Prime Minister James Marape’s mixed messages on Papua New Guinea and Covid-19. Bangladesh is moving 100,000 Rohingya refugees to a remote Bay of Bengal island. The trial begins over 1987 assassination of Burkina Faso leader Thomas Sankara. By Jonathan Pearlman.

China blasts Abbott’s ‘insane’ visit to Taiwan

Xi Jinping (centre) at Saturday’s meeting to mark the anniversary of the Revolution of 1911 at the Great Hall of the People, Beijing.
Xi Jinping (centre) at Saturday’s meeting to mark the anniversary of the Revolution of 1911 at the Great Hall of the People, Beijing.
Credit: Xie Huanchi / Xinhua / Xinhua via AFP

Great power rivalry

Taiwan: On Monday, China’s foreign ministry said it had formally complained to Canberra about a visit to Taiwan by former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, who called for Taiwan to be militarily equipped to be “capable of inflicting massive and asymmetric damage on any invader”.

Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, said Abbott had violated Australia’s one-China policy, which involves recognition of Taiwan as a province of China.

“The remarks made by the individual Australian politicians are extremely absurd, [and] totally confuse right and wrong,” Zhao said.

“They are immoral, irresponsible and doomed to be unpopular.”

The Chinese embassy in Canberra said in a statement: “Tony Abbott is a failed and pitiful politician. His recent despicable and insane performance in Taiwan fully exposed his hideous anti-China features.”

Abbott’s visit, made in a personal capacity, came as China’s president, Xi Jinping, said in a speech that “reunification” with Taiwan “will definitely be fulfilled”. Xi said Taiwan, which China views as a breakaway province, should be reclaimed peacefully. But he added: “No one should underestimate the Chinese people’s staunch determination, firm will, and strong ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Xi’s speech followed the recent dispatch of record numbers of Chinese fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defence zone.

A day after Xi’s speech, Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen said Taiwan would not act rashly but would strengthen its defences to ensure its fate could not be imposed by China.

“There should be absolutely no illusions that the Taiwanese people will bow to pressure,” she said.

Despite heightening tensions over the future of Taiwan, relations between Beijing and Washington have thawed slightly in recent weeks. The countries held high-level trade talks last weekend and have agreed to conduct a virtual summit between Xi and United States president Joe Biden later this year.

The neighbourhood

Papua New Guinea: James Marape, Papua New Guinea’s prime minister, has been criticised for holding political events attended by large crowds of maskless supporters despite surging numbers of Covid-19 cases.

An outbreak of the Delta strain has left hospitals across the country struggling due to shortages of medicines and staff.

In the week to October 3, PNG recorded 1508 new Covid-19 cases – up from 600 in the previous week – and eight deaths. Actual numbers are believed to be much higher as PNG’s testing rates are among the lowest in the world. Less than 1 per cent of the nation’s 7.4 million residents have been fully vaccinated.

Despite the worsening outbreak, Marape has continued to hold public events. Images from a recent event in a remote district in Morobe province showed hundreds of people without masks welcoming the arrival of Marape and other ministers and officials, breaching a ban on gatherings of more than 20 people.

In a front-page article this week in the Post-Courier, Thierry Lepani, a journalist, said the event “reeked of bad taste”. He said Marape and other MPs have continued to hold “grand openings and ground breakings” since the start of the pandemic.

“The country is unsure of what message the government is trying to convey regarding the Covid-19 surge – effectively rendering us
a state of confusion,” he wrote.

Democracy in retreat

Bangladesh: Up to 100,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh will be relocated to Bhasan Char, a remote island that is partly submerged for months each year during the monsoon season.

The United Nations and Bangladesh’s government agreed last weekend to the move, which Bangladesh says will reduce overcrowding at existing camps in the Cox’s Bazar district.

The UN and humanitarian groups had previously rejected the relocation over concerns that the island – which formed in recent years after silt from the Himalayas flowed into the Bay of Bengal – is too dangerous. Aid groups have criticised conditions on the island, saying it lacks adequate access to healthcare, education or jobs. Some refugees who were moved to the island have paid smugglers to help them leave.

But the UN said it was satisfied that the island was suitable following a $US112 million program by the Bangladesh government to add seawalls and build hospitals, schools, mosques and massive dormitories.

More than one million Rohingya refugees live in Bangladesh, including 700,000 who fled a military crackdown in Myanmar in August 2017. Myanmar does not recognise the Rohingya as citizens.

Bangladesh has already relocated 19,000 refugees to the island. A further 81,000 will be resettled in the next three months.

The UN said it had consulted with refugees on the island and in Cox’s Bazar and that the overall aim was to support the refugees until they can return to Myanmar.

But most refugees say they do not want to move to the island, which is more than 30 kilometres offshore.

Amir Hamza, a 63-year-old in Cox’s Bazar, told American media organisation NPR this week: “I don’t agree to go to another country, island, or any place, even if I am offered milk and rice on a golden plate. I am ready and happy to go to my country, land, and to my home.”

Spotlight: Assassination in Africa

In 1983, Thomas Sankara, a revolutionary leader who has often been described as “Africa’s Che Guevara”, became president of Upper Volta and swiftly began addressing the nation’s endemic corruption and inequality. He redistributed land, banned polygamy and female genital mutilation, promoted women to senior government posts, tackled environmental degradation, improved literacy rates, promoted vaccinations, and changed the country’s name to Burkina Faso, or “land of upright people”.

But he also launched a violent crackdown on dissent and political opposition, and his brand of popular socialism attracted criticism, particularly as economic problems grew. In 1987, Sankara, who was 37 years old, was assassinated, along with 12 others, and replaced by Blaise Compaoré, his close friend. Compaoré ruled until 2014, when he fled during mass protests, to the Ivory Coast.

This week a trial of 14 alleged killers, including Compaoré, finally began. Compaoré, who is 70 years old, has denied ordering the killings and is being tried in absentia. At the time, he claimed – though few believed it – that Sankara had been planning to kill him and that his supporters went, without being ordered, to arrest Sankara, who began shooting at them.

Sankara’s family and supporters have pushed for a trial for years, but proceedings only began after Compaoré fled. In 2017, France, the former colonial power, agreed to declassify military documents about the assassination. Authorities in Burkina Faso have received three sets of documents, which have not been publicly released. The trial is expected to take months.

In October 1987, following the assassination, thousands of people gathered at Sankara’s grave and left rosary beads, flowers and notes. One note, observed by a reporter for The New York Times, said: “Thomas Sankara, the Burkinabe people will never forget.” 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 16, 2021 as "China blasts Abbott’s ‘insane’ visit to Taiwan".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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