The Rohingya problem: Is there an ASEAN solution in sight?

Photo:United to End Genocide

ASEAN’s commitment to decision-making by consensus and non-interference in the internal affairs of member states severely restricts its ability to play an effective and pro-active role in the Rohingya crisis.

By Hirubalan V P, Former Deputy Secretary-General of ASEAN Political-Security Community Department

On 22 August 2019, Myanmar’s authorities launched a third repatriation attempt to facilitate the return of displaced Rohingya Muslims. The government dispatched buses to Cox’s Bazaar tasked with bringing back some 3,000 Rohingya refugees to their place of abode in Rakhine State. Not a single refugee boarded the transportation provided.

Unlike the first two repatriation attempts, this third attempt was of heightened significance. A team from ASEAN was at the Myanmar reception centres to witness the repatriation exercise. For Myanmar, the presence of ASEAN officials was an opportunity to validate its preparations for the repatriation exercise and to affirm that Myanmar was serious in facilitating the return of the displaced Rohingya. In this sense, the presence of ASEAN officials had good public relations value for Myanmar.

Reactions to the failed repatriation attempt have been varied. The Myanmar authorities expressed surprise at the refugees’ refusal to return to Rakhine. They blamed the presence of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) for this failure, asserting that the group was active in Cox’s Bazaar, deterring Rohingya from returning home. The Myanmar government accused the Bangladeshi authorities of not doing enough to counter its activities and facilitating the return of the Rohingya Muslims.

Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh carrying a piece of cloth with demands in protest of repatriation to Myanmar, which many in the community see as a dangerous return trip.
Photo: Jafor Islam/VOA

The Bangladeshi government maintained that it upheld its end of the agreement and had taken the necessary steps to facilitate this round of repatriation. There was no official reaction from ASEAN. ASEAN Ministers can be expected to discuss this matter when they meet later this month in New York for the Special ASEAN Ministerial Meeting.  

ASEAN’s involvement was good publicity for the organisation and the Myanmar government

ASEAN’s involvement in this third repatriation attempt began in May 2019 when Myanmar allowed an ASEAN team into the country to carry out a needs assessment and assess the preparations Myanmar was undertaking to receive the displaced Rohingyas. This arrangement reflected ASEAN’s hope that its involvement on the ground would inspire confidence in the Rohingya to participate in the repatriation exercise. It was also an opportunity to mitigate criticisms that ASEAN was not playing a greater role in trying to solve the crisis taking place in its backyard.

ASEAN had to tread carefully. The language was carefully designed to make clear that it was Myanmar that invited ASEAN’s involvement. This protected the ASEAN mantra of non-interference in the internal affairs of individual Member States without a specific request.

Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazaar.
Photo: Mohammad Tauheed

The ASEAN Team’s preliminary needs assessment focused on the ongoing preparations to process and house the incoming refugees. It made the seemingly objective observation that the Government of Myanmar had invested significant effort into its repatriation plan, including the preparation of facilities, humanitarian assistance and human resources.

As Myanmar officials were part of the team, it is reasonable to conclude that the ASEAN Team’s assessment could not have taken a critical tone, nor given the impression that Myanmar was unprepared or disinclined to facilitate the return of the refugees.

The leaked ASEAN assessment received significant flak from NGOs and the displaced Rohingya, who criticised it as being insufficient and merely an attempt to legitimise Myanmar’s repatriation process. A joint statement by ASEAN Civil Societies and Rohingya Organisations called the assessment a “whitewash” that had drastically overestimated the ease with which the Rohingya could return to Myanmar and was caustic in its observation that the “report at times reads more as if it is designed to please the Government of Myanmar than a product from members of a reputable institution.”

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
Photo: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid

Repatriation involves more than merely facilitating the return of displaced persons

The failure of the third attempt at repatriation reflects the complexity and difficulties involved in allowing the displaced Rohingya to return to their homelands. The Rohingya do not trust the authorities in Myanmar, who were complicit in their persecution. Their core concerns over their safety remain, and there are still uncertainties over their livelihoods and whether they would be granted citizenship. Even though conditions in Cox’s Bazaar are dismal and squalid, the displaced Rohingya fearful that their situation would be worse if they returned to Myanmar.

The Myanmar government has never recognised the Rohingya as a legitimate ethnic group but instead sees them as refugees from Bangladesh, referring to them as Bengalis. In this light, Myanmar cannot be displeased that the displaced Rohingya are not willing to participate in repatriation efforts. ASEAN’s involvement allowed Myanmar to create the façade of legitimacy and promote the notion that it has made preparations to receive the displaced Rohingya. But the Rohingya remain unconvinced that their reasons for fleeing have been adequately resolved.

It is difficult for ASEAN to do more without Myanmar’s concurrence

For ASEAN as an organization, the Rohingya problem is a thorn in its side. Its critics hold it up as evidence that ASEAN is unable to effectively handle a serious human rights crisis in its own backyard.

ASEAN member states remain committed to its cardinal principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a member state, stifling resolution capabilities. Additionally, ASEAN’s principle of decision-by-consensus means Myanmar has to agree to any action. As a result, the ASEAN Chair, which is responsible for ASEAN Statements and Communiques, is struggling to strike a balance – the issue has to be mentioned in ASEAN documents so as not to damage ASEAN’s credibility over a crisis with serious human rights implications, but the framing of the ASEAN message on this issue has to have Myanmar’s concurrence.

It is probably on Myanmar’s insistence that the paragraphs on the Rohingya issue were placed in the social and cultural section of the ASEAN Summit and Ministerial statements, presenting the matter as a social and cultural issue rather than a political, security or human rights issue. Nevertheless, regardless of where the paragraphs on the Rohingya issue are placed in ASEAN documents, it is still an acknowledgement that ASEAN must have a position on the situation to maintain at least a semblance of credibility.

There have been occasions when differences have emerged between members states. For instance, in September 2017, when the ASEAN Ministers meeting in New York issued a statement on the subject, Malaysia publicly disassociated itself from the document a few hours after it was released. The Malaysian government argued that the statement did not accurately reflect developments on the ground.

Differences over this issue also surfaced during the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA). At its recent meeting in Bangkok on 25 August, a resolution entitled: “Responding to the Humanitarian Crisis of the Rohingya People” proposed by Indonesian delegates was rejected because there was no consensus.

ASEAN’s constraints in managing the Rohingya problem were best summed up by Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on 2 October 2018, when Singapore was still the ASEAN Chair. In replying to a question in the Singapore Parliament on whether Myanmar can be compelled to act in line with the relevant sections in the ASEAN Charter and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, Minister Vivian said “ASEAN is an association that makes decision by consensus, and once you understand that every decision requires consensus, it effectively means every single country has a veto. So that acts as a constraint to the legal options available…Compulsion, tempting as it is, usually never works in these sorts of situations.”      

Nevertheless, ASEAN has made some effort to show that it is trying to play a role in finding a resolution to the Rohingya crisis while adhering to the organisation’s commitment to non-interference and decision-by-consensus. The agreement to dispatch an ASEAN Team to witness Myanmar’s preparation for the repatriation exercise and to conduct a needs assessment was a recent example of these efforts. Earlier in October 2017, ASEAN Ministers also agreed to dispatch 80 tons of relief aid to assist internally displaced persons in Rakhine State.

Individual ASEAN member states have made bilateral contributions to Myanmar, Bangladesh and International relief organisations to provide aid to displaced persons. Within ASEAN, there are efforts to keep Myanmar engaged on the issue. The Rohingya issue is discussed each time ASEAN Leaders and foreign ministers meet. It is important for ASEAN to keep the topic on the agenda to continuously impress upon Myanmar the gravity of the situation and its impact on ASEAN, in addition to the need to alleviate the suffering of the displaced Rohingya.

The issue has all the makings of a long-term challenge for ASEAN

The failure of the most recent repatriation exercise is a setback but not a disaster. The lessons learnt from the episode will guide ASEAN in its future approaches and provide additional information on how it can be involved to best assist Myanmar and the repatriation process. However, the key driver must be Myanmar.

As long as Myanmar continues to insist on measures that are restrictive and onerous, the refugees will be reluctant to return.  Clearly more work is required to engage the displaced persons and to ensure that sufficient resources and preparations are in place to provide the smooth return of refugees.

Realistically, this problem is beyond ASEAN’s capacity to handle by itself. Vast resources are needed to facilitate the return of the displaced persons. Massive support from the international community, UN agencies, international NGOs and aid agencies is required.

Facilitating the Rohingya’s return is only one facet of the solution. Long-term solutions within Myanmar will also be required to ensure that the incoming Rohingya are able to live in dignity, with a sustainable livelihood, and access to social amenities. These are crucial issues to be addressed over the long term. As long as the displaced persons lack confidence and trust in the process and continue to fear for their safety if they return, then even the immediate issue of voluntary repatriation will be impossible to realise.

The concern is that if the issue continues to persist, then fatigue might set in. ASEAN already has to deal with a host of other challenges. In the face of other pressing matters, the bloc might lose focus on this devastating issue. It would be a tragedy if the displaced Rohingya become a permanent fixture in Cox’s Bazaar, eking out their existence as a forgotten and downtrodden population. ASEAN should build on its initial involvement of deploying an assessment team to Myanmar and determine further steps it could take to move the repatriation process forward.