CHIANG MAI, Thailand: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has made significant headway and has gone far enough to try and help Myanmar resolve the Rohingya refugee crisis, said Thailand’s Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai on Friday (Jan 18).
“As far as our ASEAN role is concerned, we believe that we have made certain headway into the direction of getting ourselves involved actively in the situation," the Thai minister told Channel NewsAsia.
But he added that ASEAN’s ground assessment in Rakhine has been put on hold due to security concerns.
Mr Don was speaking at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Chiang Mai, which is chaired by Thailand this year.
Since late 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state to Bangladesh following a brutal crackdown by the country’s military.
The Myanmar military maintains they were conducting counter-defence operations to flush out the militants who had attacked about 30 security posts in Rakhine state.
The Rohingya refugees remain stuck in crowded camps in Bangladesh.
The mass exodus drew international condemnation as many described the incident as the fastest growing humanitarian crisis in the world.
ASEAN'S GROUND ASSESSMENT "PUT ON HOLD"
Late last year, Myanmar requested ASEAN and the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Centre) to help with needs assessment in Rakhine and with the repatriation of the refugees.
Mr Don said that AHA Centre and its assessment team will be "on the ground preparing the ground work for the future activities involving repatriation and even rehabilitation of the returnees".
Rohingya refugees have refused to return to Myanmar citing a lack of security for them and the government’s refusal to grant them citizenship.
The refugees are also concerned that they will be returning to confined internally displaced persons camps, restricting their freedom of movement and access to needs like education and healthcare.
Despite the challenges, the Thai foreign minister described the discussion on the Rakhine among the ASEAN members as “fruitful”.
Mr Don also highlighted how, aside from collective ASEAN efforts to help Myanmar, individual member states like Thailand, Malaysia Indonesia are also assisting with projects in Rakhine state to improve the lives of those there.
These include initiatives like Thailand providing mobile medical teams sent into Rakhine state, agriculture projects and construction of schools.
Mr Don said the regional bloc is now compiling these individual efforts and projects to showcase to the public as a "demonstration of the visibility of ASEAN efforts".
But at the moment, the minister admitted: "Everything now is being put on hold because of the ground situation in Myanmar. Once things are clear, then you'll be seeing more visibly the presence of the collective ASEAN efforts in Myanmar and in Rakhine state."
In recent months, northern Rakhine state has seen an escalation of conflict between the ethinic Arakan Army and the Myanmar military.
The Arakan Army have been stepping up their fight for more rights for its ethnic Rakhine citizens and to be given more autonomy to manage its own state and resources.
According to the United Nations, about 5,000 people have been displaced in northern and central Rakhine state by ongoing clashes between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar military.
REAFFIRMING IMPORTANCE OF PEACE IN SOUTH CHINA SEA
During the first retreat this year under Thailand’s chairmanship, the ministers also reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, stability, security and navigation freedom in the South China Sea.
China and several ASEAN members like Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines are locked in a territorial claims dispute over the waterways.
READ: ASEAN, China agree on draft text that will form basis of negotiations on South China Sea code of conduct
China and ASEAN have agreed to reach the first reading of the negotiating text on the code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea by this year.
The Code would spell out the rules on how claimant states should behave in those waters to avoid confrontation.
The aim, as agreed with China, is to conclude the Code in three years.
Mr Don said the process was "ongoing".
"We expect that a number of sessions will take place and that would be able to allow us for the first reading of the text itself and perhaps after the first reading, there might be the sentiment among all concerned that perhaps a conclusion of the COC could be put forward because at the moment, it’s 2021.
"But it all depends on how the text is being worked on.”
The 10 ASEAN member states also “took note of some concerns on the land reclamations and activities” in the South China Sea.
China has increased militarisation, reclaiming more land to convert them to man-made islands including equipping some with airfields.
In a statement issued at the end of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ retreat, the bloc "reaffirmed the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation".
The nations also emphasised the need to "pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law".