I was speaking at a digital seminar at the Bangladesh Institute of International Strategic Studies (BIISS) on 21 April. The topic of the seminar was ‘Rohingya Crisis: Response of the International Community and Repatriation Process’. My presentation was on ‘ASEAN, Myanmar and the Rohingya Crisis’. In other words, I discussed the stance of the ASEAN member states on the Rohingya crisis and Myanmar.
BIISS is better known as the foreign ministry’s think tank and so naturally the ministry’ s Myanmar desk director was present at the seminar. State minister for foreign affairs Shahriar Alam, as chief guest, gave the concluding speech. The issue was discussed quite openly and the general consensus was that Bangladesh would have to actively step up pressure on Myanmar. While keeping the doors open to continued bilateral talks and repatriation, diplomatic efforts would also have to be increased in the international arena.
My column today covers my topic of discussion at the seminar and the mindset of the ASEAN bloc. I discussed ASEAN, Myanmar and the Rohingya.
Let us come to ASEAN at first. The 10 member countries of ASEAN each have different characteristics, the religions of their nationals differ and also all are lacking in democracy. The military is predominant in Thailand. There is a one-party rule in Laos. In Cambodia, the same person and party has been ruling for the past 35 years. In these two countries, the ruling party has sole presence in the respective parliaments and both countries are influenced by China.
I have fair knowledge about Myanmar. For most of the time, the country has been under military rule. For five years there was a ‘dual’ government in the name of democracy. Then from 1 February this year, the military junta took the helm again. The so-called elected civil government, which had been supervised by the armed forces, was toppled.
Of the 10 ASEAN countries, three have a Muslim-majority population. These are Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Brunei is a monarchy. While Malaysia and others have democracy, the democracy is controlled to a greater extent. Even so, democracy and human rights feature prominently in the workings of the ASEAN bloc.
There are Rohingya refugees in three of the ASEAN countries. Thailand is on the eastern border of Myanmar. Various communities of Myanmar have become refugees due to the country’s internal conflicts and these refugees include 20,000 to 30,000 Rohingyas who have gone to Thailand. They are living along Thailand’s border with Malaysia. They hope to cross over into Malaysia from there.
The area is Muslim populated. The Rohingyas basically are Muslims living in the minority-populated western border region of Arakan in Myanmar. Before they were evicted in 2012 to 2017, they had been the majority in the Mayu region of North Arakan. After they were forced out, over 200,000 (2 lakh) took shelter in Malaysia and 20,000 to 30,000 in Indonesia.
Rohingyas have a preference for Malaysia though Malaysia has only a few refugee camps under the government and international supervision. At present the Malaysian government identifies the rest as illegal entrants. It even has a law to punish Rohingyas who enter illegally. As a result, most of them work for low wages in the rubber and palm plantations away from the cities. Rohingya girls are said to marry local men too. Initially Malaysia had expressed its concern about the Rohingya conflict, but did not join the international platform to protest against Myanmar.
It is almost the same situation in Indonesia. Indonesia made a few statements against Myanmar in the past at the ASEAN meetings, but was not active in this regard on the international front. It still is not.
However, the ASEAN bloc has not been entirely silent. In 2018, the ASEAN secretary general had approached the Myanmar government for talks on the Rakhine situation and refugee repatriation and prepared a report in this regard. In 2019 the ASEAN came up with a report about the state of the 1.9 million (19 Lakh) Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and looked into possible solutions to the crisis. While not using the word ‘Rohingya’ in the reports of its last two summits, ASEAN had discussed solutions to the issue. However, the matter hardly progressed any further.
Meanwhile, given the changed circumstances in Myanmar, ASEAN seemed to have also changed its stand at its summit held on 24 April in Jakarta, headed by its chair, Brunei’s Sultan Bolkiah. After the military junta took over power in Myanmar in February, this regional union ASEAN has displayed more concern, particularly over the killings in the anti-junta protests and the confrontation between the two sides.
This ASEAN summit was particularly significant due to the attendance of head of Myanmar’s military junta General Min Aung Hlaing. The US and EU have imposed sanctions against General Min Aung Hlaing, but his presence at the ASEAN summit bore significance. In the proposal regarding ASEAN’s mediation in Myanmar’s internal affairs, while the name of the Rakhine state was not mentioned, there was talk of paying more attention to the refugees staying in Bangladesh and those inside Myanmar.
The recommendations mentioned that the repatriation can start after a selection process through bilateral discussions with Bangladesh. It was said that, if necessary, the ASEAN secretariat was ready to extend its cooperation.
The military junta will want to involve the Arakan National Party (ANP) and the Arakan Army (AA) in any talks in Rakhine. AA is the armed wing of ANP and claims to represent the local indigenous Buddhist and other ethnic communities (other than the Rohingyas). In that case, the talks will be even more difficult for Bangladesh
This is not the first time that ASEAN raised the issue. They had made similar appeals in past meetings. But it was significant that these words were included in presence and with the consent of the military junta. The presence of Myanmar’s military junta head General Min Aung Hlaing lent significance to the ASEAN summit.
It is not clear how far the military junta will take ASEAN’s proposal into cognizance. ASEAN’s main objective is to assist in bringing the Myanmar government and opposition together for talks in order to end the political crisis there. But there are questions as to how far the junta government will cooperate with ASEAN to that end.
Perhaps the junta government will want to take the Rohingya repatriation forward simply as a showcase for the international community. When they hold bilateral talks with Bangladesh, it will become clearer as to how sincere they actually are regarding this matter.
If the junta government does actually express interest in bilateral talks, this will be an attempt to get the attention of the outside world and also to play for time. Various sources say that the military junta will want to involve the Arakan National Party (ANP) and the Arakan Army (AA) in any talks in Rakhine.
AA is the armed wing of ANP and claims to represent the local indigenous Buddhist and other ethnic communities (other than the Rohingyas). In that case, the talks will be even more difficult for Bangladesh.
Given the circumstances, the Rohingya crisis will not be resolved so easily anytime soon. There is need for Bangladesh to take up strong diplomatic efforts in the days ahead.
* M Sakhawat Hossain is an election analyst, former military officer and senior research fellow, SIPG (NSU). He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir