China blocks UN solution for Burma’s 1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

Special to

By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Amid continuing destruction of villages, attacks on children and a widening displacement of refugees, members of the UN Security Council visited Burma and neighboring Bangladesh to assess the widening humanitarian carnage.

The officially dubbed Mission to Myanmar, as the country is officially known, offered diplomats a “vivid and stark revelation” of an unfolding tragedy both in the Southeast Asian country and in neighboring Bangladesh where more than a million people have been forced from their homes.

Burma’s victims are the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in an overwhelmingly Buddhist state. Living in the Rakhine state, the downtrodden people flee into bordering Bangladesh, itself a poor country, which now hosts the world’s largest refugee camp.

Rohingya refugees at the border crossing into Bangladesh in October 2017. / Zohra Bensemra / Reuters
Rohingya refugees at the border crossing into Bangladesh in October 2017. / Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

According to UNICEF at least 60 Rohingya babies are born in Bangladesh refugee camps every day.

It didn’t have to be this way. After a grim half century of military rule, Myanmar slowly nudged towards a more open society in 2011 when the ruling Junta allowed “controlled openness.” Longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was freed in 2010 after fifteen years of house arrest.

During a political victory lap tour in 2012, Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, visited the UN and the U.S. and was feted as the Angel of Democracy, savior to her once ostracized nation of 53 million people.

Sadly Suu Kyi’s name was soon sullied when in August 2017, the Myanmar military commenced security operations against the Rohingya minority. Given the political outcry and her own embarrassment, she skipped a planned address to the UN General Assembly last year.

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, whose power rests on a delicate balance between her party’s genuine political popularity and the military’s nervous openness, is not directing the carnage by Myanmar’s military; yet she has politically and politely chosen to look the other way.

So what did the UN’s Mission uncover? The town of Cox’s Bazaar hosts 670,000 Rohingya who joined 300,000 already in Bangladesh. Over a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have placed a massive strain on resources.

France’s representative Anne Gueguen put the matter into perspective, “The Rohingya are victims of ethnic cleansing, there is no other way to describe it.” She added that the Myanmar government must “tackle the root causes of the crisis,” namely granting citizenship to the Rohingya.

Though Burma’s government recognizes over 100 ethnic groups inside its vast territory such as the Shan and Karen peoples, the Rohingya are denied citizenship and are thus stateless people.

According to Human Rights Watch, Burma’s 1982 Constitution “effectively deny to the Rohingya the possibility of acquiring a nationality.” Moreover Myanmar law does not recognize this ethnic minority as one of the so-called eight “national indigenous races.” The Muslim minority has suffered systematic discrimination for decades but by August 2017, the military campaign began. The French humanitarian agency Doctors without Borders (MSF) stated that within the first month of attacks at least 6,700 Rohingya men, women and children were killed. There was widespread burning of villages by the Myanmar military.

Though UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has spoken out forcefully about the atrocities from their start, there has been no formal action by the fifteen member Security Council to stem the crisis.

One reason rests with China’s close political support for the Burmese regime. Beijing would likely block a formal resolution.

Why is Burma so important? The resource-rich former British colony stands astride China’s southern doorstep in Yunnan province, has access to the Bay of Bengal, and holds vast mineral and energy resources.

It’s clearly part of Beijing sphere of influence.

American UN Ambassador Nikki Haley stressed, “The active involvement of the Security Council is essential to bring an end to the Rohingya crisis.” She added, “That, too, will be a challenge, as some members of the Council have kept us from taking action for cynical and self-interested reasons.”

While the U.S. envoy stated that the ultimate solution was for the refugees to return to their own homes on their own land, this seems easier said than done. Surprisingly the Myanmar regime has invited refugees back, but to a very murky future.

Bangladesh delegate Masud Bin Momen warned, “The Rohingya community needed answers to pressing questions of citizenship, freedom of movement, and human rights. The vista of more than 400 burned villages hardly evoked confidence about the prospect of return to Rakhine.”

Ambassador Haley stated poignantly, “We have all heard horrifying accounts of what the Rohingya people have suffered, what ‘ethnic cleansing’ means…that leaves us with no choice but to act now.”

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]