This week, the Secretary-General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, warned that the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar (Burma) is at risk of suffering a “humanitarian catastrophe.” The Burmese government treats the Rohingya as stateless people, and after a recent attack on government security forces, the Burmese military has been attacking and expelling thousands of them from their homes.
In response to Guterres’s concerns, Burmese government has only doubled down. National Security Adviser Thaung Tun told reporters that the Myanmar expected Russia and the People’s Republic of China to back the regime’s actions in the United Nations Security Council. “China is our friend and we have a similar friendly relationship with Russia, so it will not be possible for that issue,” said Tun, referring to a UN official condemnation of the regime’s actions, “to go forward.”
The Chinese have apparently vindicated the Burmese government’s expectations. The state-owned Global New Light of Myanmar quoted Chinese ambassador Hong Liang as saying that “The counterattacks of Myanmar security forces against extremist terrorists and the government’s undertakings to provide assistance to the people are strongly welcomed.”
Persecution of the Rohingya minority in the Burmese state of Rakhine has been going on since 2016 and is now reaching a lethal fever pitch. Amid killing, beating, forced eviction, and rape by the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military, nearly 400,000 Rohingya have fled Burma to nearby Bangladesh. Now the Burmese military is now laying land mines on the Bangladeshi-Burmese border. This campaign of ethnic cleansing is Burma’s shame—and China’s opportunity.
Both China and Russia, always keen to undermine international norms of human rights and find new authoritarian client states, have rallied to defend the actions of the Tatmadaw. Russian state media claims that the United States government is funding Rohingya “terrorists” to undermine an ally of China. Sun Guoxiang, China’s special envoy for Asian affairs, said China “condemns the attacks,” but also made clear that “China, as a friendly neighbor, supports Myanmar’s efforts in maintaining peace and stability in Rakhine state.”
History helps to clarify why China opposes any international censure of Burma. On August 8, 1988, the Burmese people rose up against the tyranny of General Ne Win and his Burmese Socialist Programme Party. The central role that Aung San Suu Kyi played in this “8888 Uprising” would make her the central figure of the Burmese pro-democracy movement for the next two decades. But little more than a month later, the Burmese military crushed all democratic resistance and instituted a military junta (first called SLORC, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, and later renamed the State Peace and Development Council). The Oxford Burma Alliance, a Burmese expatriate human rights group, estimates that the death toll of the suppression of the 8888 Uprising is as high as 10,000.
Chinese Communist Party boss Deng Xiaoping, his own hands bloody from a similar crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989, found a natural ally in the SPDC junta. With most of the international community shunning Burma, China soon became its largest foreign investor, bankrolling infrastructure projects, liquid natural gas extraction facilities, and most importantly, the Tatmadaw, the second-largest military force in Southeast Asia. In 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) handily won national elections—but the SPDC quickly quashed the results and refused to allow the legitimate government to enter office. Beijing was pleased, and the SPDC became part of an extractive Sino-Burmese trade—natural resources went out, and Chinese investment came in (with a significant amount being skimmed off by the generals).
In 2007, the pro-democracy movement again launched a series of nationwide protests for democracy. Hundreds of thousands of people, led by Buddhist monks, marched peacefully through Rangoon calling for the end of military junta rule in what came to be known as the Saffron Revolution. The international community spoke out against the junta’s brutal campaign of arrests, but the United Nations took little more than rhetorical action. “The Burmese junta has chosen to face the uprising with violence because it is losing its grip on power and because it is convinced that China will come to its aid in the UN Security Council and suppress any meaningful international response,” wrote Tiananmen Square survivor and Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom recipient Yang Jianli in 2007. “So far, those calculations have proved correct.”
In 2011, the SPDC officially dissolved to make way for a freely elected government, but the Tatmadaw kept a close hand on the tiller of government, and even hold an automatic 25 percent of seats in the legislature. In 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD won a sweeping electoral victory and was this time allowed to take power. Unfortunately, soon after the NLD government was installed, military human rights abuses against the Rohingya became even more commonplace.
The recent crisis now stands as an excellent opportunity for China to once more increase its influence over Burma—at the expense of innocent people. Burma is again becoming isolated from the international community and even Aung San Suu Kyi is being harshly criticized for her passivity in the face of ethnic cleansing. As the Tatmadaw’s murderous campaign continues to drive away the global community, it increases the military’s relative weight in Burmese politics. The grand dame of Southeast Asian democracy is being tarnished, the military is ascendant in Burma again, and the international human rights movement is being discredited by UN inaction—it’s a win-win-win for Beijing.
Photo: Channel 4 Television