Since August 2017, rampant persecution and violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state has pushed hundreds of thousands of Muslim minority people, known as ‘Rohingyas,’ to abandon their homes and seek sanctuary in Bangladesh. According to UN estimates, 200,000 Myanmarese civilians have already sought refuge in Bangladesh following prior displacements. Many more have travelled to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, frequently with the assistance of human traffickers.
In Myanmar, civilian and military authorities deny targeting Muslims in Rakhine and suggest that the international world is misrepresenting the severity of the violence, a viewpoint shared by extreme nationalists.
The number of individuals living in Bangladeshi camps has risen to over 1.1 million, leading ASEAN to consider a meaningful reaction. The safe and voluntary return of refugees currently residing in Bangladeshi displacement camps was a topic of discussion during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in January 2019. They finalized preparations for the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) to analyze Rakhine’s needs. This would enable them to have a better understanding of the areas of collaboration that ASEAN may help in the repatriation process in order to increase refugee confidence and trust in returning home.
ASEAN is working to create a secure and sustainable environment for refugees to return home. Cambodia’s Asean Chairmanship a great opportunity for Rohingya repatriation. Cambodian Chairmanship of Asean provides a great opportunity to facilitate safe and dignified return of the Rohingyas, now sheltered in Bangladesh, to Myanmar.There are a potential security risks to Bangladesh, Myanmar and to the greater region if the Rohingya crisis is left festering for a much longer period of time and vulnerability of the displaced people to radicalism, extremism, terrorism, cross-border crimes, etc. As chair and an active member of Asean, Cambodia can help resolve this crisis by being a mediator. Cambodia can play a holistic, significant and strategic role. It can raise the issue within the Asean platform. Cambodia can negotiate with Myanmar diplomatically and bilaterally as it has good relations with Myanmar.
However, ASEAN was compelled to postpone the AHA Centre needs assessment due to recent escalation of hostilities between Myanmar’s government armed forces and the banned Arakan Army, an insurgent organization in Rakhine. At the 33rd ASEAN Summit in Singapore, ASEAN issued a statement expressing profound concern over the worsening humanitarian catastrophe in Myanmar.
This is a great start toward acknowledging that Myanmar’s humanitarian catastrophe necessitates immediate regional response and informing Myanmar’s administration that more needs to be done. To address the Rakhine situation, ASEAN must exhibit its inventive spirit and practical problem-solving abilities.
Member states must be prepared to collaborate bilaterally and via ASEAN with the afflicted nations. They can also interact with the UN and other foreign organizations working in Bangladeshi refugee camps independently. The safety of their families and their livelihoods were the two main concerns raised by refugees during Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s (Singapore’s Foreign Minister) visit to a refugee camp in November 2018. By continuing to engage Myanmar and encouraging conversations on long-term peace options, ASEAN can address these issues. It is vital that solutions not only address the concerns of individuals returning to Rakhine from displacement camps, but also those of minority communities who are now living in deplorable conditions in the state.
To ensure long-term peace and security in Rakhine, ASEAN can provide direct assistance in some sectors. Building schools, vocational training, and community healthcare facilities are all possible approaches.
To alleviate suspicion, anxiety, and hostility among diverse groups, a reconciliation process must be implemented. Reconciliation is a long and laborious process, as seen in numerous countries with internal conflicts. Although there have been no systematic reconciliation efforts, the Myanmar government has established an Independent Commission of Inquiry. It remains to be seen if the process will be conducted professionally and fairly, and whether those guilty for the violence will be held accountable.
Setting up a judicial redress system, akin to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, which was set up to pursue the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities, might be very helpful in the reconciliation process. A nation or organization that has not been involved in the war, such as ASEAN, may be seen as a reliable partner in establishing such a tribunal.
ASEAN may begin this process by compiling lessons learned from the war, forming support groups on the ground to better understand the problems of the state’s residents, and bringing diverse communities and the government together to transcend the past.
ASEAN’s devotion to the principle of non-interference is its most significant impediment to taking a more active role in Rakhine. It comes up anytime ASEAN tries to talk about a significant issue in one of its member states. The importance of the non-interference rule in crisis situations has to be re-calibrated for ASEAN to work more successfully.
A revision of the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response would be the clearest indication of ASEAN’s willingness to help (AADMER). AADMER only authorizes ASEAN to intervene in a humanitarian crisis if the afflicted member state requests it.
Because Africa has endured several guerrilla wars and pandemics such as the Ebola outbreak, African experiences might be beneficial in establishing systems to deal with complicated humanitarian situations.
Because ASEAN is Southeast Asia’s only regional organization, leaders cannot turn a blind eye to any sort of human misery. The task of establishing a strong and obvious humanitarian mandate under the AADMER will only get more difficult in the future.
Samina Akhter is a Dhaka-based freelance writer and women and human rights activist.