With a new phase in Rakhine crisis looming, Asean is once again shirking its duty
Retreat” was the apt name for the meeting of Asean foreign ministers in Chiang Mai last week, as they did nothing to help the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Asean retreats are informal gatherings that allow the grouping’s top politicians to brainstorm solutions to pressing issues. They were conceived in 1999 under Singapore’s chairmanship when foreign ministers realised it would be useful to meet in casual dress for relaxed, candid chats to forge good outcomes.
The retreats were initially “paper-free”, in contrast with the Asean Ministerial Meetings, which are the driving force of the regional grouping, and produce lots of paper – notably a joint communique on meeting outcomes and the Asean stance.
In recent years, however, the retreats have become increasingly formal, with piles of documents prepared by officials prior to each gathering. The meetings are still held in attractive and relaxing destinations, but the ministers wear now business suits.
Nowadays Asean retreats typically end with the chairman’s statement of outcomes, which expresses ministers’ stance and commitments. The chair has a degree of freedom in writing the statement but it can never stray far from what the ministers have discussed and agreed.
The Chiang Mai retreat was significant for its context, a stalemate in the process to repatriate Rohingya refugees that has brought another looming crisis in Rakhine. This elephant arrived in Asean’s room in August 2017, when more than 700,000 ethnic Rohingya fled over the border to Bangladesh to escape a deadly “clearance campaign” conducted by the Myanmar military in Rakhine.
Taken in total, the atrocities they faced – arson, torture, murder, gang rape and massacres – are regarded by the United Nations, United States and other members of the global community as genocide. UN investigators have recommended the case be referred to an international tribunal, with named senior military officers forced to face justice.
Asean wants to play a role in helping Myanmar to ease the crisis and restore peace. While the grouping is aware of Myanmar’s discriminatory practices against the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship and the rights that go with it, Asean has refrained from following the international community’s lead and restricted its intervention to a humanitarian basis. The statement delivered at the Chiang Mai retreat referred to “durable solutions” to address the root cause of the conflict. However, this and other previous such calls have never translated into reality.
The Chiang Mai gathering followed up on a summit in Singapore last year, which commissioned the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) to provide Myanmar with assistance in its repatriation process.
Myanmar and Bangladesh last year reached an agreement to repatriate thousands Rohingya, with the first batch due back in Rakhine on November 15. Fearing for their safety, the refugees rejected the plan.
Asean Secretary General Lim Jock Hoi visited Myanmar on December
16-18 to set terms of reference for the repatriation.
Lim then informed ministers at the Chiang Mai retreat that his assessment team’s trip to Rakhine was postponed indefinitely as conditions there were still not safe. The Myanmar delegation also told the ministers that insurgents were still active in the state.
The ministers listened, but did little else. It remained unclear when a new timeline for repatriation could be fixed or what steps could be taken to get there. The brainstorming in Chiang Mai was expected to produce measures to help push the mission forward, but no recommendations came.
With all participants unwilling to venture beyond their comfort zone, the Asean retreat now fits the definition offered by Cambridge Dictionary: “Retreat (verb) to decide not to do something, or to stop believing something, because it causes too many problems.”