China Should Protect Myanmar Refugees


More than 30,000 civilians from northeastern Myanmar’s ethnically-Chinese Kokang region streamed into China’s Yunnan province to escape four days of fighting between the military and a local militia that ended August 29 . Some sought shelter in tents set up by the Chinese. Others apparently sought shelter with friends and relatives.

On August 31, some 4,000 Kokang were transported to the border by the Chinese government so they could return home. Others expressed a fear of returning. But since then, the Chinese government has begun taking down the tents and has imposed an information blackout on the border situation.

This raises important questions about whether it is safe to return and about whether the Chinese government is using the information blackout to obscure its failure to meeting it obligations to protect refugees under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Some Refugees Fear Returning

Myanmar (also known as Burma) has been under military rule since 1962. In the Kokang area of Shan State, there had been a long-term ceasefire between the military and a local militia, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). In preparation for 2010 elections, the military is try to co-opt local ethnical militias. The military managed to convince one MNDAA faction to join the government troops, but fighting broke out between the military and another faction. Some analysts believe that the military took on the MNDAA first because it is relatively weak, and that the fighting will intensify as the military takes on other ethnic militias, including the United Wa State Army.

Rows of blue tents have been set up in Nansan, nestled in rugged and lush mountains in China’s Yunnan province, to accommodate the refugees. China has provided them with food and medical care.

Xinhua News Agency, citing Yunnan provincial police chief Meng Sutie, said more than 13,000 refugees were receiving government aid, while the rest were staying with friends and relatives.

Some of the Kokang are anxious to return home, especially merchants who fear their shops may be looted in their absence. “Of course I’m scared (to go back), but there’s no choice,” said Liu Shurong, one of the refugees about to return to Kokang. “If you don’t go back to guard your shop, it will be looted. Many of my neighbours have lost all their belongings.”

But others interviewed in the town of Nansan, on the Chinese side of the border, said they remain unconvinced by the military junta’s claims that calm had been restored in the region.

“They were shooting ordinary people. I saw it myself. We don’t believe what they say. We are afraid to go back,” said Li Jun, a 24-year-old farmer, to an Agence France-Presse Reporter. “They say they will not shoot again but they will shoot.”

The refugee camps are off limits to foreign reporters and nongovernmental organizations.

China‘s Treaty Obligations

A refugee is legally defined in the Refugee Convention as a person who has fled his or her country because of actual persecution or “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted” is unwilling to return to his or her country. The actual or threatened persecution must be on the because of an enumerated ground–race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

China is one of the few countries in Asia to have signed the Refugee Convention. Parties to the Convention have an obligation to abide by the principle of “non-refoulement,” which means that “No contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened.

In practice, a country that has signed the treaty is supposed to make individual determinations regarding whether a person unwilling to return to his or her country is a refugee and is supposed to give the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to the asylum-seekers.

However, the Chinese government has no domestic legislation or procedures relating to refugee status determinations. And the Chinese government has not responded to UNHCR’s requests for access to the persons fleeing Myanmar, according to Kitty McKinsey, regional spokeswoman for UNHCR.

“The Myanmar government has told us through diplomatic channels to send them back,” Yunnan provincial government spokesman Li Hui told reporters.

In the past, China has drawn criticism from human-rights advocates for its practice of rounding up North Korean refugees in the northeast and sending them back, where they are likely to face prison terms or be sent to harsh labor camps as punishment. China denies UNHCR and nongovernmental organizations access to its northeastern border with North Korea.

China’s Political Concerns

China’s most important concern in the region is stability.

China has made major investments in Myanmar to facilitate export of natural resources, including oil and gas, to China. This makes China one of the few allies of Myanmar’s isolated junta, which is under U.S. and EU sanctions.

Refugees are a threat to stability. Over two million Burmese, many of them ethnic minorities, have fled for economic and political reasons to Thailand, Bangladesh, India, China, Indonesia, and Malaysia to seek work and asylum in recent years.

Stability is also needed to stem the flow of drugs from Myanmar. Kokang is on the fringe of the drug-producing Golden Triangle region where Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet. Several ethnic militias there have used the trade in heroin and amphetamines to finance their operations, with much of their product smuggled into China.

Stability is especially important in the run-up to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. Analysts said that the Chinese government had asked Myanmar’s generals to refrain from initiating military campaigns before the celebration.

While these concerns need to be addressed, China can best promote stability by living up to its international obligations under the Refugee Convention and by applying diplomatic pressure on its neighbors like North Korea and Myanmar to live up to minimum international standards of conduct.


Burmese Refugees in China Afraid to Go Home, Agence France-Presse (Aug. 31, 2009),

Thomas Fuller, Myanmar Army routs Chinese Rebels in North, New York Times (Aug. 30, 2009),

Sky Canaves, China Copes with Influx of Myanmar Refugees, Wall Street Journal (Aug. 29, 2009),

Ng Han Guan, Myanmar Refugees Leave China as Battles Ending, Associated Press (Aug. 31, 2009),

China: Refugees Reported Fleeing Fresh Fighting in Myanmar, UNHCR Briefing Notes (Aug. 28, 2009),

Chris Buckley, Myanmar Refugees Begin Warily Returning from China (Aug. 31, 2009),

Michael Wines, China Silent on Burmese Refugees, New York Times (Sept. 1, 2009),

Integrated Regional Information Networks, Myanmar: UN seeks access to Burmese refugees in southern China (Sept. 1, 2009),

Michale Wines, Beijing Limits Information on Burmese Refugees Remaining in China, N.Y Times (Sept. 1, 2009),

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