Rakhine: A moment for ASEAN and Filipino leadership to act

Ambassador Daniel Pruce

Posted at Nov 11 2017 03:23 PM

The ASEAN Summit is a critical opportunity to once again show leadership.

We have all seen the shocking images of the humanitarian situation faced by Myanmar’s Rohingya people. Some 607,000 people have crossed the border to Bangladesh in less than three months. Up to 200,000 Rohingya people remain in northern Rakhine and around 350,000 elsewhere in the state. Many of them are displaced from their homes.

Assessments from the ground indicate that lack of security, travel restrictions and food shortages are major drivers behind the most recent flow of refugees. Those assessments also show that whilst humanitarian assistance is getting into Bangladesh, the level of assistance getting into Rakhine State is simply inadequate. The key obstacle is the reluctance of Myanmar authorities to grant access to humanitarian agencies.

The international community must take more action urgently. The situation is desperate and the time for bold leadership is now. In New York, the United Nations Security Council has just issued a Presidential Statement on Myanmar, the first in more than 10 years. The UN Security Council expressed "grave concern over reports of human rights violations and abuses in Rakhine State including... the systematic use of force and intimidation, killing of men, women and children, sexual violence, and including the destruction and burning of homes and property".

This is an important moment for ASEAN. As I recall, ASEAN played a critical role after Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Then - as today - Myanmar was reluctant to allow international humanitarian agencies to deliver aid. ASEAN, including the Philippines, stepped in to find a solution. They negotiated a tripartite approach with the Government of Myanmar and the UN to oversee humanitarian operations in-country. This allowed agencies with the right capability and expertise to get assistance to those in desperate need. ASEAN leadership saved thousands of lives.

As mandated previously by ASEAN foreign ministers, the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance (AHA) Centre has begun to deliver assistance. At present, the volumes are small and the supplies are being handed over to the Myanmar Government for delivery in Rakhine. But many of those in most desperate need do not trust the Government. This approach cannot avert the humanitarian crisis. The AHA Centre could further capitalize on the trust ASEAN has fostered, and play a crucial role in getting more aid directly to those who need it most.

ASEAN leaders should expand the AHA Centre's mandate so that it can play an umbrella role as ASEAN did so successfully during Cyclone Nargis. ASEAN can catalyze the international community by generating access for bodies such as the UN. The UN is the only body that can operate at the scale needed. An AHA Centre "umbrella" looks like the right option. The AHA Centre has the credibility to work with the international community and the Government of Myanmar.

ASEAN and Filipino leadership can also help to find solutions to the longer term crisis. The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has made sensible recommendations to achieve a peaceful and fair future for the people of Rakhine State. These include the need to establish impartial rule of law, fair provision of public services such as healthcare, and lifting restrictions on movements. 

The recommendations are essential to address some of the underlying causes of the crisis. A serious investigation of human rights violations will also be needed in the long-term to avoid the risk of impunity. A solution will be needed to create the conditions for the safe and dignified return of refugees.

The Annan recommendations are supported by the UK and others across the international community. ASEAN endorsement and support for the Annan Report would send a clear and important signal about the way ahead.

The UK, along with other members of the UN Security Council, is deeply committed to Myanmar's democratic transition. We are actively supporting this through development cooperation to benefit all the people of Myanmar. But the crisis in Rakhine State undermines democratic principles and needs to be addressed. Alongside our work with the international community in New York, we have sent a clear signal by reducing military-to-military cooperation with Myanmar. But we have also significantly committed to support humanitarian assistance in Rakhine State and Bangladesh.

We will continue to support and work with Filipino and ASEAN leaders as they seek solutions to the Rakhine crisis. Sensible diplomacy, behind the scenes where necessary, has begun to make a difference. A regional solution to this regional crisis remains the best hope. The desperate people in those images on our televisions and in our newspapers deserve our urgent help. They will be hoping that the ongoing ASEAN Summit delivers a little bit of good news.

(Daniel Pruce is the UK Ambassador to the Philippines.)