As ASEAN prepares for its 34th summit in Bangkok from Thursday to June 23, the heads of its member states must keep the Rohingya crisis at the top of their agenda.
With the world’s largest refugee camp now sitting at the doorstep of Asean, the regional dimensions of the crisis can no longer be ignored.
Asean’s demonstrated interest in finding solutions to this complex and protracted crisis is welcome.
But instead of focusing on the repatriation of nearly one million Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar, Asean must work first to address the human rights crisis faced by hundreds of thousands of Rohingya still inside Myanmar.
They must create safe conditions for refugees to return.
It is also crucial that Asean works closely with UNHCR – the UN agency mandated to provide international protection to refugees and to facilitate their voluntary repatriation – in any efforts to support voluntary, safe and dignified repatriation.
Refugees told Asia-Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN)members that they cannot conceive of returning to Myanmar until they are assured equal rights there.
“There must be rights for the Rohingya in Myanmar first before we go back. People in camps in Myanmar must go back home first,” said a Rohingya woman leader living in Katupalong camp in Bangladesh.
Rohingya in Rakhine state are unable to live freely – they cannot travel beyond their immediate community, send children to proper schools or get needed medical care.
They are denied citizenship in a country where many of them have lived for generations.
Refugees are watching very closely what is going on in central Rakhine – 128,000 Rohingya and Kaman Muslims have spent seven years in internment camps after being forcibly relocated in 2012, unable to return home.
Asean leaders must heed the words of Rohingya people.
Asean’s talks with the government of Myanmar have focused almost exclusively on facilitating repatriation and the role of the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) in achieving this.
At the end of March, the AHA Centre completed a preliminary needs assessment of facilities in the two camps established by government of Myanmar to receive returning refugees in northern Rakhine state.
Asean leaders will discuss the AHA Centre’s report at their 34th summit and plan for the next stage of engagement – a comprehensive needs assessment to prepare for repatriation.
But Rohingya refugees in Bang-ladesh are terrified of returning to camps in northern Rakhine.
They fear that, as in central Rakhine, this will lead to their perm-anent internment and segregation, with no return to their homes and villages possible.
Making repatriation even less possible now is the ongoing active conflict between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army in Rakhine.
The conflict has displaced more than 33,000 people amid credible reports of indiscriminate violence against Rakhine communities, including extrajudicial killings and mass detention that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Rohingya communities caught in the middle and unable to move are particularly at risk.
Humanitarian organisations face daily restrictions on their operations across Rakhine state, preventing life-saving assistance from reaching communities at risk.
Due to the new conflict, access has deteriorated significantly since the beginning of the year.
Instead of repatriating refugees under dire prevailing conditions, Asean member states should work with Myanmar to create a peaceful and inclusive Rakhine state with human rights for all communities.
A blueprint for this already exists in the recommendations of the late Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State report, published just one day before the violence that triggered the mass refugee outflow in August 2017.
Commissioned and endorsed by the government of Myanmar, and recognised by Asean leaders and international community, the report provides practical recommendations to Myanmar on key issues such as citizenship, freedom of move-ment, equal access to healthcare and education, and addressing underlying problems of poverty and insecurity.
The government of Myanmar claims implementation of 81 of the 88 recommendations, but there is a need for an independent mechanism to measure progress against agreed benchmarks.
Asean member states could help Myanmar to establish such a mechanism and to implement the recommendations fully.
Without accountability, refugees fear the cycle of extreme violence and persecution they have suffered for decades will continue.
Asean has recognised the Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE), established by the government of Myanmar to gather evidence and investigate crimes committed in Rakhine State.
However, many actors, including the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission, have expressed serious reservations about ICOE’s ability to carry out a credible, independent and impartial investigation leading to the prosecution of perpetrators and redress for the victims.
Women want to be heard
The early release of seven Myanmar soldiers found guilty of carrying out a massacre of 10 Rohingya men in Rakhine, after serving less than a year of their 10-year sentences, is further evidence of the lack of an independent, fair and credible judicial system in Myanmar.
Asean should join international calls for Myanmar to be referred to an international accountability mechanism, such as the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice, for crimes in Rakhine.
Most importantly, Rohingya themselves – in Bangladesh and Myanmar – must be at the centre of any solution.
Rohingya communities in Bangladesh and Myanmar tell APRRN members that they want to be consulted, included and involved in decision-making about their futures.
Women, in particular, want their voices to be heard: “If you’re discussing our future, do it with us. Our demands should be included.”
Asean leaders must work with Myanmar’s government to change conditions inside Rakhine for the better, bring perpetrators of atrocities to justice and establish citizenship for Rohingya communities with equal rights and freedoms.
This is the only way to realise durable solutions for the nearly one million displaced Rohingya people.
It’s the only way to build a peaceful and prosperous future for everyone in Rakhine and prevent a protracted refugee and statelessness crisis that would undermine the stability of the whole region. the jakarta post/asia news network
Chris Lewa is the deputy chair of the Rohingya Working Group of the Asia-Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN), a network with more than 350 organisational and individual members from 28 countries in the Asia-Pacific region.