Asean needs a viable Rakhine agenda
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Asean needs a viable Rakhine agenda

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, second right, speaks to delegates at Asean's Foreign Ministers meeting on July 31. WICHAN CHAROENKIATPAKUL
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, second right, speaks to delegates at Asean's Foreign Ministers meeting on July 31. WICHAN CHAROENKIATPAKUL

When Asean's Foreign Ministers met in Bangkok on July 31, they "reaffirmed their support for a more visible and enhanced role of Asean to support Myanmar in providing humanitarian assistance, facilitating the repatriation process [of the Rohingya] and promoting sustainable development".

We welcome Asean's continued engagement. At the same time, we find it important that the overall situation in Rakhine is properly understood and that credible assessment is made of the conditions for voluntary, safe and dignified Rohingya returns. Asean pronouncements indicate agreement that the root causes of the conflict have to be addressed.

Yet, some of its actions signal a more piecemeal approach, particularly in relation to refugee returns.

Both Bangladesh and Myanmar have signalled readiness to start repatriating refugees by early September. While this has given rise to optimism in some quarters, the reality on the ground in Rakhine remains dire.

As the foreign ministers met, violent conflict between Myanmar's military and the Arakan Army continued to spread. According to OCHA, the UN agency for coordination of humanitarian assistance, 11 of Rakhine's 17 townships are now affected, including Kyaukpyu and Ann, home of the headquarters of the military's western command.

Moreover, a complete internet blackout in the affected areas is now in its ninth week, making it impossible to obtain an accurate picture of what is happening on the ground. Reports speak of high casualties on both sides, while humanitarian needs cannot be met and people's livelihoods are suffering.

It would be irresponsible to start repatriation as long as much of Rakhine state remains seriously affected by armed conflict that has displaced 60,000 people since January.

Voluntary returns cannot be a piecemeal solution. They have to be considered against the overall situation of Rakhine. Finding durable solutions is about much more than the repatriation of the Rohingya. As the Rakhine Advisory Commission headed by Kofi Annan found, it is about addressing the security, development and human rights needs of all communities who call the state home. This reality calls for a prudent multi-pronged strategy, driven by a vision of where Rakhine state should be headed. Such a strategy does not yet exist.

What can Asean do in the run-up to its next summit of early November 2019 in Bangkok? We list five key issues that can help frame a comprehensive Asean response.

First, pursue greater clarity, one of the most immediate needs. Clarity about the Union government's commitment to restore trust, clarity about policies and policy reform, clarity about guaranteeing all communities' rights -- including the right to security and development. In other words, where is Rakhine state headed?

The most valuable contribution Asean can make at this point is to assist Myanmar with the development of a comprehensive policy plan for Rakhine state, making available its members' expertise in planning, infrastructure, building inclusive societies and ending enforced ethnic segregation, equal access to improved social services, development, job creation and so on. Such a plan would provide an umbrella for targetted inputs by the government and its donors, including Asean. Without it, Rakhine's people will not know what to expect and distrust will persist, while donors who continue to make piecemeal contributions will basically be flying blind. The same applies to potential investors.

Secondly, be cognisant that while the Rohingya have borne the brunt of oppression, violence and marginalisation, all communities in Rakhine state harbour deep-rooted historical grievances, shaped by the experience of violence, injustice and neglect. The relationship between the people of Rakhine and the Union government is highly conflicted. It is a key driver of the ongoing violent conflict between the military and the Arakan Army. At the same time, relations among the Rakhine, Rohingya and smaller communities also remain tense, often driven by divide-and-rule approaches of successive governments.

Third, make finding ways to overcome distrust a key priority. Enforced ethnic segregation and severe restrictions of movement on the Rohingya have led to heightened fear of the "other" among all communities. A broader vision of national identity must be projected, one that finds strength in diversity.

This is where Asean members can share their experience. The question should not be whether Rakhine, Rohingya and other communities can live together, but rather how they will live together. Reintegration, not segregation, is the best path to development and stability, accompanied by much improved communication and consultation.

Fourth, governance reform starts with free and fair elections. Myanmar will hold national elections in the last quarter of 2020. If violence continues, it may not be possible to hold elections throughout Rakhine state. Given the already badly eroded trust between the population and the Union government, this would complicate the situation further.

Asean could offer support for the holding and management of the 2020 elections in Rakhine. It could also make long-term election observers available for a period of four to six months. Asean should also encourage the government to restore the Rohingyas' voting rights. They were eligible to vote in all post-independence elections until 2015, when they were stripped of this right. By not returning the vote to several hundred thousand Rohingyas who remain in Rakhine state, the government would compromise the integrity of its 2020 elections and signal that it is not serious about building a stable and prosperous Rakhine for all its inhabitants.

Fifth, the bedrock for change in Rakhine state is equality. But equality can only be achieved if laws and regulations do not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity. The foundation for such discrimination is the much-abused 1982 citizenship law.

Some Asean members recently expressed satisfaction with Myanmar's announcement that it will provide Rohingya refugees with National Verification Cards (NVCs). Unfortunately they misunderstood what these cards are. They are not new and they do not provide citizenship. They identify Rohingyas as foreigners who are not entitled to full citizenship.

Myanmar maintains that the Rohingya have to accept an NVC before they can apply for citizenship. But which government would opt for an expensive and elaborate two-step process, if the same can be achieved in one step?

Let's be clear, the Rohingya are one of the world's most frequently enumerated people. For years, entire families have been forced to undergo annual verification for the so-called household list system. Myanmar has archives that go back many years and even decades. The government continued to update these lists after the flight of hundreds of thousands in 2016 and 2017. So it knows who left Rakhine and who stayed behind. It should accept responsibility for much of the burden of proof.

Our five points are by no means exhaustive, but they contain key elements to help frame further dialogue between Myanmar and Asean. The problems are long-standing, and empathy fatigue can set in, so voices continually have to be raised. The seeming intractability means receptiveness to constructive ideas is required. When global leaders gather in Bangkok in November for the Asean summit, they surely would want to hear Asean's in-depth outlook on how this humanitarian, political and security situation in the region is to be resolved.

Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar, is the former Foreign Minister of Malaysia. 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 elected member of parliament. Dinna Wisnu is an Associate Professor in International Relations, and former Representative of Indonesia to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.

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