Asia-Europe Meeting in Myanmar skips Rohingya issue

Asia-Europe Meeting in Myanmar skips Rohingya issue

Naypyitaw, November 22 (BDNews24/Agencies): The Asia-Europe Meeting (AEM) of Foreign Ministers in the Myanmar capital of Naypyitaw, which began on Monday, has avoided the Rohingya Muslim displacement issue, perhaps in view of China’s strong insistence that the matter must be sorted out bilaterally by Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The 36-point Chair’s Statement titled “Strengthening Partnership for Peace and Sustainable Development” does not even mention the Rohingya issue.

Established in 1996, ASEM is a platform for dialogue and cooperation on global issues. It brings together 30 countries from Europe and 21 from Asia, which collectively account for 60 percent of the global population.

Meetings of the leaders of those 51 countries and of their foreign ministers are held every two years, with the meetings held in alternate years.

This year, the foreign ministers’ meet was held at Myanmar at a time when over 600,000 Rohingyas had to flee “ethnic cleansing” and take shelter in Bangladesh in three months since Aug 25.

The persecution received huge global condemnation as Rohingya people have told of atrocities committed by security forces, including gang rapes, execution-style killings and the razing of entire villages.

The United Nations calls it to be “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Myanmar authorities, however, have said the military operations in Rakhine were aimed at restoring stability and eliminating the threat of “terrorism” after about two dozen government security posts were attacked on Aug 25 by Muslim militants calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

The ASEM meet was hosted and chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor, who has been criticised for not doing enough to stop the violence.

The Chair’s statement did not say anything on Rohingya plight or the situation of the Rakhine State. Instead it highlighted the global terrorism issue.

The foreign ministers reiterated their views that “terrorism constitutes a serious threat to international peace, security, stability and development”.

They expressed their “determination to countering terrorism and preventing violent extremism in all their forms and manifestations in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations and relevant Conventions and Protocols, in particular human rights law, refugee law and international humanitarian law.”

They also emphasized the need for “a comprehensive approach in countering terrorism and violent extremism, without associating them with any religion, nationality, civilisation or ethnic group.”

China’s Stand

Speaking in the capital of Naypyitaw on Sunday, having arrived from Dhaka, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China believed Myanmar and Bangladesh could work out a mutually acceptable way to end the crisis.

“The first phase is to effect a ceasefire on the ground, to return to stability and order, so the people can enjoy peace and no longer be forced to flee,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement, citing Wang.

“With the hard work of all sides, at present, the first phase’s aim has already basically been achieved, and the key is to prevent a flare-up, especially that there is no rekindling the flames of war.”

During a meeting on Sunday Wang told Myanmar President Htin Kyaw:, “As a friend of both Myanmar and Bangladesh, China is willing to keep playing a constructive role for the appropriate handling of the Rakhine State issue.”

Visiting Myanmar last week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made many of the same points, but he also called for a credible investigation into reports of atrocities.

Once a ceasefire is seen to be working, Wang said talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh should find a workable solution for the return of refugees, and the final phase should be to work toward a long-term solution based on poverty alleviation.

Myanmar and Bangladesh officials began talks last month to settle a repatriation process for Rohingya refugees, which Bangladesh expects to take to the next level in coming days.

A counter-insurgency operation launched in Myanmar’s Rakhine State has driven more than 600,000 Rohingya out of the Buddhist-majority country since late August.

Rights groups have accused Myanmar’s military of atrocities, including mass rape, against Rohingya during the clearance operation.

Aung San Suu Kyi’ Statement

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters that discussions would be held with the Bangladesh Foreign Minister on Wednesday and Thursday on the repatriation of the Rohingyas.

Officials from both countries began discussions last month on how to process applications by Rohingya wanting to return to Myanmar.

“We hope that this would result in an MOU signed quickly, which would enable us to start the safe and voluntarily return of all of those who have gone across the border,” Suu Kyi said.

The Nobel laureate did not use the term “Rohingya”. Myanmar rejects use of the term for the Muslim minority, which is not on an official list of the country’s ethnic groups.

The Rohingya are largely stateless and many people in Myanmar view them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Suu Kyi said Myanmar would follow the framework of an agreement reached in the 1990s to cover the earlier repatriation of Rohingya, who had fled to Bangladesh to escape previous bouts of ethnic violence.

That agreement did not address the citizenship status of Rohingya, and Bangladesh has been pressing for a repatriation process that provided Rohingya with more safeguards this time.

“It’s on the basis of residency…this was agreed by the two governments long time ago with success, so this will be formula we will continue to follow,” she said.

Earlier talks between the two countries reached a broad agreement to work out a repatriation deal, but a senior Myanmar official later accused Bangladesh of dragging its feet in order to secure funding from aid agencies for hosting the refugees.

It was hard to tell exactly how close Myanmar and Bangladesh were to an agreement, Suu Kyi said.

Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s state counsellor and foreign affairs minister, said the country was doing everything it could to “make sure security is maintained” in Rakhine, but warned that “it takes time” to resolve the issues there.

It was unclear, however, whether a safe return was possible, or advisable, for the thousands of Rohingya women and children still stranded on the beaches trying to flee hunger and instability in Rakhine.

Myanmar intends to resettle most refugees who return in new “model villages”, rather than on the land they previously occupied, an approach the United Nations has criticized in the past as effectively creating permanent camps.

EU’s View

Speaking on the sidelines of the ASEM meeting, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said, “We believe that stopping the violence, the flow of refugees and guaranteeing full humanitarian access to Rakhine state, and safe, sustainable repatriation of refugees are going to be key.”

Mogherini, who also visited Bangladesh over the weekend, said, “There’s a real possibility of Myanmar and Bangladesh reaching a memorandum of understanding and agreement for the safe repatriation of refugees to Myanmar.”

The European bloc was ready to help with the process, she added.

It was unclear, however, whether a safe return was possible, or advisable, for the thousands of Rohingya women and children still stranded on the beaches trying to flee hunger and instability in Rakhine.

Besides restoring peace for Rohingya to return, Myanmar also had to resolve the issue of their citizenship, having treated them as stateless for decades, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, told a news conference in Tokyo.

The UNHCR was ready to assist both countries with repatriation, he said, adding that it could help Myanmar with the citizenship verification of the Rohingya. Until now it has not been invited to participate in either.

“Much as resources are needed in Bangladesh to respond to the crisis, the solutions to this crisis lie in Myanmar,” Grandi said.

Violence largely over

The crisis erupted after the military launched a brutal counter-insurgency operation against the militants after attacks on an army base and 30 police posts in Rakhine on Aug 25.

Myanmar’s military has said that all fighting against the Rohingya militants died out on Sept 5.

The group behind those attacks, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army or ARSA, had declared a one-month ceasefire on Sept 10, which was rejected by the Myanmar government. But there have been no serious clashes since.

The United States and other Western countries have become more engaged with Myanmar since it began a transition to civilian government after nearly 50 years of military rule.

Myanmar’s generals retain autonomy over defence, internal security and border issues in the current power-sharing arrangement.

China, with close ties to both Myanmar and Bangladesh, has long been a key player in lawless borderlands where rebel ethnic groups have battled Myanmar’s government for decades in a conflict driving thousands of refugees to seek shelter in China.

(The featured image at the  top shows the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with the Myanmar leader Aun San Suu Kyi)