Asean need to step up in Rohingya crisis

Samina Akhter

Since August 2017, rampant persecution and violence in Myanmar's Rakhine State has pushed hundreds of thousands of Muslim minority people, known as the Rohingya, to abandon their homes and seek sanctuary in Bangladesh. Many more have travelled to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, frequently with the assistance of human traffickers. In Myanmar, civilian and military authorities vehemently deny targeting Muslims in Rakhine as accused. Even so, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) late last month officially rejected Myanmar's objections and is set to rule on an accusation of genocide by Gambia. As the ICJ is set to rule on the case, the number of individuals living in Bangladeshi camps has risen to over 1.1 million. Calls for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to help are rising, and Myanmar is a member of this regional bloc. Indeed, 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, in order to increase refugee confidence and trust in returning home. Bangladesh has sought the pro-active support of Asean to kick-start their repatriation without any further delay. Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen made this call at the Bangladesh-Indonesia bilateral meeting with his Indonesian counterpart Retno LP Marsudi in Jakarta on July 18. He will be on a diplomatic visit to Cambodia this week as he attends the Asean Regional Forum meeting on Aug 5-6. He is expected to raise the Rohingya issue again. There are potential security risks to Bangladesh, Myanmar, and to the greater region if the Rohingya crisis is left to fester and give rise to more radicalism, extremism, terrorism, and cross-border crime. Asean has played an active role but it was compelled to postpone the AHA Centre due to the recent escalation of hostilities between Myanmar troops and the banned Arakan Army, an insurgent organization in Rakhine. At the 33rd Asean Summit in Singapore, Asean issued a statement expressing concern over the worsening humanitarian catastrophe. To address the Rakhine situation, Asean member states must be prepared to collaborate bilaterally and via the bloc with the afflicted nations. They can also interact with the UN and other foreign organizations working in the refugee camps independently. The safety of their families and livelihoods were the main concerns raised by refugees during Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan's visit to one of the camps in November 2018. It is vital that solutions not only address the concerns of individuals returning to Rakhine but also those of minority communities now living in deplorable conditions in the state. Bangladesh has sought Cambodia's help -- in its capacity as the rotating chair of Asean -- to help find a solution to the refugee problem with Myanmar. Bangladesh's foreign minister visited Cambodia on July 14-16 to review and further strengthen bilateral ties. As chair and an active member of Asean, Cambodia can help resolve this crisis by being a mediator. It can raise the issue within the Asean platform. Cambodia can also negotiate with Myanmar diplomatically and bilaterally as both nations have amicable diplomatic relations. Cambodia can urge Myanmar to pay attention to the Rohingya issue and abide by international law. It needs to keep in mind the great words of Martin Luther King Jr: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” 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, such as Asean, may be seen as a reliable partner in establishing such a tribunal. 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 (AADMER) would be the clearest indication of Asean's willingness to help. AADMER only authorizes Asean to intervene in a humanitarian crisis if the afflicted member state requests it. Because Asean is Southeast Asia's only regional organization, leaders cannot turn a blind eye to any sort of human misery.

(Courtesy Dhaka Tribune)