Looking for 'Asean way' in Rohingya crisis
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Looking for 'Asean way' in Rohingya crisis

In the end, whether the Rohingya are 'refugees' or 'displaced persons', they are not coming back to Myanmar. (Reuters photo)
In the end, whether the Rohingya are 'refugees' or 'displaced persons', they are not coming back to Myanmar. (Reuters photo)

In Asean's search for a role in the maze that is the political and humanitarian disaster unfolding from Myanmar's Rakhine crisis, it is finding that some paths are closed off, a few remain passable despite barriers -- and others are clear but way too risky to head into.

Asean is no stranger to being criticised for inaction. But the challenges thrown up by Myanmar's crisis are not only unique, but undesired by a grouping that believes it has been able to understand that nation through decades of "constructive engagement" and thus has a much stronger connection to it than non-Asean countries.

Can Asean show results from its quiet diplomacy versus others' megaphone diplomacy? What new approach can it pull from its hat, given the credibility it built with Myanmar after it coordinated international help after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, to respond to this especially uncomfortable situation?

Asean has kept the lines of communication with Myanmar open. This is crucial at a time when anti-foreign sentiment and xenophobia are bubbling in the country -- and given Asean's aversion to pushing Myanmar into more instability as it struggles with its tenuous transition from five decades of military rule.

Asean also needs to keep the conversation going because of its worries about Islamic militancy. One backdrop to this is the involvement of foreign-born fighters in the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which attacked police outposts in Myanmar's western Rakhine state in August 2017. These triggered a massive military response amid deaths, rape and burning of villages, leading to the huge exodus of mostly Rohingya people over to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The nearly 900,000 refugees now in Bangladesh comprise what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) calls "the world's fastest growing refugee crisis". It says 671,000 of the refugees arrived since August 2017.

All signs indicate that most Rohingya refugees will be living outside Myanmar, for good, even as accusations of genocide and ethnic cleansing are hurled at Myanmar and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

What "Asean way" is there? "Asean still has a role to play in working with Myanmar on this issue, as Myanmar still sees the Asean platform as a venue where she can share and discuss candidly behind closed doors," said Moe Thuzar, lead researcher for socio-cultural issues at the Asean Studies Centre (ASC) in Singapore.

Whatever the form of engagement, bilateral or subregional, "what is important is that Asean members are working with their fellow Asean member, to help bring about constructive change", she said in an interview.

It does not get much media coverage, but Asean has development projects in Rakhine -- whose 78% poverty incidence rate makes it one of Myanmar's poorest state, if not the poorest. For instance, ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya leaders have gone on study trips to Indonesia and other countries to learn about how Asean countries deal with multi-cultural and multi-racial issues, Moe Thuzar said.

After the August 2017 exodus, Asean has been giving assistance to Rakhine through the Myanmar government. Indonesia, among the earliest allowed in after last year's violence, has the best access to Myanmar in Asean. It funded the construction of four local schools in 2014. Work on building a US$1.8 million (56 million baht) Indonesian hospital started in November of last year.

The Jakarta-based Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Centre) provided $515,000 worth of relief items worth -- from generators to hygiene sets -- in October and December 2017. In January, an Asean response team was allowed into the state, which is off limits to outsiders.

The Rohingya are a Muslim community in Rakhine that have been denied Myanmar citizenship. They speak a Chittagongian dialect of Bengali, also spoken on the Bangladeshi side of the border, and are seen by the government and a large part of Myanmar people as unwelcome migrants. For over seven decades, communal clashes and disasters have seen them flee to Bangladesh, which has hosted Rohingya for many years.

"I can't see any role for Asean in this crisis," said Bertil Lintner, author of several books on Myanmar and a journalist who has covered the country for decades.

"The main problems are Asean's principles of non-interference and consensus, which means that they really can't do anything," he said. "Just look at East Timor (which Indonesia occupied for 24 years), border conflicts between Thailand and Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia."

"Then we've got the next issue: the Myanmar military does not want any 'outside interference', so that mission has not been particularly successful either," he said in an email interview.

The path that Asean cannot head into is the issue of refugees, a touchy matter it has been unwilling and unable to address.

Only the Philippines and Cambodia have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. This is in a region that has seen huge displacements, such as after the war in Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge's rule in Cambodia. From the 1980s, some 120,000 people fled to refugee camps in Thailand to escape civil war in Myanmar.

In decades past, Southeast Asian countries took in "boat people" from Indochina on the understanding that they would be resettled in third countries in the West. Several Asean nations pushed back cramped boatloads of Rohingya that had left Rakhine state in 2015.

"I think what challenges Asean -- collectively and individually -- is because the grouping does not really have a policy on refugees. Migrants, yes, in the context of labour mobility, but not refugees," explained Moe Thuzar, also coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies-Yusof Ishak (ISEAS).

"In an overall [global] environment of harder attitudes towards immigration, the Rohingyas' plight is going to be one where most of Myanmar's interlocutors will want the country of origin to bear responsibility," she said.

But hostility toward the Rohingya does not make this a realistic option, despite a Myanmar-Bangladesh repatriation pact. In March, Myanmar found eligible for repatriation 374 out of 8,000 persons that Bangladesh says wish to go back.

Myanmar can look at its own experience with returnees from Thailand. Despite its political change, the first voluntary repatriations began in groups of 50 people or so -- in late 2016.

Where the Rohingya can be resettled is the real question -- without an answer.

"I can't see any 'solution' to this problem, and the Rohingya refugees are not going to be allowed back, no matter what government and/or international organisations are saying," Mr Lintner added. "So the issue is what's going to happen to them?"

Bangladesh, with a dense population of 165 million, cannot take one million more people, he said. Mr Lintner sees the only options for resettlement -- all of which carry the risk of heightening local tensions -- to be in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in southeastern Bangladesh, or northward in Assam and India's northeast.

But the tracts has had communal conflict, and he says groups like the Buddhist Chakma and Marma are "getting worried" by the idea of hosting Rohingya refugees. In northeastern India, "there's already a trickle of Rohingyas coming into Assam, but if the numbers increase, there could be problems (and renewed violence) in that part of India", Mr Lintner explained.

Asean, which first discussed the Rohingya in 2009, has been taking account of Myanmar's sensitivities. It avoids singling out the Rohingya or Muslims, referring to assisting all in Rakhine "without discrimination". Asean does not use 'Rohingya', whose use Myanmar has barred. It calls them "displaced" people and for its own purposes, avoids calling them "refugees".

Countries avoid saying "refugees" for fear of being pressured to take on obligations that come with recognising refugees, said Su-Ann Oh, a visiting fellow at ISEAS Singapore.

The statelessness of the Rohingya on top of being refugees adds to an already tough situation. "They're stateless in that no country recognises them as their nationals under their own law and they're refugees since they meet the 1951 Refugee Convention definition," UNHCR spokesperson for Asia Vivian Tan said in an email interview.

Oh added: "Many people are stateless but they continue to live in the country that they were born in, or that they migrated to, but they're not being forced out for political reasons, and they're not systematically discriminated against."

"In the end, whether they are 'refugees' or 'displaced persons', they are not coming back to Myanmar," Mr Lintner said. As part of token repatriation at best, "the Hindus (there are some among the refugees from Rakhine) will have no problem coming back, but not the Muslims".

Asean is focusing on keeping its engagement steady, largely bilateral and long-term, packaged as solidarity with Myanmar in hard times. "The trust [in AHA Centre, Asean] was not built overnight," AHA Centre executive director Adelina Kamal said in an interview.

"We [Asean} cannot afford to do a quick-win nature type of response if we really want win-win solutions that help Myanmar emerge from all the dark legacies of the past," said ASC's Moe Thuzar.

Johanna Son is Bangkok-based editor of the Reporting ASEAN program. She contributes to SEA Junction's series on the displaced and uprooted in Southeast Asia.

Johanna Son

Founder/editor of the Reporting ASEAN series

Johanna Son is founder/editor of the Reporting ASEAN series.


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