OCTOBER 28 ― The 38th and 39th Asean Summits this week are a watershed moment for Asean to reaffirm its commitment to human rights.
Asean made a necessary, some would say bold, decision to exclude Myanmar's Senior General Min Aung Hlaing from the summit due to the almost total absence of progress on the Five Point Consensus that was agreed to at the April Asean Leaders’ Meeting in Brunei.
As its leaders deliberate the next steps to effectively engage Myanmar, Asean must also not blunder the opportunity to discuss a renewed regional strategy for Rohingya refugees across the region, one that recognises that safe, voluntary and dignified repatriation is simply not feasible given the current crisis in Myanmar.
The decision to dis-include Min Aung Hlaing at this week’s Summits was the right one, and Asean should maintain, if not increase the pressure on Myanmar. At the same time, Asean must continue to push for the implementation of recommendations from the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State chaired by former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan.
In fact, to prove it is still an entity that is credible, Asean must go even further ― it must acknowledge that most Rohingya will be unable to return to Myanmar for the foreseeable future, and discuss coordinated approaches for ensuring their protection until such a time that repatriation is possible.
It is almost nine months since the coup in Myanmar, and with no end to the instability in sight, it is time Asean and the international community step up and pursue a real solution to the long-term displacement of Rohingya refugees.
In the past, Asean and the international community have insisted on the swift, voluntary return of the Rohingya to Myanmar. A long time has passed since and the outside world’s “insistence” has obscured candid assessments of their plight and also discouraged consideration of alternatives that could better serve refugees and host countries ― including in Malaysia.
As a result, policy makers in the region have avoided giving serious attention to arrangements that would grant Rohingya access to formal employment, lawful immigration status and access to basic services, such as education and healthcare in their temporary host countries.
With only two of ten Member States party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Asean has long focused on voluntary repatriation as the only ‘durable solution’ for the vast majority of Rohingya refugees in the region. Thus, the “aspirations” for the speedy return of Rohingya refugees have never been realistic.
While most Rohingya have expressed a desire to return to their homeland in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, they want assurances that they will be protected and have equal access to the rights and benefits belonging to citizens. None of those assurances are any closer to being granted ― years after this human catastrophe commenced.
Regional leaders too have misread or glossed over Myanmar’s intentions.
Despite commitments made since 2018 to Bangladesh and the United Nations, the government of Myanmar has done little to create conditions for the safe, dignified and voluntary return of Rohingya refugees.
In the aftermath of the February coup, prospects for return are now even more distant.
Rakhine State, like most of the country, is beset by a deepening social and economic crisis. Unemployment is high, and rapid depreciation of the kyat has helped fuel a steep increase in the cost of food, fuel and other commodities. Political instability is also on the rise.
The Arakan Army (AA), an armed ethnic group, has become more assertive since February, establishing quasi-administrative and judicial structures of its own. Though fighting has not resumed in Rakhine, the AA’s political ambitions could set the stage for renewed conflict with Myanmar’s Armed Forces down the line. Both the AA and the military are alleged to be using forced labour to fortify their positions and transport supplies.
Today, the more than 600,000 Rohingya remaining in Rakhine continue to struggle to access basic services and livelihoods because of discrimination and severe restrictions on their movement. Authorities refuse to allow the nearly 150,000 Rohingya displaced from their homes and confined to camps the option to return to their villages.
Despite worsening security and humanitarian conditions in Rakhine State, Asean and member states continue to promote voluntary return without conceding that it will be almost impossible in the short- and medium-terms.
The Chairman’s Statement from the April Leaders’ Meeting and the Joint Communiqué from the August Foreign Ministers’ Meeting support Asean’s role in facilitating repatriation, but neither acknowledges long-standing challenges now deepened by the coup. While overlooking this reality fits with Asean’s ethos of “harmoniousness”, the fiction is unhelpful.
Voluntary return should of course remain a long-term goal toward which Asean works. But Asean, which says it recognises that the Rohingya crisis is a regional concern, must be more proactive in delivering a resolution.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah said last week that it is time for Asean to rethink its long-standing principle of non-interference, which cannot be used as a free pass for member states to engage in human rights abuses, especially when those abuses have regional impacts.
It has been a long time coming and to prove that it is not a paper tiger, Asean has to reconsider the principle of non-interference which renders the grouping toothless when faced with a rogue state.
In the meantime, the Summit must recognise that Rohingya will remain displaced for years to come and begin coordinating contingency planning. Nearly three years ago, I called on member states to start work on a regional refugee protection framework that aligns with the Global Compact on Refugees (endorsed by all Asean Member States), upholds refugee rights and fosters multi-stakeholder partnerships. The time is now.
A regional framework should strengthen protections for Rohingya refugees, including allowing them greater access to legal status, education, health care and social services; but it need not commit Asean member states to hosting Rohingya refugees indefinitely.
In lieu of permanent residence, the framework might include, for example, a robust temporary protection scheme that allows Rohingya to live dignified lives in host countries and prepares them for eventual return to Myanmar when conditions are conducive. Host governments might allow certain refugees to permanently remain — where requiring them to return to Myanmar would be inhumane — but this could be the exception rather than the rule.
The framework would critically also be a platform for collective engagement with donor governments and governments that resettle refugees. Asean alone should not be expected to bear this responsibility, and the framework would create opportunities for member states to press for greater external funding to support Rohingya while they remain displaced, and for more placements for Rohingya who want and would benefit from resettlement to third countries.
The international community is looking to Asean to lead a coordinated, steady and humane response to persistent Rohingya displacement, as part of its leadership addressing the Myanmar crisis. Asean must rise to the challenge. Or fade away from its past glory and be seen as a mere talk-shop that achieves nothing.
* Tan Sri Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar is Chairman of the Malaysian Advisory Group on Myanmar and Former Foreign Minister of Malaysia.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.