EFSAS Commentary: Boisterous outcry over the Rohingyas and deafening silence on Uyghurs, exhibits the brutal price of China’s Belt and Road Initiative

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On 20 October 2019, the Relief and Repatriation Commissioner of Bangladesh, Mahbub Alam Talukder, declared that the country will start relocating Rohingya Muslims to the flood-prone island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal, as part of a plan to solve the problem with overcrowded border camps in Cox’s Bazar, which Bangladesh is currently experiencing following the influx of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Numerous human rights watchdogs have expressed concerns regarding the move, considering the islet’s remoteness and predisposition to flooding and devastation from cyclones. Nevertheless, the government of Bangladesh has stated that the repatriation will take place only in accordance with the will of the people and that the island is equipped with all the necessary facilities, including cyclone shelters, food warehouses and flood protection embankments.

A Muslim minority ethnic group in Buddhist dominated Myanmar, the Rohingya constitute about 4 percent of the country’s population. They inhabit the northern part of the Rakhine (formerly Arakan) State of Myanmar, one of the least developed parts of the country. Persecuted for decades by the Burmese State, their numbers inside Myanmar have diminished steadily over the years from well in excess of a million to a few hundred thousand. Denial of citizenship, religious persecution, killings, rape, massacres and refusal to provide even the most basic of human rights by subjecting them to forced labor, seizure of their land and property, extortion, denial of the freedom to travel to find work, and placing restrictions on marriage and the number of children they can have, has led to hundreds of thousands of impoverished Rohingya fleeing to neighbouring countries, especially Bangladesh, over the course of the last seven decades. Currently, more than 1 million Rohingyas live in Bangladesh, as a result of Myanmar’s brutal crackdown on the ethnic group, which reached its apogee in 2017 and has only exacerbated since then.

As a response, in March 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) established a Fact-Finding Mission in order to determine the facts and circumstances of the alleged human rights violations and abuses by the military and security forces in Myanmar against the Rohingya. Despite the fact that in 2017, Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed on a repatriation plan as per which Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh would be taken back to Myanmar under the condition that the latter provides them with equal citizenship and their basic human rights, no refugees have yet agreed to return voluntarily, due to safety concerns. And indeed, as the findings of a report issued by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's International Cyber Policy Centre further prove, currently the government of Myanmar has embarked on the systematic destruction of human settlements and the construction of highly securitized camps and military bases in the Rakhine state, demonstrating how the conditions there are not conducive for the safe return of the refugees. 

During the 42nd Session of the UNHRC in Geneva, Marzuki Darusman, Chair of the Fact-Finding Mission in a Report stated that the estimated 600,000 Rohingya remaining inside Myanmar experience systematic persecution and live under the constant threat of genocide. “Myanmar is failing in its obligation to prevent genocide, to investigate genocide and to enact effective legislation criminalizing and punishing genocide”, Darusman argued. The Report describes how the Rohingya Muslims remain a subject of torture, killings, rape, forced displacement and numerous grave human rights violations, which constitute the agenda of the government of Myanmar of  erasing their identity and removing them from the country. Considering the almost complete absence of accountability at the domestic level for those serious violations, the Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar in its report, encourages concerted international efforts in bringing the perpetrators to justice, promulgating institutional reforms and providing forms of reparation.

However, certain legal boundaries might obstruct the course of justice. Myanmar is not a signatory party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which has jurisdiction of prosecuting individuals responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and crimes of aggression. The ICC does not have any power over the territory of Myanmar; yet, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) could still refer the case to the ICC, which is visible from the UN's Special Rapporteur on the situation in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee's move on 24 October of calling upon the UNSC to bring the situation in Myanmar to the attention of the ICC in order to establish an ad hoc tribunal, which will ensure justice for the Rohingya. Lee during a press briefing at the UN General Assembly in New York, further urged for targeted sanctions against the country's military-operated businesses and governmental authorities, which have been culpable of gross human rights abuses against the ethnic minority. However, the scenario of the UNSC initiating an international tribunal appears highly unlikely considering Myanmar’s ally, China, which holds a veto power and has been opposing and boycotting numerous probes into the Rohingya issue, reiterating that it “understands and supports” Myanmar’s stance in the conflict, while denouncing any international intervention.

Recognizing those deficiencies, earlier in June, the presidency of the ICC sought authorization from the Pre-Trial Chamber III to investigate crimes committed by Myanmar, which have occurred on the territory of Bangladesh, that is a party to the Rome Statute. However, such investigation will not be entirely comprehensive, since it is restricted by the fact that the allegations of violence must have partially taken place in Bangladesh; those would include deportation, violating the right to return home in safety and persecution on ethno-religious grounds. It still remains to be seen whether the authorization will be given and the Bangladeshi-Myanmar border will come under investigation.

Meanwhile, Myanmar is a signatory party to the UN’s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which provides the International Court of Justice (ICJ) with the jurisdiction of prosecuting States culpable of genocide, if put forward by another State that believes that the country in question has breached its obligations. During the UN General Assembly in New York at the end of September, the Republic of Gambia announced that the country is ready to take and delegate the Rohingya issue to the ICJ on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), calling other stakeholders to support and join this process. If the proposition is passed, it will establish an exceptional precedent considering that the UNSC until now has remained silent on the issue and constrained by veto-wielding members such as China and Russia.

According to an analysis published by the Security Council Report, the UNSC has been particularly reluctant in resorting to other UN bodies since it does not have necessarily control over their actions. “From the perspective of the P5, when it comes to the Court more specifically, the Court’s jurisprudence has, at times, been perceived as hostile to their interests”, the article explains.

That has been particularly visible in the case of China, which has been widely supporting a non-interventionist approach in internal affairs in Myanmar by any international legal body. Beijing has been wary of having the Rohingya issue internationalized for numerous reasons; first, the country does not want the Rohingya crisis to jeopardize its investments in Myanmar, which constitute a vital element of China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and its String of Pearls in the Indian Ocean; second, the Burmese State is an essential market for Chinese military arms and equipment, many of which have been used by the security forces in perpetration of human rights abuses; and most importantly, China fears that an investigation into the Rohingya crisis will set up a pattern and possibly allow for an enquiry into the situation in its northwestern region of Xinjiang, where more than a million ethnic Muslim Uyghurs are currently detained in camps, designed to eradicate their identity, echoing the bitter plight of the Rohingya people.

EFSAS’ Study Paper “China’s ‘String of Pearls’ exhibits The Dragon’s Great Game of Loans and Debts”, describes how, situated on the coast of the Bay of Bengal, the Rakhine State provides China with a strategic location for the development of its Maritime Road. China’s aim in developing maritime infrastructure in the deep-sea Kyauk Pyu Port is to turn it into a major hub and entry point for an oil and gas pipeline, which could provide an alternative route to the Strait of Malacca for the provision of energy fuels and a land corridor could then link Kyauk Pyu Port to China’s own Yunnan Province. The Kyauk Pyu Port is part of a plan to create a special economic zone that is estimated to cost approximately $10 billion. For China, the crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, which the Myanmar armed forces – the Tatmadaw – broadly justify under the pretext of counter-insurgency and counter-extremist operations, is fostered and welcomed since Beijing does not want to risk the investments it has made in its resource-rich neighbor. Furthermore, by extending its support to the Burmese country, which has been facing worldwide ostracism, China pulls Myanmar closer to its sphere of influence, making it dependent on its funding, since many other international players have left. This is further substantiated by the fact that China is the major supplier of military hardware to Myanmar, part of which has been directly utilized in the repression and persecution of Rohingya Muslims, as a Report issued last month by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar explains.

Another reason for China’s outright support for the suppression and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas by the Myanmar government is that the country itself deploys a similar practice in its handling of the Uyghur Muslims. As Rebiya Kadeer, Uyghur political activist and former President of the World Uyghur Congress argues, “China uses the Rohingya as an example to influence those within and outside of its borders by showing that China isn’t the only iron fisted state. By ensuring the oppression of people outside of its borders China cements it authority to oppress within its borders”. By promoting the “security efforts” of the Myanmar military, Beijing succeeds in justifying its own actions and diverting international attention from its own ethnic cleansing campaign.

The latter seems to be a very successful strategy, since the Muslim world has remained deafeningly silent on the plight of its brethren in Xinjiang. Although, commendable for its endeavours to bring the Rohingya crisis to an end by engaging with the ICJ, the OIC has failed to raise the issue of the Uyghurs to the international fora. Yet, that does not come as a surprise when one notices the economic loans for infrastructural projects extended to Muslim countries by China, as part of its BRI. For those countries, speaking about the situation in Xinjiang is not in their interest since that might put in peril their dealings with Beijing. Thus, the hypocrisy of OIC’s members who are all preaching slogans of championing Islam clearly gets exposed in the shadow of China, since they are currently queuing up for a pay roll and economic investments from China, while conveniently “forgetting” the hardship of the Muslim Uyghurs.

As Alip Erkin, an activist at the Uyghur Bulletin network, has spoken for the Business Insider Nederland, “...the principle of Muslim brotherhood has become a selective foreign policy tool that has more to do with the international politics of Muslim countries and less to do with its true message of solidarity”.

As a relevant example, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where thousands have rallied in solidarity with the Rohingyas and its Prime Minister Imran Khan, has trumped himself as a global defender of Islam by condemning world powers of Islamophobia at supranational platforms such as the UN, has remained completely numb on the detention of millions of Uyghur Muslims under concentration-like conditions. The Pakistani leader on numerous occasions in interviews with international news channels has stated that he lacks enough knowledge on the topic and is unaware of the issue, highlighting the country’s ‘double standards’ regarding the protection of Muslims and its succumbing to the wishes of Beijing. Considering that Pakistan shares a border with the region of Xinjiang, which is also the starting point of its joint infrastructural project with China, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Khan’s ignorance not only seems unlikely, but manifests itself as willful amnesia.

As Andrew Gilmour, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights has stated, “...the Rohingya, and indeed the entire world, owe an immense debt of gratitude to the Government and people of Bangladesh for their generosity in hosting and providing for such a large refugee population”. All international humanitarian and grass-root organisations should also be commended for their efforts in addressing the Rohingya crisis, yet what is also crucial to be recognised is how countries such as China brazenly take advantage of such human tragedy in order to pursue its egregious agenda, while making a mockery of the international community.

China’s oppression of the Muslim minority and silence of the Islamic world have established a reality where once a country becomes a client to the monetary bids of the rising Asian superpower, any proclamations of a sacred Muslim ‘Ummah’ (Community) are unceremoniously discarded.

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