As Asean Stumbles, Indonesia Must Find New Path to Aid Rohingya Refugees

    By Andreyka Natalegawa on 12:38 am Jun 05, 2015

    Jakarta. Human rights defenders from the Southeast Asian region and abroad have criticized Asean’s recent efforts to contain the Rohingya refugee crisis, claiming that the initiatives do not fully address the persecution of minority groups within Myanmar.

    “Asean must consider all its options for convincing the Myanmar government to end the persecution of the Rohingya, including expelling or suspending it from the grouping if it fails to deliver,” said Charles Santiago, chairperson of the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and a Malaysian Member of Parliament.

    APHR, according to its website was founded in 2013 with the aim at protecting the human rights of the people of Asean and bringing offenders to justice.

    Santiago’s statements follow Asean’s Special Meeting on Irregular Migration, held in Bangkok last week.

    Representatives of the attending 10 member-states that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) declared in the forum at the Thai capital that they were committed in intensifying search-and-rescue operations, strengthening information and intelligence sharing mechanisms, and protecting the safety of those lost at sea.

    Andreas Harsono, Indonesia Researcher  of Human Rights Watch (HRW), characterized the meeting as lacking in any particular achievement, saying it was “not a success, but not a failure.”

    “It was not enough,” he added. “The Asean nations must agree to hold a second meeting in Kuala Lumpur to discuss the issue further.”

    HRW’s Asia division has also accused the Myanmar government of violating the Bangkok agreements, by refusing to allow international aid agencies access to migrant boats held off the coast of Myanmar.

    Almost 2,000 refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh remain housed in temporary camps at Indonesia’s Aceh province.

    In the past five months alone, at least 25,000 Rohingya have attempted to seek refuge by escaping to other Southeast Asian nations, according to estimates from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in attempts to flee Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Demonstrations by the public have called for the ouster of the ethnic Muslim minority group, who mainly live in the western part of Myanmar.

    Refugees often escape Myanmar via people-smuggling operations — risking exploitation and serious harm. Malaysian state-run Bernama news agency revealed horrific cases of gang rapes and abuse by human traffickers in a report on Monday.

    Those Rohingya who managed to escape Myanmar then faced difficult circumstances living in refugee camps.

    “Right now the Rohingya are being housed in tents and temporary shelters. Indonesia must find a way to establish better conditions for the refugees,” Andreas told the Jakarta Globe on Thursday.

    Asean’s obstacles

    As a non-signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention of the UN, Indonesia lacks the legal and institutional framework to determine the status of incoming refugees. Refugee status-determination processes are handled by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ offices in Indonesia.

    The UNHCR is mandated to lead and coordination international action to protect refugees. If needed, the group helps bring refugees back to their home countries, integrate them into another state, or resettle to a third country.

    “Recognition of refugee status by the UNHCR is a challenge. The process takes time, maybe about a year and a half, even up to three,” said Andreas.

    Only three Southeast Asian nations have signed the convention: Cambodia, Timor Leste and the Philippines.

    Efforts to mitigate the crisis have been further complicated by questions on the origins of the refugees — Myanmar’s government has issued controversial statements identifying the refugees solely as economic migrants from Bangladesh, rather than Rohingyas fleeing persecution.

    The crisis has highlighted in what many view as Asean’s structural deficiencies. In particular, Asean’s principle of non-interference in member states’ internal affairs has impaired seeking concrete solutions to the Rohingya crisis.

    “The crisis has put Asean in a difficult situation,” said Teuku Rezasyah, executive director at the Indonesia Center for Democracy, Diplomacy & Defense (IC3D).

    “We are sympathetic to the Rohingya, but we also know that Myanmar’s developing democracy makes this a very sensitive issue to deal with.”

    Although Article 7 of the 2008 Asean charter stresses the need to “strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms”, non-interference has halted movement toward definitively addressing systemic violence against the Rohingya within Myanmar.

    “We have not yet heard a firm response on the crisis from the Asean Secretary-General on the crisis,” Teuku told the Globe.

    The lack of resolution to the Rohingya refugee crisis has cast doubts on Asean’s future as an effective decision-making body.

    “The fact that Asean is refusing or failing to confront this looming catastrophe threatens the very fabric of the grouping itself. The Rohingya crisis is a threat to the security and stability of the entire region and must be confronted in a unified way by Asean,” said APHR’s Santiago.

    Domestic concerns

    The mixed successes in Asean’s handling of the Rohingya crisis comes at a time of waning interest in the regional body’s efforts. last year’s election of President Joko Widodo has brought numerous changes to Indonesia’s foreign policy, with a shift away from multilateral initiatives like Asean in favor of focusing on bilateral relations.

    In December, Rizal Sukma, foreign policy advisor to Joko and executive director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta, said: “We used to say Asean is the cornerstone of our foreign policy. Now we change it to a cornerstone of our foreign policy.”

    With its reduced role in Asean initiatives, the Indonesian government has begun to take action by its own accord in aiding incoming refugees.

    Andreas of HRW praised Aceh’s authorities for taking the initiative in housing the Rohingya, noting Indonesia’s history of providing aid to refugees.

    “Indonesia has more experience than other Asean nations on the issue of resettling migrants,” Andreas said, citing the Galang Refugee Camp as an example of past humanitarian acts.

    From 1979 to 1996, Indonesia’s Galang Island was used by the UNHCR as a transit and processing camp for Indochinese refugees. More than 250,000 refugees were processed through Galang, with a majority of refugees relocated to the United States, Canada and Australia.

    Despite Indonesia’s move toward mitigating the crisis as an individual player, Teuku remained optimistic of Asean’s role in aiding the Rohingya.

    “Indonesia must continue to consider the crisis through all mechanisms, both unilateral efforts and Asean initiatives,” he said.

    Still, Teuku highlighted Indonesia’s collaboration with non-Asean countries in managing the refugee crisis.

    “We must work together with donor countries in providing aid to empower the Rohingya in Myanmar,” he said.

    International response

    The Rohingya crisis has garnered swift reaction from the international community.

    “[The Rohingya] need to have identity cards and passports that make clear they are as much citizens of Burma as anyone else,” US Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard said, referring to the US’s name of Myanmar.

    Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla also issued a statement imploring Myanmar to recognize the rights of the Rohingya.

    “Indonesia could rally other Asean countries to put pressure on the Myanmar government to provide recognition of [the Rohingya]. They must ensure that these asylum seekers can go back home and have their rights protected,” Kalla said on Wednesday.

    Support for intervention in the Rohingya crisis has become readily apparent, with a groundswell of support from Indonesian citizens.

    In a Jakarta Globe poll, 59 percent of responders believed that Indonesia should adopt an open door policy towards Rohingya refugees.