Suu Kyi seeks support over Rakhine crisis

Suu Kyi seeks support over Rakhine crisis

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a lecture in Singapore in August. Ms Suu Kyi will attend the Asean summits this week in Singapore. (Bloomberg photo)
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a lecture in Singapore in August. Ms Suu Kyi will attend the Asean summits this week in Singapore. (Bloomberg photo)

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi is attending the Asean meetings in Singapore this week, in which she will seek support from her Asian allies in dealing with the country's Rakhine crisis. She especially wants the members of the regional bloc to back her government's efforts to resettle the returning Muslim refugees -- who have fled the violence in the country's strife-torn Western region -- and to be involved in the country's future reconciliation efforts.

Asean was pivotal in supporting Myanmar during the humanitarian crisis in 2008, after the devastating effects of Cyclone Nargis which killed over a quarter of a million people and ruined vast parts of Myanmar's rice bowl -- in Ayeyarwady. Asean -- through its then general secretary Surin Pitsuwan -- launched a highly successful tripartite relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction operation, working closely with the United Nations and the Myanmar government. This approach may also be appropriate now, according to Thai diplomats.

Larry Jagan is a Myanmar specialist and former BBC World Service news editor for the region.

In the face of increasing criticism over its handling of the violence in Rakhine and the mass exodus of nearly a million refugees to Bangladesh, alleging extreme human rights abuses at the hands of the Myanmar military, Myanmar is actively looking for Asean's support during this summit.

Although there will be stern criticism of Myanmar's management of the Rakhine issue -- especially behind closed doors, including the dinner on the eve of the Asean summit -- Ms Suu Kyi is confident she will weather it and in fact elicit their support for the government's future plans to solve the problems, according to Myanmar diplomats.

Malaysia's prime minister Mahathir Mohamad -- attending his first Asean summit since his return to office -- maybe the toughest critic within the Southeast Asian bloc. Once a close friend of Myanmar, who brought the country into Asean in 1997 and at the same time a strong supporter of its democratic icon, he recently voiced his disappointment at her failure to deal with the problems of Rakhine.

"We have made it quite clear we don't really support her any longer," he told the Turkish news channel TRT World a month ago. "Our policy in Asean is non-interference in the internal affairs of the countries, but this is … grossly unjust," he insisted.

However, the other Asean members will be loathe to call out Myanmar on this issue -- with few of them beyond reproach in handling their own internal political problems. But Singapore and Indonesia are also likely to be brutally blunt. But in the end, Asean will want to find a compromise that allows them to admonish Myanmar, while maintaining their support.

"Singapore and Asean will continue to support the efforts of Myanmar and Bangladesh to address this very difficult situation," said Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan posted on his Facebook, after meeting Aung San Suu Kyi in the Myanmar capital Naypyitaw last week. During the visit, he also discussed the future planned visit of the Asean Troika -- the foreign ministers of the current chairman of Asean, and the previous and future chairs.

Myanmar suggested this move a few weeks ago, and it was to have taken place the first weekend in November, ahead of this week's Asean summit, according to Asean diplomats involved in arranging the visit. But it proved too difficult to arrange for all three foreign ministers -- from Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore to come at that time. Also, Indonesia complicated matters behind the scenes by insisting it should be part of the delegation. The Troika was to spend one day in Naypyidaw holding detailed discussions with Myanmar's leaders and officials, and a day site-visit to Sittwe.

The trip has been postponed now till early December, according to Myanmar diplomats. Though now, as Thailand will take over the chairmanship of Asean next week, the Troika delegation would still include Singapore, but Vietnam -- as the next chair -- would replace the Philippines. Membership is not as crucial as the message Asean wants to deliver to Myanmar, said a senior Asean diplomat. And this is that Myanmar's neighbours want to support the return of the refugees from Bangladesh, in a voluntary, safe and dignified manner.

Plans to repatriate more than 2,000 refugees are scheduled to start later this week, according to Myanmar officials. The plan is to return some 150 refugees a day, with 2,200 refugees having been identified as legitimate Rakhine residents and allowed to return. They will be taken to a reception camp before being resettled later. Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed to the repatriation of 2260 refugees from northern Rakhine during a two-day foreign-secretary-level joint working group meeting two weeks ago.

Myanmar has agreed to receive 4,355 refugees out of 8,000 included in a list submitted by the Bangladesh authorities, Myanmar Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Minister Win Myat Aye -- who is in charge of the repatriation process -- told the Bangkok Post earlier this year. "The repatriation will definitely commence this month," a senior Myanmar diplomat assured the Bangkok Post. If it does, it will have taken a year to start since the original repatriation agreement -- brokered by China -- was signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

So Asean's offer of support is very timely. Myanmar hopes that during the current Asean summit, the foundations could be laid for concrete Asean assistance and support for the repatriation process. Greater detail could then be left to the Troika visit scheduled for early next month. One thing that Myanmar would have to do is commit to taking back a substantial number of refugees, not a token 4,000 or so, said a senior Asean diplomat: a timetable needs to be laid out, with their relocation sites clearly identified; access to schools and medical care, and livelihood opportunities need to be also guaranteed.

In effect Myanmar must provide a roadmap, according to Thai diplomats -- echoing the terminology of the Bangkok Process, initiated by the then Thai foreign minister Surakiart Sathirathai in 2003, to assist Myanmar in its plans to introduce a transition to democracy, with the help of Asean, the UN and various donor countries.

Since last year, Myanmar has been under pressure to allow effective and independent monitoring of any planned repatriation programme. What is needed is a permanent international presence in Rakhine, according to many diplomats based in Yangon. International organisations and international NGOs should be allowed to establish offices there and have unhindered access to the areas of return. This would not only allow a form of monitoring of the 'return process', but would be a trust-building measure for those returning.

The other option, which some activists have called for, is an international peacekeeping force -- either from UN or Asean -- neither of which Myanmar would agree to. However, they may accept an Asean contact group as 'monitors', which would cooperate and coordinate with the UN and the Myanmar government. This approach worked well during the aftermath of Nargis, and although it would have to be adapted in this case, may actually provide a way out for both Myanmar and Bangladesh.

So a Nargis style approach, led by Asean but under the authority of the Myanmar government, could provide Aung San Suu Kyi with a way out of her current predicament and help the planned repatriation process.

Larry Jagan

Former BBC World Service News Editor

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News Editor for the region.

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