Human rights groups have called on Southeast Asian leaders to rethink their approach to the Rohingya refugee crisis ahead of a regional summit in Bangkok this week.
The Rohingya issue, especially their repatriation from Bangladesh, is expected to be a major topic during four days of meetings among leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Thailand from Thursday.
Myanmar regards the Muslim-majority Rohingya as undocumented migrants from the Indian subcontinent and has confined tens of thousands to camps in its western Rakhine State since violence swept the area in 2012.
More than 700,000 Rohingya crossed into Bangladesh in 2017, according to UN agencies, after a crackdown by Myanmar’s military sparked by attacks by Rohingya fighters on the security forces.
Human rights activists say the bloc should not rush to get involved in the Rohingya’s repatriation without addressing the root causes of their displacement.
“ASEAN needs to stop turning a blind eye to Myanmar’s atrocities against the Rohingya, and cease lending legitimacy to the repatriation process,” Eva Sundari, an Indonesian legislator and a board member of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said in a statement.
Rights groups have also criticised an ASEAN report, titled Emergency Response and Assessment Team, for allegedly whitewashing the persecution of the majority-Muslim minority by Myanmar.
The report predicted voluntary returns would be complete in two years and refused to use the word “Rohingya” – an identity denied to them inside Myanmar where they are instead labelled “Bengalis”, shorthand for undocumented immigrants.
Thailand’s Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai rejected any suggestion that the grouping, which is under Thailand’s chairmanship this year, would gloss over Myanmar’s action, but at the same time, said ASEAN would not be apportioning blame.
“This is not about whitewashing anyone,” he told Reuters news agency. “ASEAN is not here to point to who is right or wrong, our concern is the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in refugee camps who should begin to take their first step to making a return”.
Repatriation would only take place on a voluntary basis, and with the consent of both Myanmar and Bangladesh, he said.
Rights groups say conditions in Rakhine State are not conducive to the safe return of refugees.
“ASEAN seems intent on discussing the future of the Rohingya without condemning – or even acknowledging – the Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing campaign against them,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
“It’s preposterous for ASEAN leaders to be discussing the repatriation of a traumatised population into the hands of the security forces who killed, raped, and robbed them.”
UN investigators have said the 2017 Myanmar military operation that drove more than 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh was executed with “genocidal intent” and included mass killings, gang rapes and widespread arson.
Myanmar denies widespread wrongdoing and says the military campaign across hundreds of villages in the north of Rakhine State was in response to the attacks by Rohingya fighters.
Mostly Buddhist Myanmar is a member of ASEAN. The grouping includes Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia, where the plight of the Rohingya is of particular concern.
Malaysia has led condemnation of Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya in the past. But the ASEAN bloc broadly sticks to diplomatic protocols by avoiding discussion of member states’ internal affairs.
Thousands of Rohingya had fled Myanmar by sea in an exodus that peaked in 2015, crossing the Andaman Sea to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Last week, a boat carrying 65 Rohingya arrived at a southern Thai island, raising concern that there could be a new wave of people smuggling by sea after a 2015 regional crackdown on trafficking.