The thirteenth Asia-Europe Meeting of foreign ministers, a forum for dialogue between 53 countries and regional blocs, was scheduled to take place in Naypyitaw before the outbreak of the crisis.
But last year’s militant attacks in Rakhine state, where most Rohingya live, and subsequent crackdown by military forces and flood of refugees into Bangladesh, have become a key issue at the otherwise routine meeting.
“In the past, there was a lot of dispute between Asean members and EU members over the participation of Burma when it was under military rule,” says Mark Farmaner of the London-based Burma Campaign.
“This meeting was meant to facilitate dialogue between European and Asian countries and also to celebrate the fact that there had been changes and reforms in Burma,” he says, using another name for the country. “But obviously it’s come at a time when the agenda is dominated by the Rohingya crisis and the attacks by the military.”
Repatriation efforts and citizen rights
Bangladesh and Myanmar have agreed in principle to repatriate the refugees, and European top diplomats – including French foreign minister Jean Yves Le Drian and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini – praised the country’s much-criticised de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, for efforts in that direction.
But human rights campaigners are sceptical about the durability of any repatriation effort that fails to resolve the issue of citizen rights, as Myanmar’s government and many in the country consider the Rohingya to be illegal Bengali immigrants.
“Myanmar has put in so many qualifying conditions on Rohingya, there is no guarantee they will be restored the full citizenship that they were stripped of under the 1982 citizenship law,” says Debbie Stothard with the Bangkok-based Alternative Asean Network.
“Unless there is a willingness to address, amend or abolish those laws and policies, and to allow independent monitors, preferably from the UN, then the repatriation game is essentially going to be a replay of previous repatriation programmes stemming from the 1990s,” Stothard says.
“Basically we’re going to see a repatriation, and then a repeat of the problem one or two years down the track.”
China extends a hand
As the meeting began, China’s foreign ministry said it wanted to play a constructive role in Rakhine state and offered a three-point plan to resolve the crisis.
The plan would involve an end of fighting, a repatriation (albeit with no mention of citizen rights) and what Beijing billed as a long-term solution based on alleviating poverty.
“The plan is very vague, and it’s pretty much what the government of Burma itself has been proposing,” says Mark Farmaner, who rejects the notion that poverty is a root cause of the conflict.
“This conflict is caused by prejudice and discrimination against the minatory, the fact that the military and the government in Burma will not accept the Rohingya as belonging in the country.
“The poverty in Rakhine state where many of the Rohingya live is a deliberate government policy,” he says. “The poverty there obviously will mean that some people will look for scapegoats, and it’s easier for the government and racists to scapegoat the Rohingya as the source of people’s problems.”