Rohingya refugees: Asean must not consider voluntary return option

A reception point for Rohingya refugees at Haria Khali Primary School in Sabrang Union of Teknaf Upazila, in Bangladesh. OCHA/Anthony Burke/UN News Centre

In the event of the 33rd Asean summit on 13-15 November 2018, we, the undersigned civil society organisations, express our concern about the initiative of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), propelled by the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore, to visit Myanmar in the month ahead with the intention of expediting the safe and voluntary return of Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh to Myanmar.

While noting the importance of Asean in providing a regional approach and identifying more effective measures and practical steps to address the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, Asean must not consider the option of voluntary return without addressing the root causes of the displacement and entrenched discrimination of the Rohingya.

Furthermore, Asean must ensure and prioritise the development of regional initiatives to push for a substantial change in the conditions in Myanmar, which are now not conducive for the Rohingya to return in safety and dignity.

Under the current circumstances, we are deeply concerned that the visit of the Asean delegation will merely be used as a tool to distract and subvert calls for justice and accountability to address mass atrocities in the country.

Therefore, we call on Asean during its 33rd summit to encourage Myanmar to work towards resolving the root causes of displacement that not only lead to the struggle of the Rohingya but also affect the stability and peace in the region, and to hold those who have committed grave crimes against the Rohingya accountable.

We would like to draw the attention of Asean once again to the grave human rights violations experienced by the Rohingya, who have been forced out of Myanmar to seek refuge in neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia as a result of decades of systematic oppression and discrimination by the Myanmar military.

This fact is reinforced by the findings of an independent international fact-finding mission on Myanmar through its report, which documented inhumane treatment against the Rohingya community, among other indiscriminate attacks, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary deprivation of liberty, enforced disappearances, destruction of property and looting, torture, rape, and other forms of gender-based violence.

These findings lead to the conclusion that the persecution and actions taken against the Rohingya can be classified as a possible genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in accordance with international law.

We note the lack of willingness of the Myanmar government to hold the perpetrators accountable, which has been demonstrated through:

  • continuously denying access to the country to the fact-finding mission and the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar
  • dismissing the findings of the fact-finding mission and the special rapporteur
  • the persistent and deliberate efforts to hinder, undermine, and obstruct comprehensive and impartial investigations by both mechanisms into the allegations

Notably, the Myanmar government has publicly rejected the findings of the fact-finding mission’s report, which

  • called for an investigation into several military generals for mass atrocity crimes and for the UN Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution to create an international justice mechanism to expedite criminal prosecutions
  • supported the ruling of the International Criminal Court (ICC) that can exercise jurisdiction over the atrocities taking place in Rakhine State

We also note that in order to address the situation in Cox’s Bazaar, where more than 700,000 Rohingya have been seeking refuge since August 2017, the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed an arrangement on the return of displaced persons from Rakhine state in the hope of facilitating a voluntary return to Myanmar.

The agreement, however, is premature and lacks transparency and participation be the Rohingya and civil society.

Furthermore, it has been widely documented by the media and civil society that the steps taken by the Myanmar government are far from promoting the safety, dignity, and sustainable voluntary return for Rohingya on the ground.

By shutting down camps for internally displaced persons camps in Rakhine state and turning it into permanently segregated villages or by bulldozing the homes of the Rohingya to build new homes for non-Rohingya to settle, the Myanmar government only reinforce further discrimination and segregation that have led to the decades-long persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

In addition, before any safe and dignified voluntary return can take place, the Rohingya people must be guaranteed restoration and/or reparation for their land and property.

Reflecting on this reality and the unwillingness of the Myanmar government to uphold its international obligations, the voluntary return of the Rohingya to Myanmar is premature, unsafe, and carries substantial risks of perpetuating the cycle of displacement and violence.

There will be neither safe nor sustainable voluntary return of Rohingya refugees unless the root causes are addressed and justice for victims are provided. These include concrete steps towards the promotion and protection of the Rohingya community that guarantee their freedom of movement and full citizenship and hold the perpetrators accountable.

We urgently request Asean to:

  • acknowledge and address the situation in Rakhine State as a human rights and humanitarian crisis resulting from the long-sustained systematic oppression, segregation, and discrimination against the Rohingya by the Myanmar military and government (in alignment with the UN reports, the fact-finding mission and the International Criminal Court ruling) and to encourage Myanmar to do the same;
  • ensure full and meaningful participation of the Rohingya refugees and civil society organisations in the discussion related to voluntary return of the Rohingya during the upcoming Asean Summit in a timely manner;
  • encourage the Myanmar government, prior to any plans for voluntary return of the Rohingya, to recognise their rights to self-identify, full citizenship, basic services and free movement, among other related rights;
  • encourage the Myanmar government to make genuine efforts to address the root causes and find solutions, through amending and repealing any existing laws, policies, and practices that are discriminatory against the Rohingya and other religious and ethnic minority communities, including the 2008 Constitution, the 1982 Citizenship Law, and the four race and religion protection laws;
  • support the decision of the UN Human Rights Council to establish an ongoing independent mechanism to collect, consolidate, preserve, and analyse evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011, as recommended by the fact-finding mission, and ensure that it is sufficiently financed through the UN General Assembly;
  • ensure that the perpetrators of grave crimes are made accountable under international law in Myanmar, including by supporting the establishment of an international justice mechanism, fully cooperating with the preliminary investigation.

Recalling the purpose of the establishment of Asean to maintain and enhance peace and security as well as to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in the region (pursuant to Articles 1(1) and 1(7) of the Asean Charter), we urge Asean to weigh in towards international efforts in finding a sustainable solution to the Rohingya crisis and urge the Myanmar government resolve the root causes of human rights violations.

We sincerely hope that Asean can move in accordance with its purpose and beyond its non-interference principle to take leadership in putting a halt on the long-standing crisis in Myanmar by working towards holding the perpetrators to account.

This joint statement is endorsed by:

Asean Services Employees Trade Union Council (ASETUC)
Asean Sogie Caucus
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia)
Asylum Access Malaysia
People’s Empowerment Foundation (PEF)
Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower)
Progressive Voice
Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram)
The Commission for Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS)
The Islamic Renaissance Front
Think Centre, Singapore

SOURCE Rohingya refugees: Asean must not consider voluntary return option