Asean and Rohingyas

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (C) holds the gavel for ASEAN chairmanship in 2020 during the closing ceremony of the 35th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Bangkok on November 4, 2019. (Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

Beyond the international grandstanding in Bangkok, quite the most robust statement to emanate from the Asean summit was the UN Secretary-General’s appeal to the Myanmar government to take responsibility for the plight of 730,000 Rohingya refugees from Rakhine state.

Antonio Guterres has called on the government in Naypyidaw to deal with the “root causes” of their flight to Bangladesh and work towards their safe repatriation.

The UN, represented as it was by its head, has raised awareness of the international rights of the Rohingya Muslims, who for several years have been buffeted from shore to shore in their quest for hearth and home.

Leaders of Asean meet annually to work out common positions on pressing issues, but also maintain a policy of non-interference in each other’s affairs.

Ergo, the entity – of which Myanmar is a member – is unlikely to spell out its stand on the issue, which the UN calls the “worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War”.

Yet the UN Secretary-General’s presentation must rank as a striking feature of developments at the high table.

His statement, released by host Thailand, summarised the consensus positions of the group, suggesting how to deal with the Rakhine crisis, without directly acknowledging the major problems faced by Bangladesh while sheltering such a vast number of refugees and the hurdles in sending them home.

The statement pointed out that the various agreements already reached on repatriation have reiterated “the need to find a comprehensive and durable solution to address the root causes of the conflict and to create a conducive environment so that the affected communities can rebuild their lives”.

Guterres said Myanmar should take measures “to facilitate dialogue with refugees and pursue confidence building measures” and “to ensure humanitarian actors have full and unfettered access to areas of return, as well as communities in need”.

Not one of these parameters has been followed by the Myanmar government, irrespective of whether it is headed by the military or by an elected government. The shambolism is almost institutionalised.

The attitudes of Asean members towards the Rakhine crisis varies.

While most of the group’s 10 countries have honoured the organisation’s principle of non-interference in each other’s affairs, Malaysia and Indonesia, which are predominantly Muslim countries, want Asean to take a more proactive position in ensuring humane treatment of the Rohingyas.

Asean’s active involvement is mostly limited to providing humanitarian assistance.

The regional group expects an investigative commission established by Myanmar’s government to carry out “an independent and impartial investigation into alleged human rights violations and related issues”.

For now, Guterres’ address calls for collective reflection.

The Statesman (India)/ANN