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China reaches over the Rohingya to touch the Indian Ocean

Displaced Rohingya people in Rakhine State

By Tony Henderson
May 20, 2016

“China, of late, has been pitching to increase its influence in the Indian Ocean through Myanmar by building a deep-water port, which includes a special economic zone (SEZ) … The project is coming up at Kyaukphyu in the troubled southwestern Rakhine Province of Myanmar…”, says Joshy M. Paul, writing for the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) which is under an Indian government department.

The Kyaukphyu project will serve China’s better connectivity with the Indian Ocean, even more than the Gwadar port in Pakistan. The Kyaukphyu SEZ project was awarded to a six-member international consortium headed by one of China’s biggest conglomerates, Citic Group. Four other Chinese industrial and investment groups and one of Thailand’s biggest conglomerates, Charoen Phokphand, constitute the other members of the consortium.

“The project is adjacent to the landing point of the dual pipeline that transports gas and crude oil to China,” Joshy Paul added. This pipeline runs into the Bay of Bengal, just below Bangladesh, in Rakhine province.

In May 2011, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between Myanmar’s railways ministry and China’s state-owned Railway Engineering Corporation that allows the building of a rail line linking Kyaukphyu with Kunming, capital of the Yunnan Province of China. The scheme fits well with China’s revamp of the Silk Road, called the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road.

Also known as The Belt and Road (B&R), or One Belt, One Road (OBOR) this is a development strategy and framework, proposed by Chinese leader Xi Jinping that focuses on connectivity and cooperation among countries primarily between the People’s Republic of China and the rest of Eurasia. The strategy underlines China’s push to take a bigger role in global affairs, and its need to export China’s goods.

U Myint Thein, Deputy Rail Transportation Minister of Myanmar, who also chairs the Kyaukphyu SEZ management committee, has stated that local residents have been invited to join a monitoring group that will check the proceedings for any potential social, economic or environmental impingement. This is presumed to help avoid provoking local resistance as happened in Sri Lanka and Africa and even in Myanmar regarding other Chinese projects.

China had earlier faced trouble in Myanmar with local protests against the Letpadaung copper mine project in the northwest of the country. Before that, in 2010, the Myanmar Government had to suspend a $3.6 billion Chinese-led Myitsone Dam project because of the local opposition – 90 per cent of the power was expected to have gone to China. Beijing now wants to avoid similar situation in the case of Kyaukphyu project given its huge strategic value.

It may be recalled that Beijing invited Aung San Suu Kyi to China in June 2015 where she met President Xi Jinping, an unusual event as opposition leaders wouldn’t usually get to meet the president so her rise to power must have been a foregone conclusion.

Xinhua provided few details of the meeting but there was a note to the effect that China looks at its relationship with Myanmar “from a strategic and long-term perspective”. The five-day visit was at the invitation of the Chinese Communist Party and the purpose was to positively engage Suu Kyi and her party the National League for Democracy (NLD). The Chinese Government has also hosted politicians from the troubled Rakhine Province, where the Kyaukphyu SEZ project is located.

It would be imagined that instability in that province would be the last thing needed by any party to the project but still the Rohingya and their perennial troubles are not being attended to. Many observers presumed Suu Kyi, with her human rights fighter hat on, would tackle the issue but no. Nothing so far.

The plight of the Rohingya became a serious if temporary news item in 2012 when violence broke out in Rakhine, which lies next to the Bangladeshi border. The violence led to about 125,000 Muslims, including Rohingya, to be displaced from their homes.

Radical Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu has led protests against Muslims, especially the Rohingya, in the Arakan state and has accused Burmese Muslims of establishing an Islamist state in Burma and has urged the Burmese people to avoid Muslim-run businesses.

Maung Zarni, founder-director of the Free Burma Coalition told AlterNet that a slow but sure genocide of the Rohingya people is taking place.

Zarni notes that since 2012, when the Rohingya crisis first made global headlines, the situation of the ethnic group has gone from bad to worse. While Burma’s transition to democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi are celebrated worldwide, the discrimination against Burmese Muslims is ignored. It was well noted by sympathisers to the Muslim cause that the Rohingya and other Burmese Muslims were barred by Suu Kyi from contesting in the National League For Democracy (NLD) elections.

China is big enough and rich enough to help the Rohingya get what they want, legal status as Myanmar nationals. Humanitarian efforts in that direction would really put the dissenting parties on the wrong foot and bring all round advantages as it would not do to have ethnicity conflicts in the very state where such huge amounts of money are to be spent.

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