At the 33rd Asean summit in Singapore last year, the issue of the Rakhine/Rohingya crisis was high on the agenda.
The chairman’s statement expressed Asean’s readiness to support Myanmar in the repatriation process by conducting a needs assessment in Rakhine state.
It also recognised the need to find comprehensive and durable solutions to the crisis and to create conducive conditions for refugees to return and rebuild their lives, as well as encouraged Myanmar to take forward the implementation of the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission led by the late UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.
A year later, with the five-day 35th Asean Summit in Thailand ending on Monday, things have not moved forwards as hoped.
Not a single Rohingya has agreed voluntarily to the official repatriation process, and while Myanmar has developed physical infrastructure in Rakhine in preparation for repatriation, too little has been done to guarantee security and basic rights of the Rohingya to convince them to return.
Bangladesh, now host to more than one million Rohingya refugees, has become increasingly frustrated at what it perceives to be a lack of progress on Myanmar’s side in creating conducive conditions for return, while Myanmar has accused Bangladesh of delaying the repatriation process.
Thus, instead of confidence building, over the past year more trust has been lost between Myanmar and Bangladesh, as well as between Myanmar and Rohingya refugees in the camps in Cox’s Bazar.
If there are any lessons to be learned for Asean, it is that rushing into repatriation without building a foundation of trust is not possible.
Therefore, if Asean is to help Myanmar find a way forwards in addressing this crisis, it must prioritise trust-building and dialogue.
Asean and Myanmar have done some things right in their engagement on this complex crisis.
Most significantly, in late July, in line with a recommendation in the Asean-Emergency Reponse and Assessment Team’s (Erat) preliminary needs assessment, Myanmar sent a delegation from their foreign ministry, accompanied by Asean-Erat team members, to visit Cox’s Bazar and hold a dialogue with Bangladesh government officials and with Rohingya refugees in the camps.
The visit was an important confidence-building measure by Myanmar, one that was warmly welcomed by Bangladesh and, most importantly, Rohingya refugees themselves.
While no agreement was reached between the Myanmar delegation and the refugee representatives, the dialogue showed goodwill on both sides to engage in much needed discussions about the repatriation process that Myanmar was offering, while refugees voiced their concerns and conditions for returning voluntarily.
The Myanmar delegation promised to communicate the requests of the refugees to the Myanmar government and to follow up with the next dialogue within three months.
Unfortunately, the dialogue has so far not been followed up.
Instead, Myanmar decided to push ahead with yet another attempt at repatriation on August 22, which came as a surprise to refugees as well as to Asean.
Myanmar will certainly need time to address fundamental issues in Rakhine state.
‘Talk to us’
The result of the August repatriation attempt, to Myanmar and Asean’s disappointment, was that not a single Rohingya refugee agreed to return voluntarily to Rakhine state.
The impact of the failed attempt was that it left Rohingya refugees again feeling betrayed, and further strained relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
On the part of the refugees, the vast majority do, in fact, wish to return to Rakhine state, and have even launched their own “Going Home” campaign.
Their demands are clear – security, citizenship and access to education.
On August 25, thousands of Rohingya refugees commemorated the second anniversary of their exodus to Bangladesh with the call “Talk to us”.
They have also consistently asked for Asean to play a mediation role in a dialogue process between the Myanmar government and Rohingya refugee representatives.
Myanmar will certainly need time to address fundamental issues in Rakhine state. In the meantime, however, we cannot afford to lose more trust and hope.
Asean should offer to facilitate a process of “Going Home” dialogues between Myanmar and Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar in order to build a foundation of trust needed for voluntary repatriation to happen.
This can easily be done within the framework of the implement-ation of the Asean-Erat preliminary needs assessment recommendation, which has already been agreed to by Myanmar, led by a team of mediators and independent facilitators under the good office of the Asean secretary-general.
In doing so, we must ensure that dialogue is conducted with a wide group of refugees, including women and youth, in line with UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 2418.
Asean leaders must realise that its credibility is at stake in the way it handles the Rohingya crisis and that for all our efforts over the past year, the situation remains at an impasse.
While solutions will not be found overnight, the process of trust-building cannot wait. The way forward is dialogue.
Noeleen Heyzer/The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network