Over the past few months, evidence has mounted of Myanmar military attacks against the Muslim minority Rohingya community, to include rapes and murders. This led to the flight of at least 43,000 refugees since October. I wrote two prior articles on the topic, one calling for sanctions on Myanmar and greater autonomy for the Rohingya, and the other analyzing a secret document that constitutes evidence that Burma recognized legal Rohingya residence in 1978 and 1992. Despite Myanmar’s human rights abuse against the Rohingya, diplomatic pressure against Myanmar for the atrocities of its military is lacking. China is Myanmar’s closest ally, has substantial influence in the country, and does extensive business in Rakhine State, where abuses of the Rohingya are occurring. For this and additional reasons detailed below, China has a high degree of responsibility for this tacit international acquiescence to Myanmar’s human rights abuse. China should take the lead in moderating Myanmar’s behavior, but has not done so. According to an Asian diplomat interviewed for this article, China quietly acquiesces to its ally’s human rights abuse so as not to create a precedent that could affect its own human rights abuse, and to deny the U.S. a human rights issue through which it might increase influence in Asia.
China is largely against notions of universal human rights, and has strategic and business interests in Myanmar. Some of the Chinese corporations currently doing business in or offshore of Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where the abuse is taking place, are China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and PetroChina, the publicly traded part of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). China’s relative silence on the Rohingya issue likely results in part from its business interests in the area. This silence serves to tacitly support Myanmar diplomatically on the Rohingya issue.
The Asian diplomatic source to whom I spoke, alleges that China and most ASEAN countries are largely ignoring the Rohingya crisis, or supporting Myanmar behind the scenes, because they do not want to set a precedent for outside interference in domestic human rights issues. Such a precedent could then be used against them on human rights violations against their own minorities. Additionally, China sees human rights complaints as a potential avenue for U.S. influence in Asia, according to the source. China and most of the ASEAN countries have their own minorities that are discriminated against, or worse. China’s worst-treated minorities are in Xinjiang and Tibet, and precedents on the Rohingya are avoided in part to protect Chinese policies in those provinces. According to my source,
Not taking a position is in [the] national interest of many countries. As for people of Chinese descent in Kachin and Shan, China may be quietly telling Myanmar that they would like to see people of Chinese descent to be considered better than now. At [the] same time, China has a different approach altogether [towards the Rohingya]. It is mostly silent. But, there is a dilemma. In [the] name of calling for treating minorities better, it may end up creating more space for Westerners to play a bigger role in Myanmar. [China] may link it to strategic considerations. China, like other countries, has its own problem with minorities. If Myanmar minorities were supported then the same could be expected for minorities in China.
Myanmese protestors shout anti-China and Myanmar’s anti-military junta slogans during a protest in New Delhi on February 19, 2009. Hundreds of Arakanese from The Union of Burma protested to urge the Chinese government to stop a proposed gas pipeline from Arakan State to Yunnan Province. On December 24, 2008, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) signed an agreement with the Burmese military junta, State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), to pipe out gas from Arakan State, western Burma, to Yunnan Province, west China, for a 30-year period starting from 2013. The project is worth US $2.5 billion, and the pipeline’s length is 950 kilometers. PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images
The source applied the same logic to ASEAN countries as a whole. “ASEAN has followed the principle of noninterference in member states,” he said. “They are not taking a position on the Rohingya because that suits them. Indonesia has [a] similar problem with some of its ethnic [minorities]. Malaysia has its own problem with a local Chinese community…. Thailand has Muslims in the South and some [people of Chinese origin] in the North. Vietnam has the same problem.”
The U.S. and E.U. have taken the most principled stand on the Rohingya. But they are worried about pushing the country too hard on human rights issues, and thereby driving it closer to China. U.S. and E.U. diplomats are also probably worried about the effects of alienating Myanmar, including on E.U. and U.S. businesses in Myanmar. Chevron and Shell are doing business offshore of Rakhine State. If U.S. diplomats push too hard on the Rohingya issue, for example, Chevron, Caterpillar, Ford, John Deere, Chevrolet, G.E., and other U.S. businesses in Myanmar could be targeted by the Myanmar government and lose market share, investment opportunities, and contracts. Chinese companies could then take the opportunities, with a resulting diminution of U.S. influence in Myanmar.
Many of these U.S. companies, for example Chevron and Ford, give campaign contributions to the Democratic and Republican parties. So the Secretary of State has disincentives to disquiet these companies by damaging their business in Myanmar. Many U.S. Senators and Congressmen own shares in these companies, and so have disincentives to hurt their own share prices through implementation of sanctions. Ambassadors often seek lucrative corporate leadership positions following their government service, so they have a personal interest in serving corporate interests when they are in government. For these reasons, U.S. diplomats and congressional representatives are unlikely to promote international sanctions against Myanmar on the Rohingya tragedy.
South Korean and Japanese diplomats have similar disincentives to get tough on Myanmar’s human rights abuses. The Korea Myanmar Development Company (KMDC), Daewoo (South Korea), and Mitsui (Japan) are all doing business in Rakhine State, or just offshore. According to the Asian diplomatic source for this article, Japan prioritizes its economic relations with Myanmar over human rights issues. “Japan sees the Rohingya issue from an economic point of view,” he said. “They want to maintain [a] lead in trade and the economy of Myanmar so they don’t take sides.”
Unfortunately, many corporations and government officials are looking the other way on Myanmar’s abuse of the Rohingya for narrow reasons of commercial or national interest. At its worst, countries see their national interest served through perpetuation of a general negligence on human rights issues. This provides countries and corporations with impunity to abuse their own minorities, and to operate in locations where such abuse may make extraction of resources easier. Human rights impunity is the other side of China’s oft-referred-to principle of non-interference in internal affairs. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries have largely subscribed to the same principle. ‘Honor among thieves,’ in this context, is when I allow you to abuse your minorities, if you let me abuse mine.
There is no justification for extending China and ASEAN’s principle of non-interference to a situation such as the Rohingya crisis in which hundreds of thousands of refugees have resulted from a calculated use of terror tactics like rape and murder, and that risks genocide and large-scale crimes against humanity. NGOs and democratic governments should strongly condemn human rights abuses against the Rohingya and other Myanmar minorities in order to promote universal human rights. Shareholders should demand social responsibility from their Boards of Directors. Authoritarian governments should not be allowed to use the excuse of non-interference to hide their human rights abuse.
In places like Rakhine State, where religious and ethnic minorities are repressed by a majority-Buddhist government, it is a moral imperative to support the minority through public statements of concern about human rights, diplomatic and economic isolation of the offending regime, and stronger sanctions where necessary.