by Yali Banton-Heath

Chinese head of state Xi Jinping made his first official visit to Myanmar (Burma) on Friday, where he met with State Councillor and de facto leader of the country Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Win Myint, and the Burmese military’s infamous commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Although it was Jinping’s first visit since assuming office, the occasion marked 70 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries and signifies a continued mutual desire to unite their economic and strategic interests. A total of 33 agreements were signed to speed up China-backed development projects in Myanmar and bolster the China-Myanmar-Economic-Corridor; a vital component of the wider Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Both countries have track records of serious state-sponsored human rights abuses, and share an increasing disdain for, and distancing from the West. With the tantalising promise of economic prosperity, has China got Myanmar under its thumb, and will development come at the expense of human rights.

As Myanmar’s geographical location is of great strategic benefit to China’s Belt and Road Initiative it is no surprise that China has been cosying up to its Southeast Asian neighbour by funnelling billions of dollars worth of investment into its economy over recent years. In 2019 alone bilateral trade amounted to $17.1 billion, with booms in both imports and exports alike. The backbone of these new bilateral economic investments are the three pillars of the China-Myanmar-Economic-Corridor; the Kyaukpuy Special Economic Zone (SEZ), the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone and the New Yangon City. What could be perhaps tentatively described as too close for comfort, the location of the Kyaukpuy SEZ is Rakhine state, an area which offers a prime strategic location for China to access the Indian Ocean and existing oil and gas pipelines. Similarly, another economic zone began construction in 2015 in Maungdaw township in Rakhine state; a town once at the heart of the Rohingya conflict. In reference to the Rohingya crisis, Sean Bain from the International Commission of Jurists in Myanmar was quoted in 2017 saying:

“Problems with the legal framework for SEZs and the human rights abuses associated with them are well documented. It is hard to imagine a more inappropriate site for the development of another SEZ given the ongoing conflict, overall insecurity and appalling human rights situation in the (Rakhine) area”

Currently in Maungdaw there sit hundreds of empty Chinese shipping containers which were placed there two years ago as a housing solution for Rohingya refugees returning home from Bangladesh. Beijing has assumed the role of mediator between Naypyidaw and Dhaka in the task of repatriating the hundreds of thousands of displaced Rohingya, however repatriation has thus far been unsuccessful, with Rohingya unwilling to return home until security guarantees are made. 



Countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative (One Belt, One Road Initiative). Source: Xxjkingdom using Hong Kong Qatar Locator (Wikimedia Commons)


China held back from joining the wider international community in condemning the Burmese government and military for the human rights abuses committed against the Rohingya since 2016. From the outset, it was against the issue being internationalised, and voted against the launch of the UN fact finding mission into whether the crimes committed against the Rohingya amounted to genocide; which the investigation subsequently affirmed. Many scholars, human rights activists, and diplomats alike share the concern that China is searching for a quick solution to the problem which ignores the resolution of fundamental human rights issues and instead prioritises its economic interests in Rakhine state.

Not only is China’s trivialising of the issue likely to be in line with its pragmatic strategic interest, but it is also likely to be a decision made in line with its own unwillingness to admit the state-sponsored systematic oppression of Muslims within its borders. The Turkic speaking Muslim Uyghur minority who live in the northwest province of Xinjiang have for decades faced a process of ethnic cleansing carried out by the Chinese military. According to Reuters, as of March last year around 1.5 million Uyghurs had been detained in concentration camps or ‘re-education camps’ – that’s 1 in 6 of the adult population, although exact figures are difficult to estimate.


Invariably, there seems to be a trade-off between economic development and basic human rights when China digs its claws into Myanmar’s development.


Burmese communities remain sceptical of Chinese investment, and have resisted various other China-backed infrastructure and energy projects in the country. In 2011, construction of the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam in Kachin state was suspended as a result of a huge local backlash from communities fearing displacement and environmental damage. For similar reasons in 2012, violent protests erupted over the human rights violations caused by the Letpadaung copper mine in Saigang region. Such local resistance efforts place Naypyidaw in a position where it must choose between disappointing China or letting down its own citizens. Invariably, there seems to be a trade-off between economic development and basic human rights whenever China digs its claws into Myanmar’s national development.

When she made a trip to the ICJ in December, Aung San Suu Kyi defended her government against allegations of genocide, and reiterated Myanmar’s right to investigate the Rohingya crisis internally, to reach its own conclusions, and to proceed accordingly. As the rest of the international community castigate Suu Kyi for her position on the Rohingya crisis and her rejection of international intervention, China presents itself as a strategic ally to Myanmar as it falls back into geopolitical isolation. Dai Yonghong, from the Institute of the Bay of Bengal Studies at Shenzhen University put it succinctly:

“It is China who is willing to pull Myanmar from the sludge, rather than the Western world that badmouths the nation”.

Human Rights Watch released their 2020 annual world report last week. Its foreword addressed the impact that China is having on human rights standards, highlighting the detainment and oppression of the Uyghur minority, intrusive state surveillance systems, suppression of dissent and civil society organisations, and undermining the One Country Two systems agreement in Hong Kong. In the report, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth pointed not only to this vast spectrum of human rights abuses China inflicts upon its people, but also its attempt to undermine international human rights standards through censoring Chinese criticism overseas, muting attention to human rights in diplomacy, and weakening global rights mechanisms. 

During his visit, Xi Jinping claimed in his speech that:

“We are drawing a future road map that will bring to life bilateral relations based on brotherly and sisterly closeness in order to overcome hardships together and provide assistance to each other”

It’s difficult not to interpret the ‘hardships’ that Jinping mentions in his speech as basic standards of human rights protection. A bilateral relationship to overcome the ‘hardships’ of local resistance to megaprojects and to act with impunity without the scrutiny of international human rights bodies. The economic sanctions, investigations, and judicial proceedings implemented by the West in response to human rights violations committed by the Burmese military are no doubt pushing the country further and further into the refuge of China’s lap.

Chinese suppression of human rights is indeed a worrying prospect for people’s rights worldwide, as the Belt and Road Initiative will eventually involve infrastructure developments in 64 countriesChina’s rise to power and its assertion as the biggest economic player on the international stage will provide developing nations – including Myanmar – with the investment needed to reach their economic goals without the conditions placed upon them by international human rights standards. Perhaps instead of isolating countries with poor human rights track records Western diplomatic efforts and international organisations should attempt to engage better with them, and offer more progressive investment alternatives. States which commit human rights violations should absolutely be condemned for their actions and held to account, however, shunning and disengaging with these countries may only serve to exacerbate the situation. 


Featured image credit: Christopher Michel (Flickr)

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