China struggles in new diplomatic role, trying to return Rohingya to Myanmar
By Poppy McPherson, Ruma Paul and Shoon Naing
YANGON (Reuters) - In a muddy field in western Myanmar, hundreds of Chinese shipping containers fitted with single narrow windows stand in neat lines, empty of the refugees they were designed to host.
China sent the gray boxes two years ago as quick and cheap housing for some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled Myanmar for Bangladesh during a military-led crackdown in 2017 that the United Nations said was conducted with genocidal intent.
The empty containers near the town of Maungdaw in Rakhine state, reflect months of failed efforts to entice the Rohingya to return to Myanmar despite a diplomatic drive by neighbor and close ally China.
In a sharp departure from its official policy of non-interference in other countries' affairs, China has positioned itself as the key mediator in resolving the protracted crisis.
But like the Indonesian and United Nations envoys who previously sought to mediate, China is finding the business of diplomacy tough going, with few signs that the crisis will soon be resolved.
The main sticking-point is a disagreement over whether the refugees will be safe in Myanmar.
Myanmar says it has created safe conditions for the Rohingyas' return, but Bangladesh and the United Nations say that fighting in Rakhine and a lack of human rights guarantees make a return for the refugees dangerous.
The Rohingya say they will not go back without guarantees of rights now denied to them, including citizenship and freedom of movement.
Over the past two years, Chinese officials have brokered three meetings between leaders of the two countries, made multiple visits to the sprawling refugee camps housing the Rohingya in Bangladesh, hired cattle trucks to bring returnees home and even offered cash inducements, all to little avail.
Still, China says it has made progress, even if only a few hundred Rohingya have returned home so far.
The issue received fresh attention when President Xi Jinping visited Myanmar on Friday for a two-day state visit.
In a subsequent joint statement by the neighbors, China reaffirmed its willingness to continue to mediate, while Myanmar thanked China for "its understanding of the Rakhine problem, its difficulty and complications".
The visit's main focus was China's massive infrastructure projects, including a controversial hydropower dam and a deep-sea port in Rakhine, that make Myanmar a vital link in Xi's flagship Belt and Road Initiative to expand trade ties globally.
The two countries signed dozens of deals covering trade and infrastructure, with Myanmar agreeing to speed up implementation.
Western Myanmar, with its location between booming India and Southeast Asia, is strategically important to Beijing, offering China's landlocked western provinces potential port access to the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal.
"We have facilitated and hosted three foreign minister meetings between China, Myanmar, and Bangladesh to work for an early repatriation," Luo Zhaohui, China's vice foreign minister told a Jan. 10 news conference ahead of Xi's trip.
"Our efforts have paid off."
But Bangladesh officials, Western diplomats in Yangon, and security analysts say China is mainly concerned with shoring up its key interests in Rakhine.
In talks with the Bangladesh government, Chinese officials emphasize the importance of developing the state rather than resolving human rights issues, said a Bangladesh official familiar with the discussions.
"China wants to resolve the crisis," said another Bangladesh official. "At least, they want to start repatriation as early as possible. But they are not doing enough to oblige Myanmar to create a conducive environment for them to return."
U.N. officials and diplomats in Yangon also say China's efforts to broker a quick solution ignore the human rights concerns.
"Their approach is wildly simplistic," said one Yangon-based diplomat. "What we hear is China has been pushing Myanmar and Bangladesh to just get it done. What does that mean when the conditions aren't there?"
China's foreign ministry said Tuesday that "positive progress" was made in the meetings it had brokered between Bangladeshi and Myanmar leaders, two of them attended by high-ranking UN officials.
In a statement, it called the meetings "hard-won positive developments" that should be supported by the international community.
Responding to questions from Reuters, Myanmar defended the Chinese efforts.
Ko Ko Naing, an official of Myanmar's social welfare ministry, said China had been "helping continuously", citing its development efforts in Rakhine.
"The lack of development is more important than social cohesion," he said. "We are doing many investments there. The roads are better."
While more than 730,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in 2017, hundreds of thousands are still in Myanmar, confined to camps and villages where they are denied access to healthcare and education.
Fresh fighting between government troops and an ethnic armed group comprised mostly of majority Rakhine Buddhists has also displaced tens of thousands of people.
Despite the concerns over the security situation in Rakhine, China's position is that Myanmar is ready to take back the refugees.
It is also advocating resolving the issue through talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh, and minimizing the role of parties such as the United Nations, which runs the refugee camps, officials of both countries told Reuters.
China has presented its diplomatic work in Myanmar and Bangladesh as humanitarian, but analysts and diplomats in Yangon say those efforts have broader geopolitical aims.
"I'd say that China is not involved in the Rohingya crisis for humanitarian reasons, but for political and economic considerations," said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington.
"China would like to be the new peacemaker in the region," she said, adding that it wanted to show how its approach to resolving the crisis could succeed where Western powers had failed. "It's a competition for leadership."
Nowkhim, a refugee leader in Kutapalong, one of the camps in Bangladesh, said the general perception among the Rohingya was that China was merely pressing Myanmar's official line and was unwilling to push it to accept their demands.
A video from a meeting between refugee leaders and Chinese diplomats, seen by Reuters, shows a Chinese official saying the Rohingya should drop demands such as the right to be recognized as an ethnic group in Myanmar.
Myanmar's position is that the Rohingya are Muslim migrants from the Indian sub-continent and not one of the country's ethnic groups – which would technically grant them citizenship.
"They are not willing to solve our problem easily," said Nowkhim. "They are just showing the world that 'we meet with Rohingya'."
Beijing's last major effort to kickstart repatriation was in August after Myanmar compiled a list of 3,000 Rohingya approved for return. But that effort failed after hundreds of the refugees on the list went into hiding to avoid being sent back.
Standing in one of the refugee camps in Bangladesh at the time, a Chinese diplomat said that someone needed to make the first move to send the Rohingya back.
Myanmar officials waited on the other side of the border, but not a single refugee volunteered to return.
Only about 400 refugees have since returned separately, Myanmar says. Rohingya leaders say most of the returnees have close ties to the Myanmar government.
Myanmar has also rebuffed some of China's efforts, last year rejecting a proposal for refugees to visit Rakhine to assess conditions.
A local businessman tasked with assembling the donated containers said he saw little point in continuing with his work.
"People haven't stayed in the houses for two years," said the businessman, who sought anonymity. "I will stop building this year," he added.
"The situation has not changed, right?"
(Reporting by Poppy McPherson and Ruma Paul. Additional reporting by Shoon Naing, Sam Aung Moon and Simon Lewis in Yangon and Cate Cadell in Beijing. Writing by Poppy McPherson; Editing by Philip McClellan.)