Time to step up for the Rohingya

Time to step up for the Rohingya

As world leaders gather in New York for the United Nations General Assembly next week, it can be expected that the intractable Rakhine situation, along with the equally intractable South China Sea situation, will feature as prominent issues that define Southeast Asia.

On Aug 22, a second attempt to start repatriating Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar failed. Not a single refugee showed up. Preparations had been poor, and despite the UN's view that the conditions for voluntary returns were not in place, Bangladesh, Myanmar and China pressed to go ahead.

Bangladesh reacted immediately, toughening its stance on the Rohingya presence and blaming the UN and the international community for not putting enough pressure on Myanmar to take the Rohingya back. On Sept 11, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told parliament that Myanmar had failed to win the trust of the refugees. A few days earlier, Bangladesh had cut internet access for the camps in Cox's Bazar, severing a vital communications line for the refugees.

The international community owes Bangladesh a debt of gratitude for welcoming over one million refugees on its territory. Their presence has caused enormous strains, while by early September only 37.8% of the funds needed for the 2019 budget for humanitarian assistance had been received.

Nevertheless, the government's pivot to a more uncompromising stance towards the refugees raises concerns. It risks victimising already traumatised refugees. Once they lose hope, they could become vulnerable to radicalisation. But Bangladesh's impatience should also be seen as a strong signal that the international community has to step up to the plate. What is needed is a more concerted international effort to pressure Myanmar to develop a viable plan for the voluntary return of the hundreds of thousands who want to go back once the conditions are right.

Since last month's failed repatriation attempt, a new flurry of activity suggests that more members of the international community now accept that Myanmar's preparations for the return of the refugees have been woefully inadequate, and that China's mediating role has not produced the desired results. In fact, there is reason to believe that Myanmar remains in denial and is resisting large scale returns.

The situation of the Rohingya who still live in Rakhine has not improved since 2017. Enforced ethnic segregation remains in place and the Rohingya are interned in camps without freedom of movement. If Myanmar were serious about welcoming the refugees back, it could have signaled this by improving the living conditions of the remaining Rohingya and Muslim populations and restoring their freedom of movement. It has not done so.

Vanishing Villages, a new BBC report that first aired on Sept 10, clearly shows that the large scale destruction of Rohingya villages did not stop when the violent military campaign of 2017 ended. The bulldozing of villages continued throughout 2018. Police barracks, government buildings as well as transit and refugee camps have been built on top of them. This is a strong indication of Myanmar's insincerity and its continuing refusal to act in an open and transparent manner.

This is the harsh reality the world's leaders have to deal with when they assemble in New York for the annual session of the UN General Assembly. Myanmar will be on their agenda, and Asean itself will be looked to for answers.

In recent weeks, Japan, Korea and the US have already become more active. Bangladesh itself contacted many governments and its foreign minister called on the Asean chair, Thailand. Asean itself, however, has not become more active. On the contrary, when its Inter-Parliamentary Assembly met in Bangkok in late August, public disagreement about the inclusion of an agenda item about the Rohingya displayed the organisation's inability to rise to the occasion and to forge a more constructive role for itself.

Asean has long prided itself for speaking with one voice. But unity at any cost can do more harm than good. Falling to the lowest common denominator not only risks making matters worse, it also undermines Asean's credibility and sows confusion. While it feigns unity, the real position of each member can easily be gleaned from voting records on resolutions on Myanmar adopted at the 2017 and 2018 sessions of the UN General Assembly. These show three-way splits, with some members voting in favour or against, and others abstaining.

Asean has an important role to play in determining the future of Southeast Asia. But the Rakhine crisis -- if left to fester -- poses a threat to Asean itself. Asean will be marked if it does not become more pro-active to resolve a situation that can easily spin out of control. Myanmar is one of several Asian countries where ethnic and religious intolerance are increasing. This poses a threat to national and regional harmony and stability. Asean's culture of non-interference needs to be refined, and should not always morph automatically into one of indifference -- especially when it has to deal with situations of genocide or gross violations of human rights.

Although Asean's Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management has been providing advisory services to Myanmar for the repatriation exercise, it does not deal with the much larger question of the policies and strategies needed to ensure the sustainability of refugee returns as well as regional stability. The Rakhine crisis is a political-security crisis, not solely a humanitarian one.

In light of the upcoming meetings, what might the international community do to achieve better outcomes in the Rakhine crisis? Here are a four critical factors to guide such efforts.

First, stop looking at the Rohingya refugee situation as an isolated crisis. It is the manifestation of a bigger crisis -- the Rakhine state crisis. This is not a new notion. It lies at the heart of the recommendations by the former Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, chaired by Kofi Annan. Unless all ethnic communities' grievances and their underlying causes are addressed, Rakhine state cannot progress. Ongoing violent conflict is actually making matters worse.

Second, the people of Rakhine state -- be they Rakhine or Rohingya or the smaller communities -- should be consulted about decisions affecting their future and well-being. Many of their long-held grievances are about lack of representation. The almost complete absence of consultations with the Rohingya in Bangladesh is particularly disturbing.

Third, all actors should establish the facts before they act. It is astonishing that serious discussions about refugee returns have been taking place without proper information about the situation on the ground. Why did heavy fighting between Myanmar's military and the Arakan Army in Rakhine state not stop Bangladesh, Myanmar and China from pressing ahead with the start of repatriations? Should refugees be returned to a war zone?

As David Mathieson recently wrote in Asia Times, "the conflict in Rakhine has become the most serious the Tatmadaw has faced in decades, with hundreds of casualties, fighting spreading to urban centres and affecting main highways and waterways in more than nine townships".

Fourth, be alert to deception. Since the massive exodus of the Rohingya in 2017, dealing with deception has almost become the new normal. Both Myanmar and some of the international players, like China, India, Japan and Russia, have vested interests to protect. Left uncountered, half-truths, falsehoods and innuendo can take on a life of their own. It has been years since free and independent access to northern Rakhine state has been possible. Without free access and independent verification on the ground, preparing for the return of refugees is like preparing to enter a black hole.

Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar, is a former minister of foreign affairs of Malaysia. Laetitia van den Assum is a former Dutch ambassador and former member of the Rakhine Advisory Commission. Kobsak Chutikul is a retired Thai ambassador and former elected member of parliament.

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