Asean called to toughen Rohingya stance

Human rights groups have called on Asean’s leaders to take a tougher stand on Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims ahead of today’s [Thursday] summit in Bangkok.

The plight of the persecuted community is expected to be a major topic during the four-day summit of meetings among the 10 leaders, including Myanmar’s embattled State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.

Her role in government involves little executive power but she is expected to defend the military’s action at international summits.

The crisis has exposed how reluctant loose-knit Asean is to address other members’ human rights abuses, in contrast to the European Union, which has a powerful executive branch, the European Commission, that demands member states observe democratic standards.

More than 720,000 Rohingya crossed into Bangladesh in 2017, according to the United Nations, with rights groups saying Myanmar’s leaders should be grilled about the causes of their persecution.

“Asean needs to stop turning a blind eye to Myanmar’s atrocities against the Rohingya, and cease lending legitimacy to the repatriation process,” said Eva Sundari, an Indonesian MP on the Asean human rights board.

An Asean report ahead of today’s summit has come under fire for failing to use the word “Rohingya”.

Asean’s Emergency Response and Action Team (ERAT) produced a “preliminary needs assessment” on repatriation for more than 1 million Rohingya in Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticised the report for lacking any input from Rohingya refugees and for failing to address the Myanmar military’s atrocities that caused the exodus.

Last week, a boat carrying 65 Rohingya landed at a southern Thai island, raising concern that there could be a new wave of human trafficking by sea after a 2015 regional crackdown on the practice.

“Asean seems intent on discussing the future of the Rohingya without condemning – or even acknowledging – the Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing campaign against them,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director. “It’s preposterous for Asean leaders to be discussing the repatriation of a traumatised population into the hands of the security forces who killed, raped and robbed them.”

Muslim-majority Malaysia is the only Asean state to publicly challenge the Burmese authorities about the crisis.

HRW said: “Asean’s ensuing focus on a repatriation process – as shown in the ERAT report – ignores the situation on the ground, sets unrealistic markers for assessing Myanmar’s progress, and fails to identify the root causes of the crisis that need to be resolved before refugees can return in safety and dignity. Asean has also ignored efforts to investigate abuses and obtain justice for victims of atrocities.”

The New York-based NGO said the estimated 500,000 Rohingya remaining in Rakhine State were trapped in appalling conditions, confined to camps and villages without freedom of movement, subject to persecution and violence, and cut off from adequate food, medical care and education.

The NGO argued that the authorities had done nothing to improve conditions or address the causes underlying the crisis. “Returning Rohingya to Myanmar would condemn them to lives of deprivation, oppression, and possibly death,” HRW said.

Both Muslim and Buddhist communities in resource-rich Rakhine State endure crushing poverty. Picture credit: Asean Economist