China must become the region's new peacemaker, with its approach to resolving the Rohingya situation bringing out the hesitancy of the western powers to take a decisive stand on the vexed issue
Rohingyas, one of the most persecuted populations, are screaming for justice. While Bangladesh is bearing the burden of sheltering over one million Rohingya refugees with its most densely populated land and infant developing economy, global leaders are lethargic about playing a meaningful role to repatriate them to their homeland in Myanmar.
In Myanmar, the Rohingyas are labeled "Bengalis," implying they are illegal interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh. Bangladesh is currently hosting an estimated 1.1 million Rohingyas, most of whom fled their homes in Rakhine State in Myanmar after the military launched a brutal offensive against the ethnic minority in August and September 2017. This followed an earlier wave of violence in October 2016, which forced over 80,000 Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is trying for the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees in every possible way, through an international forum or by a multilateral or bilateral agreement. Since 2017, China has been serving as an official mediator between Myanmar and Bangladesh. After Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited both nations in November 2017, China backed a three-point proposal asking for an end to the strife in Rakhine and a settlement of the repatriation process.
Despite pressure from global players, the government of Bangladesh and the Rohingya people remain optimistic about the future. China and India, as close neighbors to Bangladesh and with strong ties to Myanmar, can play a significant role. However, India's diplomatic distance from the Rohingya situation has sparked concerns about the country's approach to the issue. China stepped in with its "three-step solution" to the problem, which included the signing of a repatriation deal between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The visit of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to China in July 2019 gave the bilateral relationship a significant boost. Bangladesh was the first South Asian country to greenlight in 2016 the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) - a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in nearly 70 countries and international organizations. Sheikh Hasina has pledged her continued strong support for the BRI.
During her discussion with Chinese President Xi and Prime Minister Li Keqiang, Sheikh Hasina raised the refugee issue, where China has a strong stake in resolving the crisis. The Chinese assured her that they were deeply concerned about the situation and would continue to play a significant role in resolving it. Aside from that, China sent 2500 tons of grains to Bangladeshi Rohingya refugees.
To promote early outcomes as Bangladesh seeks fast repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar, the two countries joined China for a tripartite working arrangement in September 2019 to expedite the process. They agreed to form a joint working group that would be in charge of putting the plan into action. While President Xi Jinping paid a two-day state visit to Myanmar, the problem got renewed attention because of Beijing's commitment to continue mediating in the repatriation process.
Officials from Myanmar and Bangladesh, as well as China's Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng, attended the last tripartite meeting in January 2021. In April, Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe during a visit to Bangladesh stated that China was working to settle the Rohingya crisis. China also replied favorably in response to Dhaka’s request for a virtual meeting on South Asian Countries Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development.
Despite China voting against the draft resolution on the human rights situation of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar at the United Nations' 75th General Assembly, Bangladesh officials believe Beijing will continue to assist in the repatriation of the Rohingyas.
China has stated it would try to encourage Myanmar to address the crisis through bilateral talks, though previous such attempts didn’t yield results. In June, the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) adopted a resolution titled Human Rights Situation of Rohingya Muslims and other Minorities in Myanmar, signaling a way forward.
China must become the region's new peacemaker, with its approach to resolving the Rohingya situation bringing out the hesitancy of the western powers to take a decisive stand on the vexed issue. Bangladesh has placed complete trust in China, which has never let Dhaka down in any crisis. The cooperation extended by China to Bangladesh for tackling Covid-19 is a shining example. As a global power, China will need to address the plight of the voiceless Rohingyas.
China has emerged as the only country to stand by Bangladesh and secure justice for this oppressed group. There is still hope that a feasible way can be found out of this quagmire.
(The writer is an international relations researcher-writer in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)