Asean has a lot of work to do for the sake of its own relevancy as Myanmar and Bangladesh make another attempt to repatriate thousands of Muslim Rohingyas to strife-torn Rakhine state.
The authority in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw announced last week that Myanmar would accept 3,450 refugees from the list of 22,000 provided by Bangladesh earlier this month, as the first batch of people to resettle in Myanmar.
It is not known publicly how the list was made and on what grounds their names were submitted to the Myanmar authorities.
The repatriation of nearly one million refugees, who fled difficulties and conflict at home since the 1990s to shelters in Bangladesh, will be an uphill task, due to the scarred memories of all involved.
Of the 911,000 people sheltered in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, nearly 740,000 left Rakhine state following brutal violence in August 2017.
This saw Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, react in a heavy-handed manner to the series of attacks by militants working under the banner of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
The so-called clearance operation caused atrocities including arson, torture, gang rape, murder and massacres, the acts which the UN considered ethnic cleansing.
The UN even suggested that genocide charges be raised against those responsible from the Tatmadaw.
As the first attempt to send the Rohingyas back failed in middle of November last year, Asean, then under the chairmanship of Singapore, agreed to take part in the repatriation process for two reasons – saving Rohingyas as well as enhancing the regional grouping’s role and visibility in the Rakhine crisis.
Thailand, which took the chairmanship in January, fully supported Asean Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi and the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) in their efforts to take part in the repatriation process and to explore sustainable solutions for the crisis.
But the regional grouping faced an uphill task when it began to work on the issue last December.
The Asean Emergency Response and Assessment Team (ERAT) couldn’t enter Rakhine state when Rakhine ethnic insurgents under the Arakan Army (AA) brandished weapons against the authorities and made the situation more complicated.
The insurgents are fighting for autonomy in Rakhine state.
The ERAT team was finally allowed to enter the state, for primary assessments, during the first half of March and it completed its first report a month later.
In the meantime, Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, representing Asean as chair, conducted his quiet shuttle diplomacy between Bangkok, Jakarta, Naypyidaw and Dhaka to explore the possibilities for the early repatriation and rehabilitation of the ousted refugees in Rakhine.
Don discussed the Asean plan for the Rakhine crisis with his colleagues in Bangkok in June and July when they gathered at the Asean summit and ministerial meeting respectively.
The discussion produced positive outcomes.
As Don told media in June, Myanmar was ready to welcome Rohingyas – who are regarded as “aliens” in the country – and will consider issuing National Verification Cards (NVC) for Rohingya refugees who wish to voluntarily return from Bangladesh.
The NVC is not Myanmar’s national ID, and many Rohingyas have said they do not trust it.
Although the Asean Ministerial Meeting joint communique issued after the meeting last month painted a rosy road for the repatriation and rehabilitation of Rohingya, the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Professor Yanghee Lee, who was in Thailand in early July for her fact finding mission, said violations of human rights in Myanmar, notably in Rakhine state, was rising.
She said she would report the alarming situation to the UN Human Rights Council next month and the General Assembly in October.
She said Myanmar is grossly violating people’s rights and had blocked her access to the country since late 2017.
Human rights violations
Clashes have continued since 2017, and the conflict between the Tatmadaw and the militant group AA is still raging, with reports indicating that human rights violations and abuse against the civilian population is worsening, she said.
Given that information flow is not easy, it is challenging to get information on what is happening on the ground and how the outside world can assess whether it is safe for the Rohingyas to return, she noted.
Sources say the blocking of the internet in nine townships in northern Rakhine since July has not yet been lifted.
Asean, in its joint communique in July, stressed the need for the Asean Secretary-General and the AHA Centre to conduct further work on the matter, including the dissemination of information and the accurate assessment of the situation to guarantee the safe return of Rohingyas.
With good cooperation from Naypyidaw as a member, Asean has the adequate mechanisms and ability to get access to troublesome areas as well as reach out to the residents of Rakhine.
If the Rakhine crisis really mattered for the regional bloc, it is time for Asean to connect and coordinate with all stakeholders including Bangladesh, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Myanmar to guarantee that the first batch of Rohingyas return home safe and sound.
And more importantly, that they would be welcomed as full citizens of Myanmar.
Supalak Ganjanakhundee is the former editor of the Nation newspaper in Thailand. He continues to contribute articles to the paper. This article is part of the latest series of the Asian Editors Circle, a weekly commentary by editors from the Asia News Network (ANN), which will be published by members of the regional media group. ANN is an alliance of 24 news media titles across the region.