This month saw growing international concern and commitment to help resolve the crisis in Rakhine state, Myanmar. As a result of this crisis some 800,000 Muslim Rohingya have sought refuge in Bangladesh since October 2016.
The first indication was the chairman’s statement of the 33rd Asean summit in Singapore, issued on November 13. While it did not go much beyond an expression of concern, it does hold promise of greater engagement, particularly on humanitarian grounds.
The second indication was a resolution of the UN General Assembly on November 16, condemning human rights violations in Myanmar and calling for an independent investigation to hold the perpetrators accountable. An overwhelming majority of 142 UN members voted in favour, while 10 voted against.
While these strong indications of support to end the crisis remain to be translated into tangible results, they were issued amid a worrying situation in Bangladesh, where Rohingya refugees panicked upon learning that under a plan by Myanmar, China and Bangladesh some 2,200 of them would be repatriated from November 15 onwards.
Most Rohingya refugees would like to return home, but will only do so once the conditions that caused them to flee have been addressed. The vast majority of the international community supports them in these demands which are grounded in the findings and recommendations of the former Advisory Commission on Rakhine State (2017), chaired by the late Kofi Annan.
Among the Rohingya in Bangladesh, the news that about 2,200 among them would be returned against their will, sparked fear, panic and utter confusion. No one had bothered to ask their opinion. In a swift reaction the UN announced it had not been consulted either, adding that in Rakhine the unsuitable conditions for returns had not changed. Many in the international community followed suit and appealed against rushed returns. Several days later, when Bangladesh clarified that refugees would not be repatriated against their will, it was too late. The little trust that had been growing between the authorities and the Rohingya was gone.
Ultimately the repatriations were cancelled due to lack of volunteers for return, but the damage done will probably be long-lasting. In addition to the loss of trust, the sorry episode may have made some Rohingya more vulnerable to radicalisation; others may conclude that the only option they have left is to take a high-risk journey on one of the rickety boats that are taking to the high seas to try to reach Malaysia or Indonesia.
The situation in Rakhine state is not a national crisis, nor is it a bilateral crisis between Bangladesh and Myanmar. It is a crisis of regional and global concern.
While one million Rohingya find themselves in Bangladesh, another one million are spread out over countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. This month’s deliberations during the Asean summit and at the UN in New York confirm that it is now high time for broader direct engagement by the international community.
Two key issues face the international community. They need champions, preferably in a multilateral setting that recognises the international characteristics of the crisis. The first issue is support for Bangladesh to continue hosting large numbers of refugees for the foreseeable future. The second is support for Rohingya left behind in Rakhine state while also ensuring that the right conditions for refugee returns develop.
So far most attention has been given to the situation in Bangladesh, which shoulders an enormous burden and where dignitaries and journalists have easy access to the authorities and to the refugee camps. Myanmar, however, continues to severely limit access to northern Rakhine state as well as to IDP camps in central Rakhine where about 127,000 Rohingya are detained against their will and under appalling conditions. On November 18 reports about police violence in one of these camps received considerable attention.
The immediate challenge for the international community is getting a better understanding of what is happening in Rakhine and aiding development of proper conditions for repatriation.
There is no evidence to suggest that the Myanmar government has a comprehensive plan to address not only material needs but also major policy changes needed for reconciliation, peaceful coexistence and stability.
Key among these is dismantling the network of formal and informal regulations that keep a de facto apartheid state in place. Freedom of movement for all, free access to services – health, educational and social – and citizenship rights, will provide powerful pull factors for refugees to return.
While China has been assisting Myanmar and Bangladesh to solve their problems, a wider circle of key players is needed to deal with the complex crisis. Chief among them are the UN and Asean.
Thailand, as incoming Asean chair, has an important role to play. Part of this may involve quiet efforts to encourage the development of greater consensus among key players within Myanmar. Without coherent and agreed Myanmar positions a true dialogue about resolving the crisis will remain illusory.
Looking at the broader picture, it may be helpful to look at earlier efforts to deal with Southeast Asian problems many viewed as intractable. A case in point was the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) adopted in 1989 to address the massive influx of Indochinese boat refugees. Thailand played an important role in its design and negotiation, working closely with the UNHCR, Vietnam and the US. The comprehensive package of measures and commitments allowed for orderly departures from southern Vietnam, rescue at sea if required, reception in countries of first asylum, and then eventual resettlement in third countries outside the region. Millions of lives were likely saved. The CPA was wrapped up in 1996 having resolved the crisis.
The exercise could be duplicated again in getting to grips with Rakhine state and the Rohingya. Thailand must again serve as the catalyst, working through Asean, the UN system, as well as another organisation that was born in Bangkok – the BIMSTEC – in which India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand are members.
Once again the key is to have a comprehensive plan of action in place with a clear set of goals and commitments, and up-front buy-in of all key stakeholders.
Time is of the essence. The longer the problem is left unresolved, the more intractable it will become. The Palestinian refugee crisis, entering its 70th year, provides a stark reminder of how a whole region can be sucked into a perpetual state of war and suffering.
Laetitia van den Assum is 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.