In a muddy field in western Myanmar, hundreds of Chinese shipping containers fitted with single narrow windows stand in neat lines, empty of the refugees they were designed to host.
The gray boxes were sent by China two years ago as quick and cheap housing for some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled Myanmar for Bangladesh during a military-led crackdown in 2017 that the United Nations said was conducted with genocidal intent.
The empty containers, situated near the town of Maungdaw in Rakhine state, reflect months of failed efforts to entice the Rohingya to return to Myanmar despite a diplomatic drive by the country’s close ally and neighbor, China.
In a sharp departure from its official policy of non-interference in the affairs of other countries, China has positioned itself as the key mediator in resolving the protracted crisis. But like the Indonesian and United Nations envoys who previously attempted to mediate between the parties, China is finding the business of diplomacy tough going, with little signs that the crisis will soon be resolved.
The main sticking point is a disagreement over whether the refugees will be safe in Myanmar.
Myanmar says it has created safe conditions for the Rohingya’s return, but Bangladesh and the United Nations say that fighting in Rakhine and a lack of human rights guarantees make a return for the refugees dangerous. The Rohingya, meanwhile, say they will not go back without guarantees of rights they are currently denied, including citizenship and freedom of movement.