Xi stands with Myanmar despite Rohingya genocide accusations

Updated January 19, 2020

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Chinese President Xi Jinping, Myanmar President Win Myint and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi attend a cermony. —  Myanmar News Agency/Pool via Reuters/File
Chinese President Xi Jinping, Myanmar President Win Myint and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi attend a cermony. — Myanmar News Agency/Pool via Reuters/File

NAYPYIDAW: China’s Xi Jinping doubled down on his support for fallen rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi on Saturday, signing dozens of infrastructure and trade deals and meeting with the Myanmar army chief accused of overseeing a genocide against Rohingya Muslims.

The Chinese president’s state visit to Myanmar’s purpose-built capital came as Western investors give a wide berth to the country due to the Rohingya crisis.

A 2017 military crackdown on the minority, which UN investigators called genocide, forced around 740,000 people from western Rakhine state over the border into Bangladesh.

Beijing has stood by the increasingly isolated nation and reaffirmed its position in a joint statement in Chinese state media as Xi’s plane left the capital after two days, escorted by fighter jets.

China “firmly supports Myanmar’s efforts to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests and national dignity in the international arena” and for it to advance “peace, stability and development in Rakhine State”.

The Asian giant is now Myanmar’s largest investor even as distrust of its ambitions lingers among the public.

More than 30 agreements were signed on Saturday on Xi’s final day of his visit — with Suu Kyi and Xi seated across from each other on long tables alongside related ministers.

Details were scant but among the 33 deals was a concession and shareholders agreement on the $1.3 billion Kyaukhphyu deep-sea port and economic zone, located in a part of Rakhine state left largely unscathed by the 2017 violence.

There was also a letter of intent for “new urban development” in Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon and feasibility studies for rail links.

The aim is to carve out a so-called “China-Myanmar Economic Corridor” — a path of infrastructure from China’s landlocked south to Myanmar’s western Rakhine state which would serve as Beijing’s long-awaited gateway to the Indian Ocean.

The signing ceremony came between sit-down meetings with Suu Kyi and powerful army chief Min Aung Hlaing, who was put under sanctions by the US after being accused of masterminding the Rohingya crackdown. Myanmar says it was defending itself against attacks by militants.

After his arrival on Friday Xi called the visit a “historical moment” for China-Myanmar relations, according to state-run newspaper the Global New Light of Myanmar.

He also touched on the “unfairness and inequality in international relations” in what could be seen as a slight against the United States.

Myanmar leader Suu Kyi — whose reputation lies in tatters in the West’s eyes due to her defence of the army over the Rohingya crisis — said the country would always be at China’s side.

“It goes without saying that a neighbouring country has no other choice, but to stand together till the end of the world,” she said.

Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2020