This week, ASEAN foreign ministers are gathering in the northern Thai town of Chiang Mai for an informal summit, the first time they meet since Thailand assumed the regional bloc’s chairmanship at the turn of the year. As the diplomats come together on Jan. 17-18, they must make sure that one particular issue takes center stage — the genocide enfolding in Myanmar against the Rohingya.
The plight of the Rohingya hit international headlines in August 2017, when the Myanmar security forces launched a “clearance operation” in Rakhine state. In a few weeks, many thousands of Rohingya women, men and children were killed, almost 800,000 were forced to flee into neighboring Bangladesh, and whole villages were torched to the ground.
This brutality was just the latest chapter in a long story of abuse, as Rohingya have suffered systematic persecution at the hands of Myanmar authorities for decades. I grew up in Rakhine state myself but felt compelled to flee in the early 1990s when I was denied attendance to university, simply because I was a Rohingya.
ASEAN has hidden behind its “non-interference” principle and remained silent even as the Myanmar military was killing and raping its way through Rakhine. Official statements — most recently after the Singapore Summit in November — have mainly offered bland words of support for Myanmar, and studiously avoided the term “Rohingya”.
To their enormous credit, individual member states — notably Malaysia and Indonesia — have taken much tougher stances, and called for the Myanmar military to be held to account for their atrocities against.
Last August over 130 parliament members from across ASEAN also signed a statement calling for justice for the Rohingya, clearly demonstrating that this is an issue that attracts sympathy across the region.
Recently, however, there have been growing signs that ASEAN is preparing to take a more active role in the Rohingya crisis. Last November a delegation headed by Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan visited both Bangladesh and Myanmar to discuss ASEAN’s role in the crisis. Just a month later, plans were announced for ASEAN — and its humanitarian wing, the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance (AHA) Center — to play a role in the repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar.
Last November, Bangladesh halted plans to begin the return of refugees — not least because it was clear that the Rohingya themselves did not want to go back to a country where their lives are still at risk. But with the Bangladeshi government winning re-election last Dec. 30, talks about repatriation are likely to resume soon.
Southeast Asian leaders must realize that, despite what Nay- pyidaw may claim, conditions inside Myanmar are nowhere near safe and secure enough for Rohingya to return to. Authorities in Myanmar have done nothing to dismantle the state-sponsored discrimination which keeps Rohingya confined in a virtual “open-air prison” in Rakhine. Nor has Myanmar expressed any intention of granting Rohingya citizenship, a key first step to making life bearable for our community.
Human rights groups and media have recently documented how Myanmar has bulldozed over burned Rohingya villages, and replaced them with military bases, infrastructure projects, and housing for other ethnic groups. Even if Rohingya wanted to return, there might not be anywhere for them to go except for government-run displacement camps, where they risk being held indefinitely in deplorable conditions.
Recent violence between the Arakan army and Myanmar security forces in Rakhine have also shown that region is far from secure. The military has vowed to “crush” the armed group. If violence escalates, Rohingya people will likely be caught in the crossfire, or even deliberately targeted.
ASEAN must push Myanmar to put a comprehensive plan into place that addresses the root causes of the crisis, including by ending systemic discrimination against Rohingya and granting them full citizenship. ASEAN leaders must also ensure that those responsible for atrocities against Rohingya — regardless of rank or position — are held to account.
Unless Myanmar military officials are brought to justice, they will feel emboldened to commit the same atrocities in the future. This is also true in other parts of the country — such as Shan and Kachin states — where security forces have committed war crimes with impunity.
While Myanmar has established its own commission of inquiry into the “events” in Rakhine, it will unlikely deliver justice. Myanmar has a long track record of setting up investigations at politically opportune times — the result is always a whitewash.
The only hope for justice lies with the international community, starting with the evidence gathering mechanism established at the United Nations Human Rights Council last September. The world must also guarantee Rohingya in Rakhine some form of protection so that they are not left at the mercy of the Myanmar army again.
ASEAN states might argue that a confrontational line will push Myanmar away from the bloc and into China’s arms. But with a genocide unfolding in a member state, ASEAN has both a moral and political duty to act. This is an opportunity for ASEAN to show real leadership on human rights — this week’s Chiang Mai summit would be a good place to start.
The writer is president of the Burmese Rohingya Organization United Kingdom and international coordinator of the Free Rohingya Coalition