I urge you, Mr. Xi Jinping, President of Peoples’ Republic of China to take a good look at this photo. Do you see what I see? I see the agony. I see sadness. I also see numerous questions in the eyes of these Rohingya kids that are asking – why are we here, why our parents are not with us, why we do not have our own place to live and why are we without food? They are also asking, who is responsible for inflicting upon us such horrific tragedy? What sins have we committed and why no one is doing anything about us and give back our homes, parents and security?
These Rohingya kids are refugees that have recently been driven out of their homes by the Myanmar military, begging for food at a refugee shelter in Teknaf, Chittagong, Bangladesh. Myanmar government’s ruthless and bloody persecutionsof them have brought them here. They are the world’s most hunted, hungry, humiliated, traumatised and dispossessed kids. This photo also depicts everything that is tragic about Rohingyas -480,000 of them made to flee to Bangladesh to escape Myanmar Military’s mayhem of murder, rape and destruction and another million or so left in Rakhine state facing similar fate. This photo resembles everything that is sad and also everything that is despicable and you Mr. Xi Jinping seems to have sided with the latter.
Your outright support of the tormentor, the Myanmar government that many believe has in fact encouraged them to unleash and expand their mission of ethnic cleansing manifold and with impunity has also put to question your government’s much promised and also much aspired alternative leadership to that of the West who are often derided and for good reasons, as unjust and unfair.Sadly, your government’s backing of Myanmar’s Rohingya persecution is a stark reminder that perhaps the aspiration of an alternative global leadership by China is little premature and that as is evident the leadership orientation of China is also no different from that of the West, it is guided more bycommerce and less by compassion though the empathy that has been demonstrated by West’s media and some of its governments on Rohingya issue has been exemplary.
You, Mr. Xi Jinping, President of China and Chair of 2017 BRICS Summit said that, “We in BRICS countries share the agony of those people who are still caught in chaos and poverty,” and thus commit ourselves to “the well-being of the world in our mind.” These words inspired millions around the world especially those that are disadvantaged and dispossessed. But sadly, the promise of lift people out of “chaos and poverty” did not seem to have translated itself into the policy on Rohingya crisis, a human tragedy of mammoth proportion that is happening right at China’s doorstep. On the contrary, China’s prompt endorsement of Myanmar government’s position that its military’s violence is in response to“the violent attacks”by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a rag tag and poorly armed rebellious group that stormed several Rakhine police outposts with “sticks and knives and killed few officers and fled with light weaponry”while completely ignoring prolonged persecution of Rohingyas that had prompted rise and attacks of ARSA in the first place is a sad reminder that China’s global vision is less global and more parochial. Mr. Xi’s assertion that “as a friendly neighbor,” his government supports “Myanmar’s efforts to maintain peace in the region” may have been taken by the Myanmar government as a license to annihilate the entire Rohingya community. China’s veto at the UN on Security Council resolution on issue echoed its lack of interest in moral leadership.These are disturbing times.
It is evident that China’s ambivalence to Rohingya issue and for that matter its international relations as a whole is guided firstly, by its policy of non- interference in another country’s domestic affairs and secondly, its economic and geostrategic interestsbut exactly how one is delinked from the other is difficult to fathom.
China’s economic and geostrategic interest in Myanmar stems from Xi’s much touted “One Belt, One Road (OBOR)” initiative, a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan that purports to connect Asia with Europewhich involves $19.0 billion of direct investment in Myanmar that far exceeds investments inall other countries of whichnearly $3 billion and most of it in Rakhine state, the home of the Rohingyas are expected to be spent by 2017. Therefore, keeping Rakhine ‘trouble free’ at any cost is of utmost importance to China. Buthere is the conundrum for China. It needs to decide whether it is in its best interest to look the other way if not encourage Myanmar in a conflict that is increasingly looking less ‘domestic’,for because of conflict induced massive flow of refugees into Bangladesh, becoming more and more a ‘cross-border’ issue. Secondly, regardless of how much Myanmar or China would prefer the Rohingya issue to go away, given that their grievances are genuine and also that in their struggle theyare also not without friends and the fact that some of their backers arepowerful and in the region itself, the conflict is bound to continue ifget more violent and protracted in the coming days meaning that the Rohingya issue is as much humanitarian as geostrategic.
In these circumstances, China has one of these two options–option one, the so-called ‘peace’ in Rakhine is achieved by annihilating Rohingyas which Myanmar certainly aspires but given their number and the vast sympathy they enjoy especially in countries and among people that are China’s and Myanmar’s neighbours makes this option less tenable. Then there is option two, peace and stability with Rohingyas as citizens of Myanmar and also as active participants in China’s projects. Rohingyas who are also known as hard-working people and thus have the potential to become good resources for both China and also, Myanmar. Choice is China’s.
In recent times when China spoke out “… more forcefully on a range of global concerns” world was delighted and thought that they have finally found a moral alternative. But as is obvious it is going through a testing time. Indeed, its ability to take on global leadership also known as “Xi’s global vision’ depends largely on how it respondsto and balances humanitarianwith its economic and geo-strategic needs both within and across.
Rohingya is an acid test for China. It must find a way to balance moral with economic, it is not one or the other. If China thinks that it can achieve its ‘global vision’by simply throwing money at countries and not take moral stand where this is warranted, they would be like a village money lender (in some societies, the most despised characters) wishing to be called a philanthropist!
The author is a former senior UN policy manager