Rohingyas from Myanmar are staying inside Bangladesh for more than five years. They fled to Bangladesh due to the atrocities carried out by Myanmar military on August 2017. Till now repatriation has not yet started because the security situation in Rakhine state of Myanmar is not stable. If the Rohingya crisis continues for a long time, the possibility of this displaced population becoming involved in extremism, terrorism and cross-border crime will increase and as a result there is a danger of security risks for Bangladesh, Myanmar and the wider region.
In this situation, the repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar has become necessary for the sake of the deteriorating security situation in Bangladesh and regional security. Currently, about 130,000 Rohingya are detained in inhumane conditions in 24 camps in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The situation in those camps is complicated by severe limitations on livelihoods, movement, education, healthcare and adequate food and shelter, and the absence of bare minimum humanitarian assistance. It is expected that the overall repatriation process will be accelerated if the Rohingyas staying in these camps are gradually rehabilitated to their previous homes and villages where they used to live.
The overall situation in Myanmar remains uncertain since the military coup on 1 February 2021. Clashes between the military and rebel groups have continued to escalate and the situation has continued to deteriorate since the Government of National Unity (NUG) called for a People’s Defence War on September 7. In this deteriorating situation possibility of safe repatriation of the Rohingyas are bleak. China has expressed interest in acting as a mediator between Bangladesh and Myanmar, and China’s role in Rohingya repatriation is crucial. China is trying to maintain and increase its economic and geopolitical influence over Myanmar while establishing its global position. The UN Security Council has also been unable to take any concrete steps to hold Myanmar accountable as China and Russia oppose any such move.
The international community is calling for a political and diplomatic solution to the Rohingya crisis. The US and Western countries continue to put pressure on Myanmar; they are unable to guarantee the safe and voluntary repatriation of the Rohingyas. Li Zhiming, the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, said China would act as a “bridge of communication” and do its best to facilitate a quick outcome as Bangladesh seeks the speedy repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar. China supports Bangladesh’s interest in starting repatriation and China will continue to help the two friendly neighbours to resolve this long-standing issue. This is a humanitarian problem and China will try to deal with it effectively.
During the UN General Assembly session in September 2019, Bangladesh, Myanmar and China jointly developed a tripartite mechanism for the repatriation of Rohingyas living in Bangladesh. The three countries agreed to form a joint working group to implement Rohingya repatriation. Till now repatriation was not possible due to the security situation in Rakhine State. The first round of trilateral meeting was initiated by China in 2018 followed by a virtual tripartite meeting on January 20, 2021. At the end of the talks, the repatriation was expected to start by June 2021, although it has not actually started. A permanent solution to the Rohingya crisis is possible by starting the process of repatriation of Rohingyas by creating an enabling environment in Rakhine under the leadership of China.
On January 19, 2022, a Chinese-mediated virtual meeting between Myanmar and Bangladesh on Rohingya repatriation was attended by Chinese vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui along with officials from Myanmar and Bangladesh. All parties agreed to begin repatriation after the talks. China’s sincere initiative can eliminate the root causes of the crisis and create a favourable situation there. Due to China’s influence on Myanmar, China can play an important role in solving this crisis.
Myanmar and China are dependent on each other for economic, geo-political, strategic security and other issues and the relationship between them is also very close. Myanmar gets military hardwires from China. Myanmar Air Force ordered several FTC-2000G midrange fighter jets from China. China is also ensuring the supply of gas and fuel oil to Myanmar. China has huge investment in Rakhine state. Construction of special economic zone and deep sea port in Kyaukphyu of Rakhine state is going on with China’s economic cooperation. Potential benefits of these projects will contribute significantly in the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) and Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. All these will act as booster to the bilateral relations between China and Myanmar. China is also establishing a gas-fired power plant in the Kyaukphyu special economic zone (KPSEZ). Kyaukphyu area will be crucial for the CMEC. China is a long-time ally of Myanmar with substantial economic interests.
85 percent of China’s oil and gas flows through the Malacca Strait. Keeping in mind the Malacca crisis, China has invested huge money to supply this oil and fuel gas and has installed two pipelines through that port through which the fuel oil and gas are sent to Kunming, China. As this pipeline is in the Rakhine region, it is important for China to ensure the authority and control of the Myanmar government in Rakhine State.
A stable Rakhine state is essential for safeguarding the interest of China in Myanmar. Infrastructures developed by China in Rakhine state will contribute significantly in economic development of the area. To run all these facilities manpower is also essential. China can train these Rohingyas along with Rakhines to effectively utilize them in different industries and facilities. Stable Rakhine will attract the tourists; tourism industry can flourish in Rakhine. Rohingyas and Rakhines can work in that industry also. That will address the unemployment problem of this state. With the improvement of economic situation the communal hatred will gradually diminish and peaceful coexistence can be ensured. In addition to securing presence in the Indian Ocean, the Rakhine region is also crucial for China’s military strategy. In view of all this, it can be said that if China takes appropriate step then the Rohingya crisis will be solved.
Bangladesh wants safe and dignified repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar. Various international organizations are ensuring food and assistance to the Rohingya. This displaced community is becoming a burden for Bangladesh as the days go by. Every year around 35,000 babies are born in the camps, putting pressure on humanitarian aid to cope with this increased population pressure. Filippo Grandi, the High Commissioner of the United Nations Refugee Agency, came to Dhaka in May due to the fear of the financial crisis of Rohingya refugees in Ukraine, Afghanistan and the on-going global crisis. Expressing the fear of the Rohingya fund crisis, Filippo Grandi urged the regional countries to play a strong role in the repatriation of the Rohingyas.
Bangladesh’s relationship with China is very deep and extensive. On August 6, 2022, China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that Bangladesh is working earnestly to find a solution to the Rohingya crisis during a visit to Bangladesh. The Rohingya issue was discussed with importance during this visit. During this visit, China’s cooperation was sought for a stronger role in the Rohingya crisis and a political solution to ensure repatriation. China has supported many economic projects in Bangladesh and China has played an important role in the socio-economic development of Bangladesh. Besides China’s strong political and military ties with Bangladesh, China is Bangladesh’s largest trade and development partner. Myanmar has the most important role in solving the Rohingya problem and China has a great influence over that country. Therefore, China can contribute significantly in the repatriation of the Rohingyas.
The on-going global situation is creating pressure on humanitarian aid which is alarming for future Rohingya crisis response. In addition, this protracted crisis poses potential security risks for the region, which is undesirable. The regional powers should come forward now to solve this crisis. Everyone hopes that China, a friendly country of Bangladesh, will play an important role in the peace, security and stability of the region by solving the Rohingya problem.
Brig Gen (Retd) Hasan Md Shamsuddin, ndc, afwc, psc, MPhil, Researcher on Myanmar, Rohingya and ASEAN affairs.