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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Too big to ignore: ASEAN to weigh in on Rohingya crisis

Regional allies set to step up pressure and call for accountability

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Myanmar State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi at ASEAN. EPA 
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Myanmar State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi at ASEAN. EPA 

As leaders from Southeast Asia and beyond gather in Singapore for the 33rd ASEAN Summit, the bloc’s time-honoured preference for backroom diplomacy may be set for a shakeup — at least where the Rohingya issue is concerned.

Doubling down on comments made last month, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad continued his criticism of Myanmar’s de facto leader at the event in Singapore on Tuesday.

“It would seem that Aung San Suu Kyi is trying to defend what is indefensible,” Mr Mahathir told reporters. “They are actually oppressing these people to the point of killing them, mass killing.”

Other regional allies have signalled they are stepping up pressure, and calling for accountability.

In a draft of the bloc’s closing statement to be delivered by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, which was obtained by Reuters, it appeared the ASEAN chair was poised to make good on the October promise to call for accountability — by throwing its weight behind Myanmar’s internal mechanism for dealing with alleged mass atrocities.

“We called on the Independent Commission of Enquiry established by the Government of Myanmar to carry out an independent and impartial investigation of the allegations of human rights violations and related issues, and hold those responsible fully accountable,” the draft said, according to Reuters.

In July, Myanmar announced the formation of an Independent Commission, as part of a national initiative to “address reconciliation, peace, stability and development in Rakhine [State]”, and “tasked with investigating allegations of human rights violations and related issues, following the terrorist attacks by [Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army].”

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Read more:

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Aung San Suu Kyi's silence about the Rohingya shows how her mind really works

US accuses Myanmar military of Rohingya atrocities

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Speaking at a press conference in Yangon shortly after the announcement of the Commission, chairperson Rosario Manalo indicated that accountability (insofar as international justice mechanisms are concerned) are not necessarily part of the group’s mandate:

“I assure you there will be no blaming of anybody, no finger pointing of anybody because we don't achieve anything by that procedure,” Ms Manalo said at the time.

“It is not a diplomatic approach and a very bad approach in fact to be doing finger pointing, blaming, to say: you are accountable!" said Ms Manalo. "That is quarrelling. That is not looking for peace. That is why we have adopted this process.”

A United Nations Fact-Finding Mission has accused Myanmar military figures of waging a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya, as well as being guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in conflict zones in Northern Shan and Kachin states. It recommended ICC referral.

Myanmar’s de facto leader State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has been the subject of intense international opprobrium over her perceived failure to speak out on atrocities committed by the still-powerful military.

Prior to the ASEAN summit it was announced that her Ambassador of Conscience award from rights group Amnesty International would be rescinded, saying the Nobel laureate and democracy icon “no longer represent[ed] a symbol of hope, courage, and the undying defence of human rights”.

"More than a year in to this crisis, and still ASEAN leaders can’t get their act together and send a clear message condemning atrocities and making clear that perpetrators will not go unpunished," Laura Haigh, an Amnesty International researcher on Myanmar told The National.

"This is not an ‘internal’ issue - we are talking about some of the most serious international crimes, and the impacts are felt across the region," said Ms Haigh, adding that ASEAN leaders should be pushing Myanmar to allow full access to Rakhine State. "ASEAN’s response to the crisis is staining its credibility - and history will judge its leaders for continued inaction."

In a statement Amnesty Secretary General Kumi Naidoo added: “Without acknowledgement of the horrific crimes against the community, it is hard to see how the government can take steps to protect them from future atrocities”.

The move comes days from the commencement of a repatriation process widely condemned as premature and contrary to international non-refoulement protocol. Concerns have been highlighted in a statement last week from 42 civil society groups, INGOs and rights organisations working in Myanmar and Bangladesh, as well as UN High Commissioner for Refugees himself, Filippo Grandi.

“Some of the refugees on the list for return have gone into hiding out of fear of being repatriated; at least one has attempted suicide,” said a report from International Crisis Group released on Monday this week.

Ground conditions inside Rakhine State remain fraught.

“Basic freedom of movement, access to health and education, legal status – whether citizenship or some other legal rights – there’s been really almost no progress on that front,” US Ambassador Scott Marciel said this week, in an interview with Yangon-based Frontier Magazine.

The push for repatriation does, however, have support from regional allies.

China’s foreign ministry issued a statement last week lauding the steps taken toward the return of refugees, saying: “This will create a good start for dealing with this complex historical issue and accumulate experience for the next step of repatriation.”

While certain members of the ASEAN bloc have taken a more vocal line on Myanmar, Tan See Seng, Professor of International Relations and Deputy Director of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies told The National that an agreeable and muted response could emerge.

“The Rohingya crisis will likely be discussed behind closed doors among the ASEAN leaders, but we probably shouldn’t expect any major decision by ASEAN on the issue, certainly not anything that puts the Myanmar government on the backfoot,” he said. “ASEAN will likely maintain consensus.”