China Hosting Bangladesh-Myanmar Rohingya Talks: Is there a hope?

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After years of stalemate, Rohingya rehabilitation has again come to the forefront of the negotiations. 

Since China began acting as a mediator between Bangladesh and Myanmar and is likely to do so until a solution is found, its participation in the repatriation of Rohingyas is proving to be crucial in ending the issue. 

On March 10, 2023, ambassadors from eight nations, including Bangladesh, India, and China, visited Rakhine. These diplomats were sent in to demonstrate the level of readiness in Rakhine, Myanmar, for the return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. Around four years after the inflow of around 750,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh due to a military campaign in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in 2017, China facilitated a tripartite virtual conference, boosting hope in Bangladesh of beginning the repatriation by June this year. 

Given the severe financial strain this crisis has placed on the Bangladeshi government, Dhaka is naturally desperate to start the return of the Rohingya refugees. As a result of the current global economic downturn and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Bangladesh, a country with limited resources and land, can no longer manage such a large number of displaced people. 

Since the crisis’ inception, China has sought a bilateral resolution rather than elevating it to a top priority in global fora. Against such a backdrop, China is bringing Myanmar and Bangladesh to the negotiation table for talks, and it is anticipated that China’s strong influence on Myanmar will lead to a favourable outcome. 

Repatriation before monsoon 

Right before the monsoon, a test project was also considered. The rehabilitation process would be softly launched during this pilot, and any problems could be resolved. A bilateral arrangement between Myanmar and Bangladesh, brokered by the Chinese government, led to this experimental repatriation. 

Initially, the agreement was made in 2018 when the three countries started having trilateral talks to advance the repatriation of Rohingya. Yao Wen, China’s ambassador to Bangladesh, expressed optimism that the initial wave of migrants will return home soon. However, a group of 27 people, 20 of whom were Rohingya, traveled to Rakhine, Myanmar, recently to observe the relocation efforts for potential returns. They went to 15 communities and other Rohingya-specific facilities. 

Myanmar reportedly launched this campaign mostly as a result of pressure from China. Junta representatives are visiting refugee camps to confirm the identities of people chosen for repatriation as part of a trial program mediated by China. The trial program will allow for the repatriation of 1,140 Rohingyas in total, 711 of whom have had their cases resolved. The identities and places of origin of the remaining 429 people on the list were still being vetted and confirmed.

Diplomatic triumph for Bangladesh 

During her bilateral or multilateral visits, PM Hasina stated that Bangladesh had provided the Rohingyas with a humanitarian sanctuary when they started to escape Myanmar in August 2017 due to a military crackdown. Sheikh Hasina pleaded for the international community to get involved in the proceedings before the International Court of Justice, International Criminal Court, International Human Rights Court, and national courts, including supporting the Gambia in the ICJ. Bangladesh caught the international community’s attention to the astonishing $1.22 billion in annual expenditures associated with housing such a sizable population of 1.2 million Rohingyas. 

Since 2017, there have been discussions on the topic, but no progress has been achieved. Despite several pledges, nothing was done to make Myanmar responsible for its vow to carry out the repatriation. However, Bangladesh has successfully convinced China to step into this role to resolve the long protracted Rohingya crisis. In addition to being Bangladesh’s main economic and development partner, China and Bangladesh also have close political and military ties. 

Beijing officially steps into the act 

As a responsible large nation, China, according to Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Yao Wen, has been ‘unwaveringly mediating’ between Bangladesh and Myanmar to encourage the return of the Rohingya people to their place of origin. China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a close friend of Myanmar is attempting to solidify its position in the world and preserve and expand its economic and geopolitical influence over Myanmar. 

Of course, China has its justifications for backing the repatriation proposal. It is in China’s interests for the region to be stabilised as the northern part of Rakhine State, which served as the primary residence for Rohingya refugees, is close to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a network of infrastructure projects intended to connect China’s Yunnan province to Myanmar’s coast. 

To operate all of these facilities, human resources are also required. China can train these Rohingyas and Rakhine to function effectively in various establishments and industries. In addition to preserving China’s presence in the Indian Ocean, the Rakhine region is crucial for its military objectives. It is clear that the Rohingya crisis will be resolved if China takes the proper action.

Besides, China’s foreign mediation efforts have seen considerable modifications in recent years. Diplomats from China are increasingly involved in conflict prevention, management, and resolution in nations including Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Ukraine crisis. Beijing has also redirected its mediation efforts to South Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa, three areas that are crucial to the program from a strategic standpoint.

Hope rekindled again? 

Bangladesh sincerely believes in China’s capacity to find a long-term solution to the largest refugee problem in history. China is a trustworthy ally of Bangladesh and a powerful global player. China would act as a ‘bridge of communication’ and make all reasonable efforts to aid in a prompt conclusion. 

China encourages Bangladesh to start the repatriation process and will continue to help the two close neighbours resolve this issue. 

Given the commitment made by the Chinese ambassador, the Chinese government is seriously considering Bangladesh’s worries over the safe and prompt return of more than a million displaced Rohingyas. China’s engagement in this issue will serve as a paradigm for future efforts to enhance international peace, especially in view of the recurrent failures of attempts to repatriate Rohingya owing to Myanmar’s blatant indifference and partially due to the insincere efforts of the international community. 

Myanmar, a nation that China has tremendous influence over, has to handle the Rohingya issue. China can, therefore, significantly aid in the Rohingya’s repatriation.

Although China’s promise to resolve the Rohingya crisis revives a ray of hope, other global power players must recognize their collective responsibility to rise above their political differences and assist China in a long-term solution to the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. However, China needs to be more pragmatic to continue its pressure on the Myanmar Junta for successful repatriation as it is impeding all the regional economic and development initiatives for collective betterment. 

– Saume Saptaparna Nath is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in The Financial Express [Link]