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.