The Straits Times says

Brokering peace in troubled zone

The issue of the Rohingya, as Myanmar's displaced Muslims are known around the world, is a particularly vexed one. Denied citizenship there, they have been subject to periodic waves of oppression in their native Rakhine state. Consequently, large numbers of them have streamed into neighbouring Bangladesh, straining that nation's meagre resources. Since August, when an insurgent strike on army and police posts set off a military response and a wave of bloodletting, the trickle has turned into a flood. At last count, nearly 700,000 have sought refuge in Bangladesh.

The United States has called it "ethnic cleansing" by Myanmar, echoing similar words from some United Nations officials.

Unquestionably, this is a blot on the face of Myanmar, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Ang San Suu Kyi, and the military that refuses to yield to her its control over security and cross-border issues. It also is an embarrassment to Asean, which has trodden a fine line on the issue that has pleased nobody while angering some, like Malaysia, which declined to endorse the group position.

Geopolitics complicates matters. India, an influential neighbour to both Bangladesh and Myanmar, has looked the other way, not wishing to drive Myanmar into China's hands. Both the Americans and Europeans haven't done enough, apart from condemning the violence and pledging humanitarian aid.

Into this breach has stepped China. On Saturday, no less than President Xi Jinping discussed the issue when he met Myanmar's military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hliang, in Beijing. That meeting came on the heels of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's trip to Bangladesh and Myanmar. Following that, Beijing proposed a three-stage deal starting with a ceasefire on the ground, a via media for the return of refugees, and a long-term solution based on poverty alleviation. A Bangladesh government statement suggested that the first batches of refugees could return to the Rakhine within two months. Mr Wang has also assured Myanmar that "China is willing to keep playing a constructive role" on the issue.

China must be commended for stepping up to the plate, and using its influence to come up with what seems a workable solution. Critics claim it has "shifted its approach (towards a 'little brother') in an attempt to restart the Myitsone Dam project". The proposed huge dam across the Irrawaddy River is to produce electricity for both Chinese cities over the border and for Myanmar. If the benefit of the doubt is given to China, its willingness to play the role of an honest broker could help to address thorny issues in the region, particularly when the US is inclined to look inwards. Such a stance might moderate China's hand when it takes diplomatic actions on its own behalf.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2017, with the headline 'Brokering peace in troubled zone'. Print Edition | Subscribe