by Anna Tan
In September 2017, ten Rohingya Muslims were executed by the Burmese military in the village of Inn Din, Rakhine State, Myanmar (Burma). Afterward, journalists leading the Reuters investigation that exposed the massacre were charged with treason under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and once an icon of peace, fiercely defended the government’s incarceration of the two journalists arguing that their detention had “nothing to do with freedom of expression at all” and was all about the “violation of the Official Secrets Act”. The Reuters journalists were later released in 2019 through an annual presidential clemency after a year of unyielding international pressure and legal support led by Amal Clooney.
The whole debacle formed part of the 2016 persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, which entailed a violent crackdown of the Muslim minority that has settled in the land for generations. The Rohingyas were subject to the arson of their villages, gang rapes, and infanticide, which the UN has called a “textbook ethnic cleansing”. In the end, over 20,000 Rohingyas died and over 700,000 fled their homes, crossing the border to Bangladesh and residing in refugee camps ever since. Suu Kyi dismissed the genocide claims at the ICJ hearings filed by The Gambia and instead defended the “clearance operations” including the Inn Din massacre as part of a “counter-terrorism” response by the military, yet completely omitting a plethora of remaining war crimes committed by those same armed forces.
On 16 November 2019, the New York Times published the Xinjiang Papers, which explicitly showed in over 400 leaked pages a breakdown of how the Chinese government organised the crackdown on Uyghur Muslims – a Turkic ethnic minority – into “re-education camps.” These facilities, better described as concentration camps, see one to three million Uyghurs detained extrajudicially in Xinjiang each year. Later evidence also corroborated this puzzle. The BBC’s recent insider report on such “thought transformation camps” renders an eerie atmosphere as one cannot help but concur such camps are run with no motive other than ethnic-cleansing and Sinification.
Xi Jinping has repeatedly described the Uyghur Muslims as “being infected by a virus” that needs to be “eradicated,” following multiple terrorist attacks in the region, in the form of riots, bombings, and knife attacks. For Beijing, “stability” is key since Xinjiang serves as the gateway for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects with Central Asia and Pakistan. However, Beijing’s approach to achieving stability is in many ways one that could instead undermine the state’s very authority and legitimacy, because of its oppressive policies pursued outside of the rule of law. Here, memories of the Tiananmen Massacre still remain fresh.
Meanwhile, in Myanmar, Suu Kyi’s refusal to call out the war crimes against civilians continued, with prospects for an end to the 70-year long Burmese Civil War seeming increasingly frail. Once a major Western ally, Suu Kyi’s shining moment after the landslide 2015 elections proved to be short-lived, leaving Myanmar dependent on China. Despite on-going local protests stirred by environmental and land-right concerns against China’s BRI projects in Rakhine, Suu Kyi has increasingly grown friendly with the Communist Party-led country which over the past two decades has consistently vetoed UN Security Council resolutions regarding human rights violations in Myanmar, actions perpetrated by the same actors that worked with the military in prolonging Suu Kyi’s house arrest. Once a fierce critic of China and of imbalanced investments, the foundations of Suu Kyi’s foreign policy have been upended. Instead, China is now employed as a bulwark against international criticism on Myanmar’s human rights fiasco.
Her meeting with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi ahead of the ICJ hearings sent clear signals to the world that both countries are now united against the international community in Myanmar’s domestic political issues, with Suu Kyi thanking China for “safeguarding national sovereignty” and “opposing foreign interference.” China’s intermediation role with armed groups over the last couple of years has increased despite two failed attempts by China to repatriate the Rohingya, actions that are widely seen as having exacerbated the situation.
It is difficult to decipher the exact Sino-Burmese strategies in “resolving” the Rohingya crisis, but it remains crystal clear that both parties are suggesting that the West is an outsider in this rather peculiar yet unsurprising entente. China, usually staunch about following its “non-interference” principle to its foreign policies in contemporary political discourse, we see there can be exceptional cases. Earlier, during the Libyan Civil War in 2011, Beijing found its involvement essential, with over 30,000 Chinese nationals in Libya needing to be evacuated. Myanmar, on the other hand, provides China with a gateway to the Indian Ocean; thereby circumventing the South China Sea, a much-disputed area of maritime security and defence.
Once on antagonistic terms, the distinction between China’s communist leaders, Suu Kyi’s government and the military of Myanmar now seem to be increasingly challenging one to make, with their exclusionary narratives running parallel. Is China, an authoritarian country, truly an ideal friend to help Myanmar towards becoming a democracy, let alone a liberal one? Suu Kyi’s remarks thanking China for “safeguarding [Myanmar]’s national sovereignty” with regards to foreign influence is farcical. In addition, with the landmark visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Myanmar – which saw the signing of 33 memorandums of understandings (MoUs), protocols and agreements including bilateral partnerships on issues regarding border patrol, police, information and media services – there is little doubt as to the hegemonic aspirations of China.
Indeed, China’s moves with regards to a cash-strapped economy like Myanmar is another step in its debt-trap diplomacy. This development is reminiscent of the case of the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka – where the conflict-ridden country, unable to save its fledgling export rates and attract sufficient Foreign Direct Investments (FDI), found itself forced to sign a 99-year lease of the port to China to cover its colossal amount of current account deficit. Sri Lanka’s case should give Myanmar a premonition about what is still yet to come.
The ICJ’s verdict arrived shortly after Xi’s visit to Myanmar, on the 23 January. The UN court ruled against Myanmar with a unanimous approval of provisional measures as requested by The Gambia on the war crimes against the Rohingya. This ruling may well be a disappointment for many Burmese loyalists that rallied across the country in support of Suu Kyi’s ICJ defence earlier in December last year, as well as a cause for disillusionment amongst the country’s believers who were confident that the ICJ case is firmly secure in the hands of Suu Kyi’s political eloquence, despite the insurmountable evidence pointing in the other direction.
Though long overdue, perhaps the ruling will provide a stronger reason for the Burmese to question their status quo politics and politicians. However, the answers should be obvious as to whether Myanmar, currently caught in an asymmetric relationship with China, truly has its national sovereignty “safeguarded;” whether or not if Myanmar is walking in the right direction towards liberal democracy; and indeed whether a brighter or darker future awaits the country.
Anna is an MSc student for Global Affairs at King’s College London. She has previously worked for UNDP and the American Red Cross. Her research interests are on ASEAN-North Asian relations, conflict-resolution, human rights and diplomacy. She is also currently a Programme Coordinator for the Conflict, Security and Development (CSD) Conference 2020 hosted by Department of War Studies and Department of International Development (DID). You can follow her on Twitter: @AnnaTanGTW
Anna Tan is a postgraduate and a student ambassador for Global Affairs at King’s College London. She is also a Series Editor on Strife Blog and Journal of the Department of War Studies and has formerly worked for UNDP and the American Red Cross. Her research is focused on Western Human Rights diplomacy vis-à-vis authoritarian states in Asia.