Asean has an obvious role in Rohingya crisis
Representatives of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting next month in Manila need to address the crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine state at its root causes if the suffering of the Muslim Rohingya is to end.
Concern over the crisis now spans the globe. The international community has been united in condemning the military onslaught that had pushed more than 580,000 Rohingya from their homes. The United Nations has adopted a progressive stance addressing the roots of the catastrophe. But among members of Asean, who include Myanmar, there is disunity. It was apparent from a statement issued in late September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly that the bloc not only lacks understanding of the problem but is also reluctant to get involved.
Among the 10 member-countries of Asean, only Malaysia has displayed courage. Its foreign minister objected strenuously when the members were urged to refer to the brutal military campaign as a “clearance operation”. Otherwise, the consensus amounts to watered-down expressions of “concern”, offers of humanitarian assistance – and wilful blindness regarding the appalling force being used.
Those members expressing hope that Myanmar fully implements the recommendations of an advisory committee led by former UN chief Kofi Annan are merely engaging in wishful thinking.
The Annan report addressed many of the issues surrounding the crisis and pressed the government to recognize the Rohingya as citizens with full rights. Practically speaking, however, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is unable to implement any of the recommendations because of the widespread belief in Myanmar society that the Rohinyga are not citizens, but rather unwelcome Bengalis who need to be expelled.
The other problem with the Annan report is that its release coincided with a series of attacks on security forces by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a militant group newly formed to protect the besieged Muslims of Rakhine. The government’s response to those attacks has seen entire villages razed and more than half a million Rohingya driven across the border into Bangladesh.
This is, of course, not entirely sectarian violence. Racial bigotry pools with religious rivalry in a toxic nationalist mix. Revered Buddhist monks have fanned anti-Rohingya sentiment on the basis of most Rohingya being Muslim.
The immediate problem is dealing with the hundreds of thousands of refugees in the borderlands – Bangladesh alone cannot handle the crisis – and the countless others rendered homeless but still living in Rakhine, to which the authorities have denied outsiders access. The UN has for weeks been demanding that its aid workers be allowed into Rakhine and that the Rohingya be allowed to return home in safety. The government has said it will readmit them, but only once a screening system is in place.
The return home, if it is permitted, will be fraught with difficulties of a different kind. There will be no warm welcome, but rather fear of retribution. It will be another challenge for the international community – ensuring that the repatriation process is fair and free of violence. This in particular is an area in which Asean can take a leading role. It has considerable experience in dealing with refugees, dating back to the time of its origin. And this is what the bloc’s leaders should be discussing at their Manila summit.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.