By Supalak Ganjanakhundee
Despite concerns of genocide and discrimination, leaders of Asean at their summit this week here will explore the possibilities of early but safe repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar’s strife-torn Rakhine state.
A statement from the Asean chairman at the end of the summit will stress the importance of “voluntary return” of the refugees from Bangladesh as well as “the need to find a comprehensive and durable solution to address the root causes of the conflict and to create a conducive environment so that the affected communities can rebuild their lives”, according to an official aware of the draft preparation.
More than 700,000 Muslim Rohingya have fled violence in Rakhine since August last year after militant groups attacked security outposts, prompting a brutal “clearance operation” by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military).
Investigations conducted by the United Nations and other organisations, including NGOs and news media, found elements of ethnic cleansing and atrocities against the Rohingya. The UN human rights body called for the case of “genocide” to be referred to the International Criminal Court or any international tribunal.
A Thai official said the Rakhine issue could be raised for discussion among Asean leaders and their partners from all over the world during the summit this week. Asean, however, would limit its involvement to the humanitarian crisis and would support the government in Nay Pyi Taw in handling the issue as it sees fit.
Asean refrains from using the term Rohingya in its official documents.
The Rakhine crisis was “one of the clouds hanging over Asean over the past one year”, said Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.
“At every Asean meeting we’ve had, Myanmar has taken pains to explain the situation to us, update us on their plans and to reassure us that they were doing their best to resolve the situation,” he told Singapore media last week.
Balakrishnan visited refugee camps in Bangladesh last week and met Myanmar’s leaders to discuss the issue. Bangladesh and Myanmar officials have announced publicly and said in private conversations that there is real commitment on their part to begin the process of repatriation, he said.
“In our discussions, we emphasised that the key thing when you begin the repatriation is to ensure that it is voluntary, that it is safe, and that it is dignified,” he said. A Bangladesh-Myanmar joint working group reached an agreement during their meeting on October 30 in Dhaka to start the process of repatriation in the middle of this month.
While observers in Thailand said they understood Bangladesh’s keenness to reduce its burden of sheltering a huge number of refugees from Myanmar, they raised concerns that early repatriation might cause trouble for the Rohingya due to discrimination in Rakhine state.
Thai scholars who closely monitor the situation in Rakhine state told The Nation that they agreed Asean should take on some role, not only in the repatriation but also in helping Myanmar address the problem at its roots.
The legal process on the question of genocide should continue to bring responsible Myanmar officials to justice, said Thammasat University expert on Myanmar affairs Dulyapak Preecharushh.
There should also be efforts to convince Myanmar to end discrimination against the ethnic group by amending its citizenship law to recognise the Rohingya in some way, he said.
The most important aspect of the repatriation is safety, he said, “how Myanmar authorities guarantee that their homes in the northern areas such as Maungdaw and Buthidaung will be safe enough for them and to live with other ethnic groups peacefully”.
Walailak University lecturer on international relations Anusorn Chaiaksornwet suggested that Thailand, which will hold the Asean chairmanship next year, should come up with a clear plan on the Rohingya issue.
Asean needed a document to show strong determination to collectively solve the problem, he said, adding that there should also be a committee or some kind of mechanism to monitor the situation and handle the job.