if they are referred to the International Criminal Court when the UNSC makes a decision on the matter. The United States, Britain, and other members of the international community are prepared to impose sanctions on the Myanmar Army and the government. The Myanmar government is wondering whether to listen to China or the West.