Indonesia on Thursday emphasized the need for Myanmar to create safe conditions in Rakhine state for the return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, as Southeast Asian foreign ministers met and expressed support for the repatriation plan.
Meanwhile a regional parliamentarians group roundly criticized the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for “pushing the return of the Rohingya refugees” to “a place that is completely unsafe.”
Earlier this week, Bangladesh, too, urged Myanmar to improve the situation in northern Rakhine for the repatriation of the stateless Rohingya Muslim refugees, as the two nations discussed a tentative return starting in the second quarter of this year, during a meeting brokered by China.
“Indonesia earnestly hopes that the Myanmar government can immediately create favorable conditions in Rakhine State so that repatriation can be done voluntarily, safely, and in a dignified manner as soon as possible,” Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi told a news conference on Thursday, after an online meeting of foreign ministers from the 10-member ASEAN bloc.
Most of the 1 million Rohingya who fled Myanmar live in 34 refugee camps in and around Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, including more than 740,000 who escaped a brutal crackdown in nearby Rakhine state in 2017.
Two earlier attempts to begin repatriation to Myanmar – in November 2018 and August 2019 – failed, with Rohingya leaders saying at the time that refugees would not return until their safety, security, and rights were guaranteed in that country.
In 2019, ASEAN drafted a preliminary needs assessment for repatriating the Rohingya refugees to Myanmar.
“Indonesia emphasizes the importance of working harder so that the implementation of [a preliminary needs assessment] can be more intensified,” Retno said.
During their virtual meeting hosted by Brunei on Thursday, ASEAN foreign ministers expressed support for the repatriation.
“We welcomed the Government of Myanmar’s continued efforts in addressing the situation in the Rakhine State, including commencing the repatriation process in accordance with its bilateral agreements with Bangladesh,” the ministers said in a joint statement.
Immediately after Thursday’s meeting, there was no unilateral statement issued by the Myanmar government.
ASEAN’s ‘same rhetoric and approach’
Ahead of Thursday’s meeting, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) urged the regional bloc to take a tougher collective stance against Myanmar on the Rohingya issue.
“Despite the deterioration of the situation in Rakhine over the past few years, ASEAN keeps responding time and again with the same rhetoric and approach,” APHR chairman Charles Santiago said in a statement.
“Now it is pushing the return of the Rohingya refugees to a place that is completely unsafe. It’s time to take stock of what little progress ASEAN has achieved so far in resolving this crisis, and of Myanmar’s clear disregard for its calls.”
APHR said intense fighting between Myanmar’s military and Arakan Army insurgents in Rakhine had resulted in a growing number of deaths and injuries over the past year, although a ceasefire has held since November.
“Nearly four years since the Myanmar military committed atrocities in Rakhine State, the 600,000 Rohingya living there are still denied citizenship rights, freedom of movement, and basic rights,” Santiago said.
“Meanwhile, ASEAN continues to support discussions and initiatives on the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar without consideration for their safety or addressing the severe restrictions they face in Rakhine. … If ASEAN does not start addressing the serious human rights concerns in Rakhine, its interventions will do more harm than good,” Santiago added.
On Tuesday, Bangladesh and Myanmar resumed Beijing-brokered talks on Rohingya repatriation for the first time in a year.
Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen told reporters after the 90-minute virtual meeting that he urged the neighboring country to create conditions in which refugees would agree to return.
“Today we again heavily emphasized on creating a conducive environment for Rohingya repatriation … The conducive environment is inextricably linked with voluntary repatriation,” the Bangladeshi foreign secretary told reporters after the 90-minute virtual meeting.
A statement about the meeting issued by Naypyidaw claimed that “Myanmar has made all necessary arrangements for the repatriation” and “reaffirmed Myanmar’s readiness to receive the verified displaced persons in line with the bilateral agreements.”
Rohingya in Indonesia
In Indonesia, more than 11,000 Rohingya refugees have been sheltering in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation since 2015, according to the Indonesian Foreign Ministry. Of them, nearly 400 Rohingya refugees landed in Indonesia’s Aceh province last June and September.
A researcher for Amnesty International in Indonesia, Ari Pramuditya, urged the Indonesian government not to rush into repatriating the Rohingya who were currently sheltering in Aceh province.
“Repatriation must be carried out voluntarily. It cannot be done by force,” Ari told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
He warned that Indonesia would violate the international law principle of non-refoulement, which forbids a country from sending asylum seekers to a place where their lives could be in danger of persecution.
“These things should be considered before the Indonesian government decides to repatriate refugees currently in Aceh,” Ari said.
In September, at least three of 300 Rohingya migrants who landed in Aceh died after spending months at sea while on their way to Malaysia.
After Acehnese fishermen rescued them, some of the Rohingya told U.N. officials that they had agreed to pay thousands of dollars to smugglers to reach Malaysia, but wound up spending more than half a year at sea. At least 30 people died during the journey, the refugees said.
This month, authorities in Malaysia detained more than 30 Rohingya who entered the country illegally by boat from North Sumatra in Indonesia.
Many of the nearly 400 Rohingya refugees who landed in Indonesia’s Aceh province last June and September have family members in neighboring Malaysia, said Rima Shah Putra, of humanitarian group Geutanyoe Foundation.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.