Rohingya refugee workers carry bags of salt as they work in processing yard in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

The Irrawaddy, an online Myanmar publication, suggests in a recent article that China may be blocking attempts to sign a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations that would set terms for the repatriation to Myanmar of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees now in Bangladesh.

According to The Irrawaddy, Chinese officials held two days of closed-door meetings with their Myanmar counterparts in Yangon on May 29 and 30, where the two sides discussed a number of issues, including the Rohingya refugee crisis. The article stated that China, which wants to build its sway over Myanmar, does not want to see Western countries have influence in the country and, therefore, does not want to see a solution to the crisis which Beijing cannot control.

Another, perhaps more plausible reason, is that China fears that such a repatriation could bolster the morale of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which Chinese authorities claim has links to Uighur separatists in Xinjiang. In late March, Bao Youxiang, the commander of the United Wa State Army – which has close ties to China – conveyed a message from Chinese authorities warning all ethnic rebels in Myanmar not to cooperate with ARSA for precisely that reason. The Chinese have not produced any evidence to support the claim of a link between the Rohingya and Uighur groups.

The Irrawaddy reported that the Myanmar government has shown interest in reaching an agreement with the UN and other international organizations, not least because the Rohingya refugee crisis has severely damaged its international reputation.

So far, no organized repatriation has taken place and China may not be the only party that is opposed to reaching an agreement with the UN. Having driven at least 700,000 Rohingyas into Bangladesh in what is claims was a successful “clearance operation” against “terrorists” and “illegal migrants”, Myanmar’s powerful and staunchly nationalistic military is unlikely to accept such a deal.

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