As Rakhine crisis festers, Asean must act
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As Rakhine crisis festers, Asean must act

An ethnic Rakhine man holds homemade weapons as he walks in front of houses that were burnt during fighting between Buddhist and Muslim Rohingya communities in 2012. (Reuters photo)
An ethnic Rakhine man holds homemade weapons as he walks in front of houses that were burnt during fighting between Buddhist and Muslim Rohingya communities in 2012. (Reuters photo)

On the last Sunday of 2018, acrimonious elections were held in Bangladesh with the likelihood of ripple effects on regional issues.

The elections were the first in a series of similarly consequential elections slated to be held across the region this calendar year -- in India, Indonesia, Australia, possibly Singapore, and of course Thailand.

Nowadays it is apparent that no country can set totally its own agenda divorced from adequate appreciation of external circumstances.

Because Bangladesh said it would revisit the Rohingya repatriation issue after its Dec 30 elections, discussions are likely to start again soon. First, we trust that Bangladesh will keep its highly praised promise not to return refugees against their will.

Furthermore, all those engaging with Myanmar should take account of new information about what has been happening on the ground in Rakhine state. The government's access restrictions remain in place and independently verified information is scarce. But on Dec 18, Reuters released a worrying report about infrastructural and physical work commissioned by the Myanmar government.

It concludes that refugees returning to Rakhine will not be allowed to go back to their homes or original villages. It is more likely that they will be taken to several dozen Rohingya-only settlements, segregating them from the rest of the population. This would imply the continuation of the very apartheid-like state that the Rohingya fled from.

Under the statute of the International Criminal Court, acts of apartheid qualify as "inhumane acts of a character similar to other crimes against humanity".

As 2018 ended, news from Myanmar's restive Rakhine State was dominated by armed clashes between the country's military and the Rakhine Buddhist Arakan Army (AA). Fighting escalated in November and left hundreds fleeing their villages in both central and northern Rakhine State. Those affected are mostly ethnic Rakhines and Khami.

On Dec 21, Myanmar's Commander-in-Chief announced a four-month ceasefire for conflict areas along the country's eastern borders. He excluded Rakhine State in the west. The clashes there had flared up as a result of a serious incident in January 2018 when a peaceful commemoration of the fall of the Arakan Kingdom turned violent. Police killed seven demonstrators, injured many more and arrested two prominent Rakhine leaders, charging them with high treason and defamation.

The world is used to hearing about Rakhine State and the plight of its Muslim Rohingya. It is also familiar with the role of ARSA, the armed Rohingya insurgent group, but the situation of other ethnic majorities, principally the Rakhine Buddhists, is often overlooked.

While decades of violence and denial of basic rights have shown that the Rohingya have clearly borne the brunt of state-imposed marginalisation and oppression, it is also clear that stability, justice and development will remain beyond reach unless the future and well-being of all ethnic communities are addressed. All suffer from poverty, scarcity of livelihood opportunities, denial of human rights and insecurity. Successive governments have excelled in divide-and-rule tactics, pitting ethnic groups against each other and preaching intolerance. Rakhine's conflict has essentially been three-sided: Rakhine Buddhists, Rohingya Muslims and successive military regimes of predominantly Bamar ethnicity.

In 2018 much of the crisis response focused on the most immediate manifestation of the problem: the dire situation of some 800,000 Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh since October 2016, when violence flared up.

Their plight does deserve urgent attention but should not be seen as a stand-alone issue. As the report by the Rakhine Advisory commission (2017), headed by the late Kofi Annan, states "above all else political and military leaders must chart a positive vision for the future of Rakhine State: economically prosperous, safe and secure, where all communities enjoy the rights and freedoms they deserve". In other words, there are no simple solutions. Unless deep-seated underlying issues are addressed, peace and stability for all will remain an illusion.

In October 2018 Myanmar and Bangladesh claimed they were ready for the return of a first group of refugees. But by mid-November Bangladesh had to admit that it could not identify refugees who were prepared to return on a voluntary basis, a principle its government had committed itself to. That failure reconfirmed the importance of a comprehensive approach to resolve the crisis. Returning Rohingya against their will, as happened in the late 70s and early 90s of the last century, is counterproductive. It only strengthens the "revolving door" syndrome, the perpetual flight and subsequent return of refugees because underlying causes are left unaddressed.

More information is now also available about the fate of the several hundred thousand Rohingya who did not flee to Bangladesh. The Washington Post and Frontier Myanmar have written about assessments made by an aid group consortium in Rakhine. These conclude that Myanmar has done little to improve the situation of the remaining Rohingya on its territory, despite its claims of "significant progress". Had the government been serious about the return of the Rohingya, it could easily have generated a pull factor by making sure that the lives of those inside Myanmar showed marked improvement.

The continued serious rights violations pose a dilemma for international humanitarian relief groups in Rakhine. Can they continue to work there if, against their will, they become complicit in the implementation of government policies based on enforced ethnic segregation and other serious rights violations?

The more information becomes available about Myanmar's true intentions, the bleaker the prospects for sustainable, voluntary and dignified returns. This calls for further intensification of international efforts to help resolve the crisis. International support for this is significant.

While it is often suggested that only so-called Western countries feel strongly about the crisis, this is not correct. Concerns about what has been happening in Rakhine State are deeply felt around the world. The UN General Assembly resolution on Myanmar of Dec 24, 2018 was adopted with 136 countries in favour and eight against. It is a far-reaching resolution that defies the gridlock in the Security Council, caused by the intransigence of China and Russia.

This should encourage Asean to step up the role it took upon itself during the Singapore Summit in November last year. The Foreign Ministers retreat (Chiang Mai, Jan 16-18) is an opportunity to do so. Others in the international community look to Asean to play a leading role and are willing to fall in behind to provide support.

The following points should be on the table in Chiang Mai:

To begin with, the importance of establishing the facts about the situation on the ground in Rakhine. There is no lack of willingness to support Myanmar's efforts to resolve the crisis, but potential donors from around the world rightly call for transparency and accountability. Without this, rapid progress cannot be made and all ethnic communities will suffer.

Moreover, support for the development of a longer-term vision and plan for Rakhine State that combines political, developmental security and human rights responses to ensure that the Annan recommendations are implemented, falling back on just an economic development option would be a cop-out and dangerously defers resolution of underlying issues.

In addition, confirmation that all returns will be voluntary, safe and dignified and that there is at least a process to address the Rohingyas' legitimate citizenship concerns; as well as recognition of the potential threat of radicalisation of the Rohingya in Bangladesh. Although information suggests that several attempts at radicalisation have been made, there is no evidence that these were successful. But if the crisis is not resolved, that may change, with potential implications for all Asean members, as well as the international community.

Laetitia van den Assum is an independent diplomatic expert, a former Dutch ambassador and former member of the Rakhine Advisory Commission headed by the late Kofi Annan. Kobsak Chutikul is a retired Thai ambassador and former MP.

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