DHAKA — At the conclusion of a four-day fact-finding mission, Southeast Asian lawmakers urged their governments to heed calls for action to address the Rohingya crisis, emphasizing that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) needs to take on a larger role in efforts to resolve the situation.
The mission, organized by ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), a collective of regional legislators, was undertaken from 21-24 January and included meetings with refugees, humanitarian actors, parliamentarians, and government officials in Cox’s Bazar and Dhaka, Bangladesh.
“Where is ASEAN? This is the question we kept hearing from everyone we met,” said APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament, who headed the delegation. “ASEAN as a regional bloc can and should play a leading role in resolving this crisis. As representatives of the people of ASEAN, we are here today to demand that our governments step up. We therefore call on ASEAN to convene an urgent meeting of foreign ministers of all members states to discuss the crisis and establish a plan of action to resolve it.”
“ASEAN countries must stop using the non-interference principle as an excuse for inaction,” added Rachada Dhnadirek, a former MP from Thailand. “This has been a long-standing issue affecting the entire region, and ASEAN needs to take concrete, collective action to confront it directly. Financial commitment to support humanitarian assistance is critical, but it must be accompanied by pressure on the Myanmar military to end persecution that lies at the root of the crisis.”
On 22 January, the APHR delegation visited Kutupalong and Balukhali refugee camps, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have settled since August 2017, joining others who fled previous waves of persecution and violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. MPs spoke with refugees about their experiences in Myanmar, as well as their current situation, concerns, and hopes for the future.
“The stories we heard directly from Rohingya refugees were heartbreaking, from parents who witnessed their children killed to children scarred physically and emotionally by brutal violence. We need more awareness within ASEAN countries of these atrocities, and we need to listen to the voices of the refugees, themselves, as we determine how to approach a resolution,” said Louis Ng, a member of the Parliament of Singapore.
“The magnitude of the influx was striking. A sprawling mega-camp the size of a city has sprung up in a matter of months. Bangladesh deserves great praise for its hospitality and handling of the crisis, both the government and the people themselves. Taking in nearly 700,000 refugees in a span of just five months is no easy task, especially for a country with limited resources,” he added.
The delegation’s visit coincided with a previously announced start date for repatriation of refugees, based on a bilateral agreement between the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar signed in November 2017. On 16 January, a working group formed by the two governments agreed to a two-year timeframe for repatriation, with initial returns set to begin this week. But on 22 January, Bangladeshi officials announced that repatriation would not begin on schedule.
“We welcome the decision to delay plans for imminent repatriation, which would have put refugees at grave risk and gone against their expressed wishes. The focus must remain on ensuring that any and all returns are safe and voluntary, and on working toward a long-term, sustainable resolution, which requires an end to state-sponsored persecution in Myanmar,” Santiago said.
“The Rohingya refugees we spoke with were clear: They want to return to their homeland, but only if their conditions are met. These include citizenship, justice, compensation, and security guarantees. In any discussions of possible repatriation, these and other demands of the refugees must be heeded, and their human rights must be respected. We also urge the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to welcome international engagement and supervision of any future repatriation process,” he added.
Lawmakers also said that commitments included in the bilateral agreement could be used as a basis for pushing Myanmar to address root causes of the crisis. In particular, they highlighted Myanmar’s commitment to implement the recommendations of the government-appointed Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which were included in a report issued in August 2017.
“The Myanmar government has publicly recommitted itself to the implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, and this presents an important opportunity,” Louis Ng said. “Among the recommendations was to enable pathways to citizenship for Rohingya, which aligns with a key concern of refugees worried about their status and vulnerability to future persecution and violence, should they return.”
On 23 January, ASEAN MPs met with counterparts in the Parliament of Bangladesh, including Speaker Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury. Parliamentarians discussed what ASEAN and member governments can do to support efforts to resolve the crisis, including exerting pressure on Myanmar.
“We cannot ignore the Myanmar military’s role here,” Charles Santiago said. “Military commanders must be held accountable for atrocities committed during the crackdown, and that will require stronger pressure from outside, including from ASEAN governments.”
“The ASEAN Community must speak with one voice and demonstrate a genuine commitment to resolving the crisis. Far from undermining ASEAN’s non-interference policy, addressing this issue head-on would be an opportunity to strengthen the core principles of the ASEAN Charter,” said Lena Maryana Mukti, a former member of the Indonesian Parliament. “We cannot continue pretending that this is not our problem. If left unresolved, the crisis will continue to spill across borders.”
“Now it is time to show to the world that ASEAN is really a community by showing our solidarity and supporting a resolution of this crisis,” Rachada Dhnadirek added. “ASEAN has emphasized economic integration and interdependence, but if we want to be a genuine community we have to work together to address issues of fundamental humanity such as this.”