China is reportedly engaged in a covert diplomatic campaign to sabotage efforts to launch a United Nations probe into war crimes in Burma.
The Chinese have for two months been lobbying European and Asian states at the highest level to neutralise support for the Commission of Inquiry (CoI), the Washington Post reported Monday, claiming that the campaign had “taken the steam” out of the initiative.
China’s opposition to the investigation is well known, and experts were unsurprised at the revelations. Professor Ian Holliday, a specialist in China-Burma relations at the University of Hong Kong, said the move was “very much in line with China’s strategic position over the years.”
Since the crushing of pro-democracy protests in Burma in 1988 and at Tiananmen Square in China in 1989, China has supported its neighbour in insisting human rights issues were strictly a domestic concern, Holliday said.
“They themselves are an authoritarian regime that has human rights abuse on its hands. And so if this movement of international jurisdiction took off then one day it might seriously threaten the Communist Party in China itself… The core concern is not to allow anybody to stick their nose into China,” he said.
The CoI, which would investigate possible war crimes and crimes against humanity by the junta and Burmese ethnic armies, was first proposed officially in March by UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana. Quintana said there was evidence of “gross and systematic” abuses which indicated “a state policy that involves authorities in the executive, military and judiciary at all levels.”
In August, just days after the US expressed its support for the investigation, the Chinese ambassador to the UN, Li Baodong, visited Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s chief of staff to impress on him China’s opposition to the inquiry, calling it “dangerous and counterproductive”, according to the Washington Post.
Benjamin Zawacki, Burma researcher for Amnesty International, said that in its response to the Quintana report, China had gone further than merely expressing its own reservations. The Chinese “went out of their way” to say that the inquiry was the wrong signal to send to developing countries and that those countries “would also be well advised to think seriously about whether or not to support that,” he said.
“Amnesty read the Chinese response as being a very thinly veiled instruction to other developing countries and to other countries that are like-minded, that they would rather not see them in support of this commission of inquiry,” he said.
The US hoped the threat of an investigation would pressure the Burmese junta to allow democratic opposition to take part in this year’s general elections, set for 7 November. With the polls just two weeks away and some 2,200 political prisoners – including Aung San Suu Kyi – barred from participating, that effort appears to have failed.
The likelihood that the polls will preserve the status quo will not displease the Chinese, said Zawacki. “I think what they’d prefer is to keep the situation as it is, because as problematic as it is at least it’s a situation they’ve come to understand,” he said.
“They’re dealing with a set of actors they’ve come to know, whereas the elections, however orchestrated they may be, already introduce a small element of uncertainty. And they want to make sure, as does the government of Myanmar [Burma], that that level of uncertainty is kept to a bare minimum.”
Maung Zarni, a research fellow at the London School of Economics, said China would prefer to deal with a regime similar to itself. “The Chinese consider the Americans and the British – especially the Americans – their serious rivals who don’t want to see the Chinese come up the ladder, so I think any democratic regime that comes to power is logically going to be more in tune with the Americans than the Communists or the pseudo-Communists in Beijing,” he said.
“Butchers don’t feel comfortable in monasteries. The Chinese are in no position to enlighten the Burmese or teach the Burmese how they should behave,” he added.
The commission of inquiry has been given public support by 13 nations: Lithuania, Estonia, Czech Republic, UK, Slovakia, Hungary, Netherlands, Ireland, France, Australia, USA, Canada and New Zealand. It has also been backed by numerous human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
In a recent interview with DVB, Aung Htoo, who heads the Burma Lawyers’ Council, expressed his hope that international pressure could convince the Chinese to back the move. “If the majority of the international community consistently highlights the situation of Burma from the aspect of commission of heinous crimes, China may exercise similar practice by taking a position of ‘abstention’ if there is a motion in the UN Security Council, as was the case for Sudan,” he said. This week’s revelations make such hopes look increasingly desperate.