At the 33d summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore last year, the issue of Myanmar’s Rakhine/Rohingya crisis was high on the agenda. The chairman’s closing statement expressed the group’s readiness to support Myanmar in repatriating refugees by conducting a needs-assessment overview in Rakhine State. The Muslim Rohingya had fled ethnic persecution there, committed by the Burmese-led army.
The association, or Asean, recognized the need to find comprehensive and durable solutions to the crisis and to create conducive conditions for refugees to return and rebuild their lives. Myanmar, also still known as Burma, was encouraged to carry out the recommendations of the Rakhine advisory commission led by the late Kofi Annan.
A year later, as the 35th Asean biannual summit ended in Thailand last week, only two paragraphs in the 17-page chairman’s statement — a summary of the conference’s consensus — were devoted to the Rohingya crisis. While much in those paragraphs repeated the language of the year before, the 2019 concluding statement showed that Asean was heeding the urgent need to garner more consistent political attention to the Rakhine problem.
Most significantly, Asean’s 10-member countries unanimously supported the formation of an ad hoc support team to carry out the recommendations of preliminary needs. That includes continued communication and consultation with affected communities, such as the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
These statements are timely and welcome, but ultimately it will take renewed political and moral commitments from all Asean members to ensure that the commitments are followed through in line with international norms and standards, to support the restoration of stability, rule of law, social cohesion and inclusive development for all the people of Rakhine State. That goal must include the Rohingya, who want so much to return home with guarantees of basic human rights and dignity.
In the last year, not a single Rohingya has agreed voluntarily to join the official repatriation process, and while Myanmar, one of the poorest members of Asean, has developed physical infrastructure in Rakhine State to prepare for repatriation, too little has been done to guarantee the security and elementary rights of the Rohingya to persuade them to return.
Bangladesh, which hosts more than a million Rohingya refugees, has become increasingly frustrated at what it perceives to be a lack of progress by Myanmar in creating conducive conditions for return, and Myanmar has accused Bangladesh of delaying the repatriation process. Thus, instead of confidence-building, over the last year more trust has been lost between Myanmar and Bangladesh as well as between Myanmar and Rohingya refugees in the camps in Cox’s Bazar.
If there are lessons to be learned for Asean, it is that rushing into repatriation without building a foundation of trust is not possible. Asean and Myanmar have done some things right in their engagement on this complex crisis. Most significantly, in late July 2019, Myanmar sent a delegation from its foreign ministry to hold a dialogue with Bangladesh government officials and meet with Rohingya refugees in the camps around Cox’s Bazar.
While no agreement was reached between the Myanmar delegation and the refugee representatives, the dialogue showed good will on both sides to engage in much-needed discussions about the repatriation process that Myanmar was offering, and refugees articulated their concerns and conditions for returning voluntarily. The Myanmar delegation promised to communicate the requests of the refugees to their government
Unfortunately, the dialogue has so far not been followed up. Instead, Myanmar decided to push ahead with yet another attempt at repatriation, on Aug. 22, which came as a surprise to Asean and the refugees, none of whom agreed to return. The failed attempt left Rohingya refugees feeling betrayed again and further strained relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
On the part of the refugees, the vast majority want to return to Rakhine State and have even begun their own Going Home campaign. Their demands are clear: security, citizenship and access to education, among other public services. They have also consistently asked for Asean to mediate in a dialogue between the Myanmar government and Rohingya refugee representatives. Myanmar will certainly need time to address fundamental issues in Rakhine State. Asean should offer to facilitate a process of Going Home talks between Myanmar and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
Asean leaders must realize that the group’s credibility is at stake in how it handles the Rohingya crisis, and that for all the efforts over the last year, the situation remains at an impasse. While solutions will not be found overnight, the process of trust-building cannot wait. The way ahead is dialogue.
Noeleen Heyzer, a member of the UN secretary-general’s high-level advisory board on mediation, is a distinguished fellow of the Singapore Management University and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. She was formerly the executive director of Unifem, the precursor to UN Women; as an under secretary-general, she was also the first woman appointed executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap).