Rohingya Groups Say ASEAN Must Not Endorse Myanmar’s Whitewash of Brutal Campaign

myanmar-asean-summit-bangkok-june19-2019.jpg A security officer stands guard during the preparations for the 34th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok, Thailand, June 19, 2019.

Nearly two dozen Rohingya and civil society groups on Thursday called for leaders and representatives from member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to work towards a just and safe plan for the repatriation of Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar and warned regional leaders against endorsing Myanmar’s whitewash of military atrocities.

Their statement, issued in response to a recent leaked report from ASEAN’s Emergency Response and Action Team (ERAT), criticized the document for being tailored to please the Myanmar government and failing to mention what the groups called the “well documented genocide perpetrated by the Myanmar security forces that drove 740,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh in 2017.”

Thousands of Rohingya were killed, tortured, and raped while their villages were torched during the crackdown, and hundreds of thousands fled to safety in Bangladesh where they live in sprawling displacement camps. The U.N. later described the campaign of terror as ethnic cleansing and possible genocide.

The leaked ASEAN report glossed over the atrocities against the Rohingya, who say they still do not trust Myanmar authorities enough to consider returning, despite the signing of a repatriation agreement by the Myanmar and Bangladesh governments.

“Instead, the report consists of a summary of the technical details of the return process with some minor technical recommendations,” the joint Rohingya statement said. “Myanmar appears to want to create a new narrative that the conflict was interethnic, that they are ready to accept returnees, [that] conditions are conducive to do so, and that the only obstacle for return is Bangladesh.”

“It seems as if the report was done to help ASEAN member countries to ignore the hurt, pain, harm, loss of lives, [and] loss of dignity caused to the Rohinyga people,” it said. “This is an erasure of facts.”

The groups also denounced the report for not using the term “Rohingya,” which is disputed in Myanmar which views members of the minority group as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and disparagingly refers to them as “Bengalis.”

They also noted that the report failed to mention the impact of ongoing armed conflict between Myanmar forces and the Arakan Army (AA) in Rakhine state, which has displaced more than 30,000 civilians, as well as policies that discriminate against the Rohingya, as factors impeding repatriation.

“This means that any repatriation is unfeasible, but the assessment team chose to omit the fear the Rohingyas are feeling, in the report,” the statement said. “The report also fails to address policies and laws which violate the Rohingyas’ fundamental human rights and jeopardize the viability of their return.”

'It's preposterous'

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) weighed in on the issue, also criticizing ASEAN’s focus on the repatriation process, as detailed in the ERAT report, for ignoring the situation on the ground in Rakhine state.

“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 HRW Asia director Brad Adams in a statement issued Wednesday. “It’s preposterous for ASEAN leaders to be discussing the repatriation of a traumatized population into the hands of the security forces who killed, raped, and robbed them.”

“ASEAN has also ignored efforts to investigate abuses and obtain justice for victims of atrocities,” he said.

Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK), one of the members of the coalition, took issue with the ERAT report for saying that the voluntary repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh could be completed in two years.

“We’d like to demand that ASEAN withdraw this report,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “It is completely wrong because they don’t look at the situation on the ground. They concluded that Rohingya are safe to return home. This is condoning the genocide against the Rohingya people.”

The Rohingya organizations called on ASEAN leaders to urge the Myanmar government to ensure justice and safe conditions for the refugees’ return, including the 128,000 Rohingya who live in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Myanmar.

‘Not listening to us’

A day earlier, the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace & Human Rights (ARSPHR) expressed its frustration that the international community was not putting enough pressure on Myanmar leaders to make possible the repatriation of refugees stranded in Bangladesh.

Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to repatriate some of the hundreds of thousands of displaced Rohingya living in camps, but the plan has stalled, and few refugees want to return to Myanmar, where they face systematic discrimination and possible violence and are denied citizenship.

“Why is the international community not pressuring Myanmar to take back its own nationals who it forced into Bangladesh?” asked the ARSPHR in a statement. “We think it is because the international community does not really care about what Rohingya refugees want. They are not really listening to us.”

“Right now, Rohingya refugees continue to be left out of all decision-making process[es],” the statement said. “The international community need[s] to start showing us more respect and properly talking with us.”

“There will be no repatriation without talking to us,” it concluded.

Leaders and delegates from the 10 ASEAN member states are gathering in Bangkok on June 20-23 for their annual meeting to discuss security, economic, and sustainability issues in the region.

It is expected that Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is attending the summit, will come under heavy fire from member states for her mismanagement of the Rohingya crisis.

Her government has largely defended the Myanmar military and denied that it committed mass atrocities against the Rohingya during the 2017 crackdown. One government report on the issue was summarily dismissed as a whitewash.

Call for UN resignations

Also on Wednesday, Rohingya rights groups called for the resignation of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and other senior U.N. officials for failing Rohingya Muslims who endured atrocities and fled their communities during the crackdown in Rakhine state.

Their call was in response to the release of a report pointing to the body’s shortcomings in implementing a unified strategy to prevent the onslaught of violence.

The report, based on an independent review of the U.N.’s involvement in Myanmar from 2010 to 2018, concluded that “systemic and structural failures” and “serious errors” by the U.N. system in dealing with the Rohingya crisis were intensified by bureaucratic infighting. The report, however, did not name individuals or agencies responsible.

The Free Rohingya Coalition blasted the report for its lack of accountability and impunity regarding the conduct of U.N. officials who “have failed Rohingya survivors.”

“The coalition therefore holds that in order for impunity to end within Myanmar and within the international protection system, [the] Secretary General and his managerial deputies should be held accountable for the failures that have thus far emboldened Myanmar’s ongoing genocidal persecution of Rohingya ethnic minority in Rakhine state,” a statement issued by the coalition said.

“We therefore demand the resignation of senior U.N. leaders in whose hands the management of the entire U.N. system rests,” it said. “Their leadership and management have failed the thousands of Rohingyas who were mass-slaughtered, maimed, raped, or otherwise violently deported from their villages to Bangladesh where they exist in subhuman conditions.”

Free Rohingya Coalition coordinator Nay San Lwin told RFA that the review was not done properly.

“The way they handled the case is completely wrong,” he said. “Far from punishing the wrongdoers, they are rewarding them. They need to reinvent the entire system with new management. That’s why we demanded that they resign.”

Reported by Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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