China's fast-track solutions in Myanmar fail to take off
Beijing's attempt to kick-start Rohingya repatriation reveals lack of oversight
The stand-off between Myanmar and Bangladesh over the planned repatriation of tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees continues. But things have just got a bit more complicated with China's intervention. Beijing -- with all good intentions -- is now trying to soothe the troubled waters, in part, a result of their earlier misjudged involvement, having proposed a trilateral meeting of foreign ministers in New York in the coming weeks -- sponsored by the UN secretary-general -- to try to find a way out of the growing impasse.
But it will only succeed if China takes a realistic approach to solving the problems and if the two countries directly involved are really prepared to compromise and not just pay lip service to cooperation. Of course, it can only move the process forward if the legitimate concerns and interests of the refugees are at the heart of any future repatriation plans.
The latest episode in this saga was last month's rushed attempt to start the repatriation process -- at China's persistent insistence -- which quickly turned into a fiasco when not a single refugee got in the buses that had pulled up in the camps to transport the returning refugees back to Myanmar.
Recriminations quickly followed this latest shambles, with both countries blaming each other for the failure, and the US inappropriately weighing in on Dhaka's side, also blaming Myanmar for the failure. But while Bangladesh must do more to prepare for the refugees' departure, Myanmar must also do more to prepare for their return. The root problem is that there is an overwhelming mistrust on the part of the refugees towards both the Myanmar and Bangladesh authorities.
But the root cause of the current failure was China's strong-arm tactics in trying to prematurely force a start to the repatriation programme. Since the crisis erupted anew in August 2017, Beijing has played a constructive role behind the scenes -- one that is too often not given enough credit -- though this time China's impatience in trying to "solve the Rakhine problems" was counter-productive in the extreme: it not only doomed the repatriation process to another false start, and caused untold angst amongst the refugees themselves; it may also have actually widened the gulf between Myanmar and Bangladesh and caused further problems for any future attempt to start repatriation in earnest.
Beijing needs to understand there is a difference between meditating and using their "good offices" to help find a solution -- one that is agreeable and acceptable to all parties involved, including the refugees -- and meddling. Unfortunately, this subtlety seems to have been uncharacteristically lost in translation somewhere along the way.
Over the past few months, Beijing has become impatient and absorbed with sorting out the problems of Rakhine -- maybe in Myanmar's interests, but certainly in their own economic interests -- bringing peace and stability to Myanmar's western region, especially around their important "economic base" and port in Kyauk Phyu, but also bringing calm to Myanmar's north, in order to protect their growing interests there.
Earlier this year, the Chinese Foreign Ministry held high-level internal discussions on how to achieve this. At the time "solving the Rakhine problems" became central to their Myanmar policy and strategy, according to Chinese government sources. But Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's trip to Beijing in early July, where she implored China's leaders to help jog Myanmar into action and start the repatriation process that had been agreed in November 2017 -- brokered in the background by Beijing -- but has so failed to materialise. Although China was already focused on helping to resolve the Rakhine issue, this provided an added impetus to their efforts.
A series of high-level meetings took place in the past few months: with Chinese diplomats and the special envoy Sun Gaoxiang meeting Bangladesh and Myanmar officials in an attempt to break the deadlock. They even met Rohingya leaders in the camps in Cox's Bazar, at least twice to encourage the Rohingya to return to Myanmar.
This culminated in the key meeting between top Bangladesh and Myanmar officials, brokered by the Chinese at the end of July. This seems to have eased the bilateral tensions and cleared the way for cooperation between the two countries on repatriation. A plethora of other diplomats and officials, including Chinese representatives, attend the days of meetings. At the last meeting in Dhaka, Myanmar handed over a list of 3,450 names of refugees that they had cleared to return -- from an original list of 22,000 names handed to the Myanmar authorities over a year ago -- and the Bangladesh side then submitted a subsequent list of 25,000.
Although there does not seem to have been any formal agreement to start the return process, according to diplomats who attended the meetings, the groundwork had been laid to go forward. But China in its eagerness to kick-start the repatriation procedures pressured Dhaka to commit to starting the returns in August -- despite misgivings all round that this was far too hasty. In fact, Beijing asked Dhaka to start by mid-August but overlooked the fact that this would run up against the Muslim holiday of Eid, according to Bangladesh government officials. As a result, it was deferred a week to start on Aug 22.
But instead of Bangladesh officials notifying their Myanmar counterparts, the Chinese envoy conducted his own shuttle diplomacy, he met the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Nay Pyi Taw on Aug 6 and told her Bangladesh would start returning refugees on Aug 22. The following day he met the army chief, Senior Min Aung Hlaing. Here they discussed and discussed the way forward for Rakhine, encouraging Myanmar to start the repatriation process. This was the first the Myanmar government knew of Bangladesh's imminent intentions, according to senior government officials, on condition of anonymity.
In reality, neither the Bangladesh authorities nor the Myanmar government was in a position to realistically begin the process then. It was all too hastily arranged and ill-prepared. The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR -- who's role was to ascertain whether the selected refugee families freely wanted to return -- was given the list two weeks before the process was to start. It was in fact mission impossible. So it was no surprise to anyone that this latest effort failed -- it was doomed from the start.
Asean officials who have been supportive of Myanmar were also only informed two weeks before the repatriation was scheduled to start. The Asean Coordinating Committee for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA), which had been asked to help monitor the repatriation process, then hurriedly had to decide whether to participate -- agreeing in the end to be present on the Myanmar side, where they already have a team, but were unable to assemble a team to monitor the Bangladesh side.
Since the fiasco, Bangladesh has determinedly reached out to Asean for further support and assistance, given their closeness to the Myanmar government. They have also sought Japan's assistance to relocate the refugees within Bangladesh on -- which is notoriously open to the elements and generally inhospitable. Bangladesh is even demanding the UN put more pressure on Myanmar to accept the refugees back. Though both Dhaka and Nay Pyi Taw remain suspicious of the UN's motives, unfortunately, Bangladesh seems intent on internationalising the issue -- something Myanmar is adamantly opposed to so far.
But both countries are willing to accept Beijing's "mediation". Both countries are heavily dependent on China: for aid, investment and trade; and both are integrally linked strategically to Beijing; both also have strong military connections -- Myanmar for the past 30 years and Bangladesh more lately, as evidenced by Dhaka's recent purchase of two Chinese submarines. But more importantly both accept Beijing as an "honest" broker.
The hope is that all parties may have learned from last month's debacle. The next attempt needs to be better planned, preparations on both side of the border need to be more comprehensive, and the wishes of the refugees' paramount in any renewed repatriation scheme. For this to happen the UN must be integrally involved -- after all Myanmar has renewed its MOU with the UN.
Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.
Former BBC World Service News Editor
Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News Editor for the region.