No quick Asean fix for Rakhine state

When Asean's leaders meet in Bangkok for their summit on June 22-23, they will discuss a preliminary report about Myanmar by the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre).

According to news reports and press releases, this report -- which remains confidential -- makes an initial assessment of the preparations for the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees.

The emphasis of Asean's efforts to support Myanmar with the Rohingya repatriation will be on "low-hanging fruit", the assumption being that practical measures will contribute to creating a conducive environment for the safe, dignified return of Rohingya refugees.

AHA's initial assessment is primarily based on visits to reception and transit centres in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state. According to news reports, Asean and Myanmar have agreed that a comprehensive assessment will be needed. However, they are planning to conduct this only after the first batches of Rohingya refugees have returned to Myanmar from Bangladesh. This is not only putting the cart before the horse, it violates humanitarian principles to start returning people before the situation in Rakhine has been assessed properly. Returns should be on a voluntary basis and the refugees have voiced concerns about the present situation in their homeland.

It is not clear whether the AHA Centre has consulted the Bangladesh government and the Rohingya refugees there. If not, they should make it a priority.

Close to 1 million Rohingya are now in Bangladesh. About 730,000 arrived after August 2017, escaping horrific human rights violations that an independent UN fact-finding mission qualified as crimes against humanity. Even now, Rohingya refugees still cross into Bangladesh because their situation in Rakhine state continues to worsen.

Asean's efforts are welcome but to be successful they have to include a longer-term strategy to address underlying problems that have plagued Rakhine for decades. There are no quick fixes. The biggest mistake would be to assume that the problem is a "Rohingya crisis". While the Rohingya have borne the brunt of repressive policies and practices of successive military regimes, other ethnic groups also continue to suffer from the effects of divide-and-rule policies and from a lack of development that has turned their state into Myanmar's poorest.

A point of departure for Asean's welcome search for solutions should be that Myanmar has a "Rakhine crisis" and also that its drivers are part and parcel of serious structural deficiencies in Myanmar as a whole. Addressing only the return of Rohingya refugees, will not solve the underlying causes, it will entrench them.

This is confirmed in a May 2019 Amnesty International report about Myanmar's recent military operations against the Arakan Army, an insurgent group supported by many in the Rakhine ethnic community. It shows that less than two years after the world's outrage over mass atrocities among the Rohingya population, it is now committing similar abuses against the Rakhine ethnic population and other, smaller, ethnic groups.

Myanmar's military has not learned the lessons of 2017, when it forced Rohingya across the border. The key difference with 2017 is that the operations against the Arakan Army have been sanctioned by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.

Asean's pronouncements at its summit in Singapore in November last year and at the Foreign Minister's Retreat in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in January this year are welcome. They emphasised the need for comprehensive and durable solutions to address the root causes of the conflict and for ensuring that all those affected can rebuild their lives. What is known about the AHA report, however, suggests that these root causes will not be addressed any time soon.

Bold steps are required at the start of a comprehensive approach. An incremental process that goes for the "low-hanging fruit" and leaves the challenging underlying problems until later, will not work. Gross rights violations, including those that may amount to crimes against humanity, must be addressed from the start.

A good example is the policy of strictly enforced ethnic segregation that has turned Rakhine into an apartheid state. It contravenes both the Rome Statute of the ICC (1998) and the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (1973). Dealing with this fatal structural flaw is not a low-hanging fruit. It is a tall order. Leaving it in place until lower fruits have been harvested is not an option. It will serve to entrench the systematic oppression and domination of the Rohingya as well as other Muslim groups such as the Kaman.

Myanmar must make the dismantling of Rakhine's apartheid system an immediate priority. And international organisations, governments and other institutions must realise that as long as this strictly enforced ethnic segregation is in place, their assistance contravenes international law, particularly if it helps maintain and entrench apartheid structures.

The work of the AHA Centre should be guided by the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission, chaired by Kofi Annan (2016-2017). These recommendations have not only been endorsed by Myanmar itself but also by the UN General Assembly. Unfortunately, there is still a widespread belief that they only address the situation of the Rohingya. That is not the case. The Annan report was clearly guided by the challenge to make recommendations leading to better lives for all who call Rakhine home.

They cover many points that both the government, the military and the ethnic communities themselves should address, including citizenship, security for all and human rights. Rakhine will only prosper through inclusivity and integration. As the Annan report says: "The question should not be whether Rakhines and Muslims [Rohingya and Kaman] will live together, but rather how they will live together".

Two final suggestions for Asean and its AHA team.

First, ensure the planned comprehensive assessment addresses whether the conditions in Rakhine are conducive for returns. Shying away from this would be a fatal mistake. A largely technical assessment of readiness, processes and procedures is insufficient. The big question is whether the military, political and social conditions have improved considerably since the Rohingya fled. With much of Rakhine state currently under lockdown, with more than 100 violent clashes reported since early 2019 and many civilian deaths, this question must not be ignored.

Second, the task ahead is daunting and all hands should be on deck. That includes UN agencies, NGOs and others who have not only worked in Rakhine state, but who also have experience with large-scale repatriation efforts. Some, like the UNHCR with its protection mandate, and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs which coordinates rapid and coherent responses to emergencies, have recently made high-level visits to Rakhine. There is room to explore whether they and others might operate under an Asean umbrella.


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, Indonesia's Representative to ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (2016-2018).

RELATED STORIES

Back to top