China's Xi Jinping arrives in Burma on Jan. 17, 2020.
/ January 30, 2020
By John J. Metzler
UNITED NATIONS — Amid deepening political and economic ties between Burma and China, the Southeast Asian state is being fully integrated into Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, emerging as a transportation hub and military asset. Yet at the same time, while Beijing’s leader Xi Jinping made a high profile state visit to Burma aka
Myanmar to commemorate diplomatic relations between China and Burma, half a world away in the Hague, the World Court ruled that Myanmar’s government must stop ethnic persecution of its Muslim Rohingya minority.
China’s complex ties with neighboring Burma can be summed up in the folkloric phrase <em>pauk-phaw, </em>a form of fraternal Sino/Burmese kinship which Chairman Xi fondly extols.
“We need to bring new impetus to our mutually beneficial cooperation by deepening trade and economic exchanges,” Xi said on the eve of the visit which marked the 70th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries. Burma, independent of British rule in 1948, became the first non-communist country to recognize the communist People’s Republic of China.
Historically close links between Burma and China especially blossomed during the half century of Myanmar’s military rule where the isolated socialist regime looked to its powerful northern neighbor to help break its’s political isolation. Nonetheless in recent years, Beijing has supported Aung San Suu Kyi, the elected dissident who soon morphed into a surprisingly reliable player on China’s geopolitical chessboard.
Deepening economic ties with Beijing resumed in the wake of the controversial Belt and Road Initiative. The China Myanmar Economic Corridor has opened a 1,100-mile link between China’s southern city Kunming and Yunnan province allowing direct access to the Indian Ocean.
It’s all about geography and resource-rich Myanmar occupies a strategic place as both a crossroads between South and Southeast Asia as well as a backdoor to China’s southern landlocked regions. Recall that during WWII, allied supplies to beleaguered China flowed in through the famed Burma Road. Ironically today the reversed link can equally pressure India via any planned Chinese naval facilities on the Bay of Bengal.
China’s multibillion-dollar investment and loans to Myanmar focus on the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in the restive Rakhine state. Here deep-water port development will allow China to access oil and gas without having to traverse the Straits of Malacca, thus providing a strategically safe direct route. Equally China is underwriting the $9 billion Muse/Mandalay Railway, a 267-mile corridor linking southern Yunnan with Burma.
Chairman Xi pledged $580 million in aid to Myanmar over the next three years.
This comes in the wake to Beijing’s traditionally heavy-handed dealing with its southern neighbor; even with the onset of Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s more politically acceptable rule.
Given the predominately Buddhist Burmese military’s ethnic cleansing operations against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, it appears the Myanmar regime still needs China’s political protection such as it traditionally offers in the UN Security Council.
Beijing backs the civilian Suu Kyi government as a viable political alternative to the corrupt parallel military power known as Tatmandaw.
Just weeks ago, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a resolution strongly condemning ongoing human rights abuses against Burma’s Rohingya Muslims and other Christian minorities in Kachin and Shan states.
Now the World Court in the Hague offered a legal rebuke to the Burmese government. Since 2017 nearly a million Rohingya Muslims have been forced from their homes and expelled into Bangladesh. The unanimous International Court of Justice ruling demands that Myanmar undertake a set of provisional measures to prevent further attempts at genocide against the roughly 600,000 members of the Rohingya minority still remaining inside the country.
The case which was brought by the West African state of Gambia was surprisingly opposed by Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy and former heralded angel of Burmese democracy who travelled to the Hague to defend her country’s standing but indirectly also too the actions of her former military persecutors. How times change!
The weight of evidence before the ICJ points to the remaining Rohingya “currently facing a credible threat of genocide.” Myanmar must “take all measures within its power to prevent all acts” prohibited under the 1948 Genocide Convention, the presiding Judge stated.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has repeatedly decried Myanmar’s military actions and called for accountability in “one of the world's worst humanitarian and human rights crises.” The Secretary General welcomed the ICJ ruling and stated, “decisions of the Court are binding and trusts that Myanmar will duly comply.”
Don’t hold your breath!
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).
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