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EFSAS Commentary

China’s backing of Myanmar’s Junta against pro-democracy groups is backfiring even as the Rohingya issue is back in focus


In these times of large scale warfare in various parts of the world, the grim situation in Myanmar, in which hundreds of thousands of people have been rendered homeless in the past two-and-a-half years, thousands of political and civil society leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, have been incarcerated on false or flimsy charges, and thousands have died in raging clashes between the military Junta and pro-democracy groups, had become almost a non-event in the international community’s imagination. An age of impunity and free-for-all, in which many individual countries seem to believe that they can do as they please to serve what they perceive as their legitimate interests, has begun to characterize modern times. In this bleak milieu, it is to the credit of some democracies, the Netherlands being one of them, that have taken it upon themselves to rekindle a humanitarian issue that the world seemed to have lost sight of – the plight of the Rohingya refugees living in squalor in very basic make-shift camps in hapless and helpless Bangladesh, from where they have now been making their way to neighbouring India and elsewhere in South-East Asia in search of a liveable life, but are bringing unwanted problems for these countries as well in the process.

Meanwhile, the military Junta that grabbed power on 1 February 2021 on the strength of China’s backing and support but has since been battling pro-democracy groups that have joined hands with some of the long-running insurgencies in the country, is now realizing the shortcomings and limits of Beijing’s promises, and has become suspicious of Chinese intentions. India and Bangladesh on Myanmar’s eastern flank are also now becoming concerned as the fighting that they have little to do with is encroaching closer to their borders, and as thousands fleeing the violence are taking shelter there.

In a Joint Statement on 16 November, the governments of Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom said that they had filed a joint declaration of intervention in the case brought by The Gambia against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. The ICJ informed that The Maldives had filed a separate declaration accusing Myanmar of genocide. The Gambia had accused the Myanmar regime of violations of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention). It had argued that Myanmar’s security forces perpetrated widespread and systemic “clearance operations” against the Rohingya, and that “genocidal acts committed during these operations were intended to destroy the Rohingya as a group, in whole or in part, by the use of mass murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as the systematic destruction by fire of their villages, often with inhabitants locked inside burning houses”.

A UN fact-finding mission had earlier concluded that a 2017 military campaign by Myanmar’s army that drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas into neighbouring Bangladesh had included “genocidal acts”. Myanmar had denied genocide and rejected the UN findings as “biased and flawed”. It had claimed that its crackdown was aimed against armed Rohingya rebels who had carried out attacks against Myanmar’s security forces in western Rakhine state. Myanmar tried unsuccessfully to have The Gambia’s case thrown out, arguing that the ICJ can only hear disputes between nations, and Gambia was acting on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The ICJ had rejected Myanmar’s objections to the genocide proceedings in July last year, paving the way for the case to be heard in full. The judges also dismissed Myanmar’s claim that Gambia could not file the case as it was not directly linked to the events in Myanmar, and that a legal dispute did not exist between the two countries before the case was filed.

In the Joint Statement, the six countries said that “Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom are exercising the right to intervene in this case under Article 63(2) of the Statute of the Court in order to set out their interpretation of the relevant provisions of the Genocide Convention before the Court. They recall that the Genocide Convention requires States Parties to prevent the crime of genocide and hold those responsible to account. Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom further reaffirm their commitment to accountability and the international legal order and stress the Court’s vital role in the peaceful settlement of disputes as the principal judicial organ of the United Nations”.

Earlier, on 2 September 2020, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands had announced its intention to join the case. It had said in a statement that “The Gambia’s application shows the discrimination and persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, which created the conditions for Myanmar’s security forces to perpetrate targeted and systemic atrocities against the Rohingya. It states that Myanmar’s violations include the commission of genocide against the Rohingya, mostly by way of the systematic and widespread perpetration of mass murder, sexual violence, torture, forced displacement, and denial of access to food and shelter. These conditions have caused over 850,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh since 2016. The Genocide Convention embodies the solemn pledge to prevent the crime of genocide and hold those responsible to account. In bringing this application to the ICJ, The Gambia took a laudable step towards ending impunity for those committing atrocities in Myanmar and upholding this pledge”.

Saying that the Netherlands considered it its obligation to support The Gambia’s efforts, which was of concern to all of humanity, it added that it would “assist with the complex legal issues that are expected to arise”, and would “pay special attention to crimes related to sexual and gender based violence, including rape”. It called on States Parties to the Genocide Convention to “resolve to prevent genocide but also, critically, to hold perpetrators to account”, and reiterated its call to all States Parties to the Genocide Convention to support the Gambia in its efforts to address these violations. Reflecting the effectiveness of the Dutch initiative, the Director General of Germany’s Legal Affairs, Tania von Uslar, posted on X after the Joint Statement of the six countries was issued that “We want to make a contribution to clarifying and combating genocide. We are focusing in particular on violence against women and children”.

Under the ICJ’s rules, the declarations by the six countries and The Maldives mean that these countries will be able to make legal arguments in the case brought forward by The Gambia. Rohingya advocacy groups welcomed the move by the 6 countries. Tun Khin, the President of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation, said in a statement that “The intervention of other countries in support of the Gambia strengthens the case, and increases the pressure on the Burmese military who are still committing genocide against Rohingya. For decades, Rohingya have suffered in Burma, being discriminated against, having our citizenship removed and our freedom of movement curtailed. Thousands of Rohingya women, children and men died in attacks against our people in 2017, and almost 800,000 fled to Bangladesh. Finally, as Rohingya, we can see that justice is coming closer”.

Bangladesh, which has a fair share of its own problems to contend with, finds itself burdened with hosting nearly one million Rohingya refugees who live in overcrowded and under-resourced camps. Al Jazeera reported on 17 November that last month officials from Myanmar, which was plunged into renewed crisis by the military coup of February 2021, met Rohingya refugee families there to discuss their return. Al Jazeera wrote, “Under a repatriation plan, brokered during a three-way meeting between the two countries and China, Myanmar agreed to accept the return of about 3,000 refugees by December. But many refugees have refused to go back, fearing further persecution. In recent days, nearly 600 Rohingya have arrived in nearby Indonesia after taking perilous journeys across the sea. However, while the people of Aceh in Indonesia have previously welcomed refugees, who are taken to a temporary camp before they are usually moved to other parts of Indonesia, tensions have been escalating as the number of arrivals has grown. About 250 Rohingya refugees were afloat off the coast of Indonesia on Friday after local residents pushed them back out to sea. It was the third boat to reach Indonesia’s northernmost province since Tuesday. The two others, which arrived in a different location, were allowed to land”.

Meanwhile, the security situation in Myanmar has deteriorated rapidly over the past few weeks, with the Army coming under increasing attacks by armed rebel groups. Millions had taken to the streets to call for the restoration of democracy in the days after the 2021 coup, but when the military responded with brute force, some civilians took up arms, joining forces with ethnic armed groups who have long been fighting for self-determination. At least 4,185 civilians and pro-democracy activists have been killed in the escalating violence since, and nearly 20,000 people have been jailed by the regime, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Myanmar non-profit tracking the crackdown. The UN has said that 1.7 million people have been forced from their homes.

A new offensive launched by the rebels on October 27, code-named Operation 1027, began in Shan state near the border with China on October 27 under the Three Brotherhood Alliance (TBA), a grouping of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Arakan Army (AA). Shan is home to oil and gas pipelines that supply China and a planned billion-dollar rail link which is part of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The broad coordinated offensive against Myanmar’s military administration and its allies in the northern part of Shan State made rapid progress, with MNDAA claiming to have captured 106 bases and four towns, including Chinshwehaw, an important border crossing with China. One Chinese citizen was reportedly killed and several others injured when an artillery shell fired by the Myanmar military landed on the Chinese side of the frontier. The seriousness of the border situation was evident when China rushed its Assistant Foreign Minister, Nong Rong, to Myanmar on November 3-5 with the stern message that the Junta should restore stability. Reuters quoted him as saying that “Myanmar is called on to cooperate with China to maintain stability along the China-Myanmar border, earnestly ensure the safety of the lives and property of Chinese border residents, and take effective measures to strengthen the security of Chinese personnel”.

China has supported the Junta since the 2021 coup and said that Western countries that have rolled out sanctions against military leaders should respect Myanmar’s sovereignty. However, it is now becoming evident that the backing was aimed more at serving China’s interests rather than the Junta’s. The Junta too, after welcoming the initial support it received from Beijing, has now become suspicious of Chinese intentions. In an article for The Irrawaddy, Bertil Lintner, a long-time Myanmar watcher, argued that despite the seemingly rapid changes to the constellations of power in northern Shan state, Beijing’s goal remained the same: “to exploit Myanmar’s natural resources and, most importantly, to secure the so-called China-Myanmar Economic Corridor which gives it strategic access to the Indian Ocean”. He added, “To achieve those goals, China has always played all sides in Myanmar’s internal conflicts and it is therefore not, it should be remembered, in China’s interest to see the emergence of a strong, peaceful, democratic and federal Myanmar”.

In addition to the consternation it was causing in China, pro-democracy forces have also claimed new territory in the country’s northwest near the border with India. Following the success the coordinated offensive had in northern Shan state, anti-coup fighters also achieved a similar result in Rakhine state. Last week, local media outlets reported that these forces in the neighbouring Chin state had taken control of two military outposts on the border of India’s Mizoram state after hours-long battles. Priscilla Clapp of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) wrote that, “In just a few weeks, the opposition forces have managed to dislodge the military from their bases and encampments” along many parts of the borders with China, Thailand, India and Bangladesh. James Lalrinchhana, the Deputy Commissioner of a district on the India-Myanmar border, said that about 5,000 people from Myanmar had crossed into India’s Mizoram state as a result of the fighting.

Myanmar’s military regime admitted on 15 November that it was facing “heavy assaults from a significant number of armed rebel soldiers”. Junta spokesperson Zaw Min Tun said that anti-coup fighters were using “hundreds” of drones to drop bombs on military posts, and some sites had to be evacuated. He added, “We are urgently taking measures to protect against drone bomb attacks effectively”. Myint Swe, the military-appointed President, told a national defence and security council meeting this month that “It is necessary to carefully control this issue”.

The coordinated offensive by the pro-democracy groups could mark a turning point in the struggle against military rule in Myanmar, and Miemie Winn Byrd of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies believes that now, “China has to make the decision: Do we want stability, or do we want manipulation?”