Asean has a lot of work to do for the sake of its own relevancy, as Myanmar and Bangladesh make another attempt to repatriate thousands of Muslim Rohingya to strife-torn Rakhine state while the situation on the ground remains unsafe.

The authority in Myanmar's capital Naypyitaw had announced last week that Myanmar would accept 3,450 refugees from the list of 22,000 provided by Bangladesh earlier this month, as the first batch of people to resettle in Myanmar.

It is not known publicly how the list was made and on what ground their names were submitted to the Myanmar authority.

The repatriation of nearly one million refugees, who fled from difficulties and conflict at home since 1990s to shelters in Bangladesh, will be an uphill task, due to scarred memories of all involved.

Of the 911,000 people sheltered in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar, nearly 740,000 left Rakhine state following brutal violence in August 2017. This saw Myanmar's military (Tatmadaw) reacting in a heavy-handed manner to the series of attacks by militants working under the banner of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

The so-called clearance operation caused atrocities including arson, torture, gang rape, murder and massacre, acts that the United Nations considered ethnic cleansing. The UN even suggested that genocide charges be raised against those responsible from the Tatmadaw.

As the first attempt to send the Rohingyas back failed in the middle of November last year, the Asean, then under chairmanship of Singapore, agreed to take part in the repatriation process for two reasons-saving Rohingyas as well as enhancing the regional grouping's role and visibility in the Rakhine crisis.

Thailand, which took the chairmanship since January, fully supported Asean Secretary General Lim Jock Hoi and the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) in their effort to take part in the repatriation process and to explore sustainable solution for the crisis.

But the regional grouping faced an uphill task when it began to work on the issue last December.

The Asean Emergency Response and Assessment Team (ERAT) couldn't enter the Rakhine state when Rakhine ethnic insurgents under the Arakan Army (AA) brandished weapons against the authorities and made the situation more complicated. The insurgents are fighting for autonomy in the Rakhine state.

The Erat team was finally allowed to enter the state, for primary assessment, during the first half of March and it completed its first report a month later.

In the meantime, Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, representing the Asean as its chair, conducted his quiet shuttle diplomacy between Bangkok, Jakarta, Nay Pyi Taw and Dhaka to explore possibilities for early repatriation and rehabilitation of the ousted refugees in Rakhine.

He discussed the Asean plan for the Rakhine crisis with his colleagues in Bangkok in June and July when they gathered at the Asean summit and ministerial meeting respectively.

The discussion produced positive outcomes.

As Mr. Don told media in June, Myanmar was ready to welcome Rohingya, who are regarded as "aliens" in the country, and will consider issuance of the National Verification Cards (NVC) for Rohingya refugees that wish to voluntarily return from Bangladesh.

The NVC is not Myanmar's national ID, and many Rohingya said they do not trust it.

Although the Asean Ministerial Meeting joint communiqué, issued after the meeting last month (July), painted a rosy road for the repatriation and rehabilitation of Rohingya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Prof Yanghee Lee, who was in Thailand early July on a fact-finding mission, said the violation of human rights in Myanmar, notably in Rakhine state, was rising.

She said she would report the alarming situation to the UN Human Right Council next month (September) and the General Assembly in October.

She said Myanmar is grossly violating people's rights and had blocked her access to the country since late 2017.

Clashes have continued since 2017, and the conflict between the Tatmadaw and the militant group AA is still raging, with reports indicating that human-rights violations and abuse against the civilian population is worsening, she said.

Given that information flow is not easy, it is challenging to get information on what is happening on the ground and how the outside world can assess that it is safe for the Rohingyas to return, she noted.

Sources say the blockage of internet in nine townships in northern Rakhine since July has not yet been lifted.

The Asean, in its joint communiqué in July, stressed the need for the Asean Secretary General and the AHA Center to conduct further work on the matter, including dissemination of information and accurate assessment of the situation to guarantee the safe return of Rohingyas.

With good cooperation from Nay Pyi Taw as a member, the Asean has adequate mechanisms and ability to get access to the troublesome areas as well as reach out to the local residents in Rakhine.

If the Rakhine crisis really mattered for the regional grouping, it is time for Asean to connect and coordinate with all stakeholders including Bangladesh, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Myanmar to guarantee that the first batch of Rohingyas return home safe and sound.

More importantly, that they would be welcomed as full citizens of Myanmar.

The writer is the former editor of The Nation newspaper in Thailand. He continues to contribute articles to the paper. This article is part of the latest series of the Asian Editors Circle, a weekly commentary by editors from the Asia News Network (ANN), which will be published by members of the regional media group. The ANN is an alliance of 24 news media titles across the region.

The Sunday Time

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