By Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat
BANGKOK (Reuters) – Human rights groups on Wednesday called on Southeast Asian leaders to rethink their approach to the Rohingya refugee crisis ahead of a regional summit in Bangkok this week.
Myanmar regards Rohingya Muslims as illegal 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 U.N. agencies, after a crackdown by Myanmar’s military sparked by Rohingya insurgent attacks on the security forces.
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.
Human rights activists say the bloc should not rush to get involved in the 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 lawmaker and a board member of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said in a statement.
U.N. investigators have said the 2017 Myanmar military operation that drove more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims 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 insurgents.
But 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, the Asia director of the Human Rights Watch.
“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.”
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.
Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai rejected any suggestion 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.
“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 voluntarily basis, and with the consent of both Myanmar and Bangladesh, he said.
Thousands of Rohingya have 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.
(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Robert Birsel)