It is difficult to engage Asean as a civilian monitoring entity, but doable, officials say
Bangladesh has been trying to get the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), a bloc of 10 nations that includes Myanmar, involved in the process of Rohingya repatriation, which was supposed to begin more than 15 months ago as per an agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Dhaka hopes that Asean will be involved as a civilian monitoring entity in the repatriation process, to boost confidence among the brutally-oppressed Rohingyas – currently living in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar – to safely return to Rakhine.
Recently, Bangladesh has been pitching the idea – wherever possible – of involving the bloc with the repatriation process.
On May 3, during the fourth meeting of Bangladesh-Myanmar joint working group (JWG) in Naypyidaw, Dhaka highlighted the need for allowing greater engagement of Asean in improving ground situation as well as raise confidence among the Rohingyas.
Senior government officials told Dhaka Tribune that Myanmar is always reluctant to involve the United Nations or any other multinational entities in the repatriation process.
However, Naypyidaw seems to appear “a bit soft” regarding getting the southeast Asian bloc involved, due to its membership and trust in most of the members in the organization, they added.
Of the Asean members, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore are Buddhist-majority countries, while Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei are predominantly Muslim nations, and the Philippines has an overwhelming Christian majority.
Keeping all the relevant aspects in mind, Bangladesh is “deeply engaged” with Asean to convince it to be a part of the Rohingya repatriation process to ensure it is sustainable, which is “difficult, but doable,” the officials said.
As a part of the strategies undertaken by the government that was formed after the December 30 general elections, Bangladesh is trying to reach out to the Asean Secretariat as well as its members individually to get them involved in the process, they added.
Dhaka wants Asean to play a civilian monitoring role in the process to boost hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas’ confidence about the repatriation, as they do not want to return since they do not have faith in the Myanmar authorities, the officials further said.
In accordance with the Bangladeshi plan, all the activities in Rakhine will be carried out by the Myanmar authorities under the supervisions of ASEAN monitors, they said, adding that Dhaka wants to remain involved as long as all the recommendations of the Annan Commission, including citizenship for Rohingyas, are not implemented.
“We raised this issue with Myanmar during our joint working group meeting in Naypyidaw on Friday. Myanmar appears to be little bit positive,” Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Abul Kalam, who is based in Cox’s Bazar and was also a member of the Bangladesh delegation in the meeting, told this correspondent.
Another member of the delegation said Myanmar had not “ruled it out outright.”
Asked about Dhaka’s efforts to convince Asean to be involved in Rohingya repatriation process and make Myanmar agree to this arrangement, a senior official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “We have been in touch with Thailand, the current Asean chair, and they seem positive about this. We also communicated with Singapore, the immediate-past chair. They also gave us positive indication.”
“Given their role since the latest influx of Rohingyas began in August 2017, we can count on the support of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. We have also noticed a change in Vietnam’s attitude recently. We are trying to convince the Philippines, Laos and Cambodia as well,” he added.
Asked if Myanmar would agree to this arrangement, another senior official said: “I feel that they are a bit positive about this idea too. As an Asean member, Myanmar cannot ignore the wishes of other member states in the alliance, and I think Myanmar has realized – or will realize at some point – that this problem ultimately needs to be solved.”
When asked about a time frame of any breakthrough in this regard, he said: “Diplomacy is sometimes painfully slow. At this stage, I do not know. But we are trying our best. Let’s hope for the best.”