Myanmar keeps world guessing on refugees

opinion April 18, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

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The thousands uprooted by violence in Rakhine are being moved again – but it’s not known where



The international community and particularly the Association of Southeast Nations deserve to be fully apprised regarding the fate of thousands of displaced people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Instead, all we’ve had is a worrying government announcement that refugee camps were being shut down. Nothing has been said about what happens to them next. These people sought shelter five years ago amid violent conflict between Buddhists and Muslims. Many fled the country, retreating to the Bangladeshi frontier, but the government in Dhaka was no more accepting than its neighbour to the east has been.

Thaung Tun, Myanmar’s National Security Adviser, said last week the government had begun shutting down three camps named in a report compiled for de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi by a commission led by Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general. One camp shelters ethnic Rakhine and another holds Kaman Muslims.

Suu Kyi had last year chosen Annan, a fellow Nobel laureate, to head a commission seeking solutions to the crisis in Rakhine. It was mandated to examine ways to develop the state, strengthen civic institutions, provide humanitarian assistance, seek reconciliation and prevent further conflict. But the mission was flawed from the start, restrained by a law that doesn’t recognise the Muslim Rohingya of Rakhine as citizens. Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist society and nationalist intolerance of other religions is rife.

Annan’s commission recommended that the government formulate a comprehensive plan to close the displacement camps as part of any attempt to curb festering communal tensions. It noted that efforts to relocate the more than 120,000 “internally displaced persons” (IDP) in the camps had “shown little progress” since 2012. A sounder strategy was needed, it said, and a clear timeline. The commission identified 335 households within the IDP camps, a mix of Kaman, Rakhine and Muslim people who it said ought to be allowed to return to their homes or be relocated elsewhere as an initial expression of “goodwill”.

In briefing foreign diplomats last week, Thaung Tun unveiled no plan beyond the camps being shut down. He said nothing about measures to relocate the refugees or about aid or facilities to be provided. Thus international criticism of Myanmar over its official mistreatment of Rakhine’s million-plus Rohingya is unlikely to abate. Most of these people, despite their families having lived in Myanmar for generations, are denied citizenship and face severe restrictions in movement and access to education and healthcare.

Matters have been muddled ever since the military – reacting to militant Rohingya attacks on police border posts last October – launched a bloody crackdown in north Rakhine that reportedly claimed hundreds of lives. UN investigators concluded that security forces might have carried out crimes against humanity as well as ethnic cleansing. Suu Kyi last week rejected the accusations, calling “ethnic cleansing” “too strong an expression”. Annan agreed, while Thaung Tun insisted the authorities were doing their best to push forward a process of citizenship verification.

The leaders of the Asean countries, presumably including Myanmar President Htin Kyaw, will this month gather for a summit in the Philippines, but, as usual, the subject of the Rohingya will remain off the agenda, since members of the bloc are loathe to meddle in one another’s internal affairs. That doesn’t prevent any members from raising concerns or even suggesting possible solutions, however. Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have provided humanitarian assistance in the past. They and others should seek larger roles in helping Myanmar tackle the issue at its roots. At the very least, they should press Myanmar’s representatives for more information about the latest developments and, better still, what the long-range plan is.