Asean's Rohingya dilemma

Asean's Rohingya dilemma

Myanmar held a timely, face-saving meeting on the growing Rohingya crisis last Monday, and now the rest of the world has retreated to its corner, so to speak.

The low-key gathering took place at a hotel in Yangon and not in an official venue in the capital, Nay Pyi Daw, which underscores how uncomfortable Myanmar is with the attention the world is paying to the Rohingya. Nevertheless, Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said afterward that everyone left with a sense of satisfaction.

Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said Asean ministers had an open, frank and constructive discussion on the complex situation, including the provision of humanitarian aid.

But what kind of aid can be delivered, how and at what cost, is not yet known.

The challenge of "irregular migration", the term favoured by the hosts and some Asean and international organisations, will not go away as long as the Rohingya continue to flee appalling conditions in Myanmar. Critics use more blunt terms such as "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing".

Asean, its policy of non-interference under strain, has been groping toward a solution, but little has been done to address the root causes.

Last Monday's meeting resulted only in a bland declaration that Myanmar would "regularly update the situation to Asean members", as Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi put it. But the mere fact that there were talks -- and in Myanmar no less -- helped lower the temperature.

Spokesmen for Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi have pleaded for "time and space" in handling the issues in Rakhine State, stressing the importance of Asean unity and settling disagreements through diplomatic consultations. The Lady has also pledged to quicken the citizenship verification process.

The Rohingya issue is a hot potato for all, including states beyond Asean. Bangladesh is facing heat for not taking more Rohingya. Worse, the Muslim nation has charged some of 20,000 refugees with illegal immigration.

But Bangladesh also deserves some sympathy. It is already housing 200,000 Rohingya, including 90,000 unregistered refugees living in two unofficial camps in Cox's Bazar.

Ms Retno, the only foreign minister to visit the camps, heard first-hand accounts of harrowing journeys.

"Having learned from their stories and experiences, [we can conclude] how complicated the problems are in Rakhine State," she said. "Regardless of what has caused them to stay in the Kutupalong camp, they live there in misery. As fellow human beings, we have to try harder to help them."

She also stressed that the refugee question must be settled in the country of origin. Therefore, any steps taken by the Myanmar government to address problems in Rakhine must be supported, she added.

It is a noble sentiment from Indonesia, especially in the face of Malaysian-led outrage against Myanmar to divert attention from the Kuala Lumpur government's corruption scandals.

But we shouldn't forget that Myanmar is facing other issues too.

The ongoing violence and prolonged suffering of those denied humanitarian aid in Kachin and Shan states is also damaging the faith that ethnic groups placed in the National League for Democracy. This is endangering the peace process that Aung San Suu Kyi has said is critical for the country's future.

My longtime Burmese friends also lament how chaotic the situation in the country remains, one year into civilian rule.

In the old days, government officials just listened to the orders of the generals, but now the civil servants don't know to whom, and to what extent, they should listen.

"Worse, the government is not run by the NLD -- which is after all inexperienced in national administration -- but rather by the Lady who may seem to have her own ideas and not well-rounded information," said one friend.

In addition to problems with ethnic minorities, Myanmar faces a stalling economy and the kyat has been fluctuating.

Meanwhile, the Arakanese people, as they call themselves, are also helpless in Rakhine. Their political party has been refusing to work with the NLD as it has filled key local government positions with its own people. The Arakanese also feel neglected; when humanitarian aid reached the Rohingya and not them, it spurred more hatred against the Rohingya.

The Arakanese basically feel they have been oppressed for centuries in their own land by the Burmese kings and military.

But people in Myanmar don't want to criticise Suu Kyi too much, for fear the civilian government could be shaken. The last thing they and the international community want is the return of the military.

Achara Ashayagachat

Senior reporter on socio-political issues

Bangkok Post's senior reporter on socio-political issues.

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