By Arafat Reza, Research Associate at the Centre for Peace and Justice, BRAC University *

Laetitia van den Assum is a former Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. She was also a member of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State chaired by the former UN Secretary-General late Kofi Annan. In this interview with Manzoor Hasan, Executive Director of the Centre for Peace and Justice, BRAC University, Laetitia looks at the bigger picture of the protracted Rohingya crisis, reflects on her work on the Rakhine Advisory Commission and outlines what safe, sustainable and voluntary repatriation would look like. Finally, she responds to the pressing question – ‘Has the International Community forgotten the Rohingya?’

Manzoor Hasan: Good afternoon. Wonderful to have you with us at the Centre for Peace and Justice, BRAC University.

Laetitia van den Assum: Thanks for welcoming me. It’s great to be here and to be in conversation with you today.

Manzoor Hasan: Could you please tell us how you became involved with the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State and what was your overall experience?

Laetitia van den Assum: It was one of the most complex and challenging undertakings that I was ever part of. In 2016, Kofi Annan asked me to join him and a number of other respected people in a commission that was set up by Aung San Suu Kyi, who was then the leader of the Government of Myanmar. It was formed to address the longstanding tensions that had been plaguing the state of Rakhine for decades, involving the majority Rakhine Buddhist ethnicity and the second-largest community, the Muslim Rohingya. Given the situation, what Aung San Suu Kyi wanted us to do is to come up with recommendations which would help to bring about greater stability and greater tolerance in Rakhine. It was not an easy task because, since at least the 1980s, successive military governments in Myanmar had been using their highly effective divide-and-rule tactics to divide these two communities and set them up against each other. When we were there, we could immediately sense fear among Buddhists and Muslims and of each other, and very few people understood that this was driven by their own central government, which wanted these kinds of divisions so that they could rule. When you teach young children that they cannot play with or associate with another race because of the risk of harm or even death, that belief becomes deeply rooted in your psyche, making it extremely challenging to change that later on. Nevertheless, we embraced the challenge, traversed the entire Rakhine state, interacted with over 1,000 people, and subsequently formulated a series of recommendations. One of the most important of them was that people would have to learn to live side by side. Our report was very well received internationally. Different bodies of the United Nations, such as the United Nations General Assembly or the United Nations Human Rights Council, which regularly pass resolutions about Myanmar and the Rohingya, continue to refer to our report, even though it was published in 2017.

Manzoor Hasan: What was the situation like in Rakhine State when you were there? Did you notice anything noteworthy?

Laetitia van den Assum:  Yes. The situation of the Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state at the time was horrific and deeply worrying. They were either in open-air prison camps or in their own villages, which were closed off from the rest of the world. Let me give you an example to make it easier for you to gauge the level of segregation and discrimination that I saw there. Until 2012, there were at least some mixed schools where kids would get to know each other. However, from 2012 onward, even that was no longer allowed. Everything was segregated—compulsory segregation.

Manzoor Hasan: It is well documented that the Rohingya have suffered decades of violence, discrimination, and persecution in Myanmar, and that it eventually culminated in their exodus to Bangladesh in 2017. How do you see the response of the Government of Bangladesh and other non-state actors in the wake of this influx?

Laetitia van den Assum: It was an extremely traumatic experience, not only for the Rohingya but also for those like me who had been working to improve the situation in Rakhine. The Government of Bangladesh and its people have been very generous in how they welcomed the Rohingya people at a time of such crisis, providing them with refuge, essential resources, and support. They deserve a lot of respect for this. I doubt that many other countries in the world would have accepted such a large number of people. I will always remember with great admiration what the Honourable Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina said – it was impossible to turn the Rohingya people back because of what the people of Bangladesh themselves had experienced in 1971. But, obviously, with limited resources at its disposal and dwindling funds, the strain is growing on Bangladesh as the crisis remains unresolved even after so many years. It is becoming increasingly critical to put pressure on Myanmar to create a safe environment for the Rohingya to return.

Manzoor Hasan: Do the Rohingya people want to return to Myanmar, considering what they have experienced while they were there?

Laetitia van den Assum: Almost all Rohingya you speak to desperately want to go back because this is the home they wish to return to. But the conditions have to be right. It’s not a question of going back or not. It’s clear that they want to go back but the situation has to be suitable for them to return. If you don’t change the local situation they had to flee from, they might end up back on the doorstep of Bangladesh again, just as they have many times in the past. I’m aware of the Bangladesh government’s long-standing efforts to make the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees to Myanmar a reality. But all those engaged in discussions concerning their repatriation have the joint responsibility to make certain that the conditions in Myanmar are conducive for the return of Rohingya people. This is a feat that is impossible to achieve through individual efforts from Bangladesh.

Manzoor Hasan: How has the coup d’état in Myanmar in 2021 impacted the potential for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees?

Laetitia van den Assum: The first thing you have to realise is that the military regime, which is responsible for pushing the Rohingya over the border into Bangladesh, remains in charge in Naypyitaw, the country’s capital. At the same time, it is engaging Rakhine State’s Arakan Army, an ethnic armed organisation, in violent conflict that is leading to many civilian casualties and widespread displacement. So the very people who drove the Rohingya across the border remain a major source of instability. Although the situation is challenging, we cannot give up on our efforts to push all actors, including the widespread resistance movement, to create a safe environment for the Rohingya. We will also have to engage people from other communities in Rakhine to encourage dialogue about the return of the Rohingya from Bangladesh. In this context, it is crucial to highlight that the aftermath of the 2021 coup has induced a seismic shift in the mindset of young people. There is now a greater inclination towards the idea of “one nation”, whether one is Bamar, Chin, Kachin, or Rohingya, all belong to Myanmar. While there may still be a few with differing views, this overall change is most certainly a positive sign.

Manzoor Hasan: With financial support dwindling, many informed observers are concerned that Bangladesh has been left to deal with the Rohingya crisis on its own. What are your thoughts on the matter? Has the International Community forgotten about the Rohingya refugees?

Laetitia van den Assum: I don’t think that they have been forgotten by the International Community. It’s just that we’ve moved to a different phase. They have been here for more than five years now. If you look at emergency assistance operations around the world, they usually say that after five to six years you’re no longer in an emergency situation. They call it a protracted situation. From that point onwards, the priority, as far as available funding is concerned, goes to newer emergencies. That doesn’t mean that the protracted ones are forgotten. However, when a crisis becomes protracted, a different approach is required. It’s really critical to recognise that sustainable solutions to refugee situations cannot be achieved without international cooperation. A key issue like enhancing refugee self-reliance through employment opportunities and education needs international cooperation. And so does better access to third-country resettlement, supporting the improvement of the environment for returns to Rakhine, and easing pressure on Bangladesh as host country.

Disclaimer: This interview has been transcribed and edited for brevity from a recent episode of “Doorbeen,” the podcast series of the Centre for Peace and Justice, BRAC University. The full episode is available here.

* Author: Arafat Reza is a Research Associate at the Centre for Peace and Justice, BRAC University.

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