As last week’s coup showed, China and Myanmar have long had each other’s backs when faced with international condemnation. Foreign Editor David Pratt asks, who now will do the same for their oppressed Uighur and Rohingya minorities?

As a foreign correspondent these past four decades, I’ve sadly been no stranger to the horrors of ethnic cleansing and genocide. From the Balkans to African countries like Rwanda and the Darfur region of western Sudan, I’ve witnessed the grisly evidence and spoken with both the perpetrators and survivors of these crimes against humanity.

So profoundly painful are such collective traumas that the dates of their happening become indelibly etched in the minds of those who journeyed through, and survived, such human firestorms. In subsequent years, those same dates for many become a time for remembrance and a recommitment to the pledge “never again”.

It was just over 10 days ago now that the world, as it does every year, marked Holocaust Memorial Day, commemorating those European Jews and others who were victims of genocide at the hands of Nazi Germany between 1941 and 1945.

At countless memorial gatherings, those words “never again” were reiterated as part of that pledge to prevent such atrocities being repeated. But global events all too often have a terrible way of testing such a pledge, and unfortunately the harsh lessons of the past mean little to some inhabiting the present.

It was last Monday, just days after Holocaust Memorial Day, that the country once known as Burma – now called Myanmar – was subjected to a military coup. Myanmar’s 10-year experiment with democracy ended abruptly when army commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing seized power, bringing back an uneasy sense of déjà vu for many in the country who have lived under military rule before.

In a leaf out of a Trumpian playbook, Myanmar’s army, or Tatmadaw as it is known, justified seizing power by alleging “terrible fraud” in November’s election, the second in five years in which its political proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development party (USDP), was trounced by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

With Suu Kyi and many of her officials arrested, charged and now in prison, the UN sought to “condemn the military coup” and call on the army to “immediately release those unlawfully detained.”

China, however, had other ideas, choosing instead, along with Russia, in voting to block the UN Security Council’s condemnation. It wasn’t the first time Beijing has thrown its political weight behind Myanmar’s military and looked after the junta or other leaders there, including Suu Kyi.

Back in 2008, just like today, China similarly railed against the UN, rejecting a probe into what the international body labelled the ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s ethnic minority Rohingya population.

“China does not approve of complicating, expanding or internationalising this issue,” a Chinese envoy was quoted at the time as saying. So just what is it, then, that for so long now has motivated China to cover Myanmar’s back?

Well, the first thing to recognise is that China has huge economic and commercial concerns in Myanmar, among them massive oil and gas interests, and initiatives like the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor aimed at further connecting the two countries.

As of the end of last year, China stood as Myanmar’s second-biggest investor behind Singapore with $21.5 billion in approved foreign capital. Beijing also accounts for about one-third of all Myanmar’s trade, something like 10 times more than the US.

But there is another cosy quid pro quo arrangement whereby each looks out for the other. One born out of a much more sinister commonality between the two states involving persecution, ethnic cleansing, and allegations of genocide.

For here are two states which currently stand accused of playing a role in genocide against religious minority groups; Myanmar, where the military stands accused of perpetrating genocide against the Rohingya Muslims; and China, whose government is allegedly perpetrating genocide against the Uighur (pronounced “we-gur”) Muslims.

For those readers unfamiliar with the origins and background of both, the Rohingya are a Sunni Muslim minority who come from the Rakhine region in Myanmar. They have been called one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. The story of that persecution has its roots in Britain’s colonisation of Burma, and modern-day Myanmar’s refusal to recognise the existence of a people who have existed for thousands of years.

This culminated in a Citizenship Law which was passed in 1982 which went a step further and ruled anyone who had come to Myanmar during British colonial rule to be illegal immigrants – one of which was the Rohingya. Subsequently denied citizenship this effectively rendered them stateless.

For the Uighurs, their persecution is no less brutal even if it manifests itself differently in China. A mostly Muslim Turkic ethnicity who regard themselves as culturally and ethnically close to central Asian nations, the majority live in Xinjiang, where they number about 11 million people. They have their own language, also called Uighur, though China is accused of forcing those taken to camps in Xinjiang to learn Mandarin.

While the governments of both China and Myanmar dispute any allegations of persecution and atrocities, some of which still definitively must be proved through international courts, mounting evidence collated over many years by both the UN and independent global human rights groups is damning.

Indeed, the UN went as far as to describe a military operation carried out by the Myanmar army against the Rohingya in 2017 as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

Both the regimes in Beijing and Naypyidaw use near-identical arguments in defence of their actions, insisting they are internal security matters when criticised or put under scrutiny from democratic countries.

Both, too have justified their actions by claiming that the ethnic minorities – both Muslim – are extremists. In other words, they are Muslim “terrorists”.

As the UN has said in the case of the Uighurs and other Muslims, they are being treated as “enemies of the state” based purely on their ethno-religious identity.

In effect these factors have helped China and Myanmar explain away ruthless and punitive human rights violations under the excuse or guise of counterterrorism.

Such a political smokescreen only adds to the problems of holding both countries to account. While the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague would be one of the possible avenues to pursue accountability, both countries refused to become signatories to the ICC and the court’s jurisdiction principally applies only to those who are member states.

Meanwhile, over the past few years, evidence against both China and Myanmar of crimes against humanity has been piling up.

Only last week the BBC released a series of accounts from witnesses of systematic rape and sexual abuse against women in internment camps where more than one million Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities are imprisoned in China’s Xinjiang region.

Refugees have previously recounted sexual abuse in the camps but these latest reports gathered several key witnesses, including some women who were raped. These accounts all fit into the pattern of data already brought together that tracks the scale of the camps recorded both through satellite data and on Chinese government websites.

“The systematic rape of Uighur and other Turkic women are part of China’s ongoing genocide against East Turkistan’s people. We urge the international community to support our case against China at the international criminal court,” said Salih Hudayar, the US-based prime minister of a self-declared government-in-exile for East Turkistan.

“I have a mother, a wife, sisters, aunts and grandmothers. The rape of any woman breaks my heart and makes my blood boil,” added Hudayar.

Just as these latest reports over the Uighurs in China have given rise to fresh concerns there so, too, have fears grown that last week’s coup in Myanmar will worsen the plight of some 600,000 Rohingya still in the country.

In neighbouring Bangladesh where more than 750,000 Rohingya Muslims fled in 2017 after Myanmar’s military stepped up what it called a “counterinsurgency operation” but which involved rape, murder and the torching of villages, there is, not surprisingly, little sympathy for Aung San Suu Kyi and her arrest at the hands of those who grabbed power last Monday.

Once regarded by the West as an icon of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, Suu Kyi went on to become what Stephen M Walt, professor of international telations at Harvard University, recently called “a morally compromised enabler of the military’s genocidal campaign against the Rohingya”.

In the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, where most displaced Rohingya now cram, few there, if any, would disagree with this assessment.

For them, any chance of repatriation to Myanmar has now become even more of a pipe dream with most Rohingya refugees afraid of what might happen at the hands of the same army that forced them to flee in the first place.

“The military killed us, raped our sisters and mothers, torched our villages. How is it possible for us to stay safe under their control?” asked Khin Maung, head of the Rohingya Youth Association in Cox’s Bazar. “Any peaceful repatriation will hugely be impacted. It will take a long time because the political situation in Myanmar is worse now,” he told the Associated Press a few days ago in the wake of the coup.

Likewise, for the Uighurs, the outlook continues to look bleak. Described as the largest mass incarceration of the 21st century, in all it is estimated that about one million Uighurs are being held against their will in what the Chinese authorities call “re-education camps”. Such numbers would account for roughly 10% of the whole Uighur population in the region.

The latest testimonies from several former Uighur detainees and a guard are only part of many grim eyewitness accounts compiled over many years of abuse and torture.

Tursunay Ziawudun, who fled Xinjiang after her release and is now in the US, told of how women at one internment camp were removed from the cells “every night” and raped by one or more masked Chinese men. She said she was tortured and later gang-raped on three occasions, each time by two or three men.

Like most media organisations the BBC says it’s impossible to verify Ziawudun’s account completely because of the severe restrictions China places on reporters in the country. However, travel documents, immigration records and descriptions of the camp in which she was held in in Xinyuan county – known in Uighur as Kunes county – all tally with that of former detainees.

Other research findings by Human Rights Watch (HRW) have said it’s not uncommon to find Uighurs, especially from southern Xinjiang, reporting that half or more of their immediate family members are in a mix of political education camps, pre-trial detention, and prison.

For those still at liberty, Xinjiang province has, meanwhile, effectively been transformed into a surveillance state.

“There are obviously important differences between what the Chinese regime is doing today to the Uighurs and the murder of six million Jews in the Nazi Holocaust. The regime’s programme is not extermination, but there is no question that it is determined to destroy the Uighur religion and identity,” observed Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy in a Washington Post editorial as far back now as 2019.

“In place of bullets and gas, it is using comprehensive digital surveillance and asphyxiating physical and social controls, and its plan has a longer time frame,” Gershman warned.

Since then, the situation facing the Uighurs, just like the Rohingya, has only worsened. This weekend, as the aftermath of the Myanmar coup continues to play out, there are signs that the country’s citizens are making their voices heard in protest. Likewise, the international community is bringing to bear what pressure it can on the new junta.

All the signs point to the likelihood that Myanmar’s political future could very well become inextricably tied up in the geopolitics of the ongoing and escalating US-China Cold War. Likewise, the plight of the Uighurs has become a serious issue in the standoff.

For the moment, though, as the next round of the Myanmar coup plays out, there is little if any mention on the international stage of either ethnic community.

“We hope that the military will not take the matters in their hands again and go and start killing people. That’s the biggest fear now,” was how Sujauddin Karimuddin, a Rohingya community leader and pro-democracy activist living in Australia, summed up the feeling among many in his community to ABC news last week.

For the moment, both regimes in China and Myanmar continue to have each other’s backs. The pressing humanitarian question now, though, is who will step up and do the same for the Rohingya and Uighur?