Taro Kono is the foreign minister of Japan.
Last November, I visited the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, where more than 700,000 Muslim refugees from Rakhine State are taking refuge. In January, I visited northern Rakhine State. These two trips made a huge impression on me and helped move the Rakhine issue up to become one of the highest-priority issues in Japan’s foreign policy agenda. In August, I visited Myanmar and Bangladesh for the second time and met with the leaders of both nations to discuss a way forward. Any solution to the refugee problem must be led by the two countries. Myanmar, also known as Burma, and Bangladesh are committed to the safe, voluntary and dignified repatriation of the refugees. We must help support their efforts and foster mutual trust and cooperation.
The most urgent task today is to improve conditions in the Cox’s Bazar camp. I praise the Bangladeshi people and their government for their compassion and generosity in accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees. However, the funding gap to assist the refugees remains large. To date, only 38 percent of the needed funds have been pledged by donors. Though the burden on the local communities is getting bigger, they are still willing to share their scarce resources with the refugees, such as land, food and water. The international community needs to support Bangladesh’s efforts to overcome this crisis and further increase assistance to fill the gap.
Nevertheless, the key for a sustainable solution is to create the conditions for the early return of refugees and their peaceful resettlement in Rakhine State. As John F. Kennedy wrote in “Profiles in Courage,” “The true democracy … puts its faith in the people … faith that the people will not condemn those whose devotion to principle leads them to unpopular courses, but will reward courage, respect honor, and ultimately recognize right.” Aung San Suu Kyi, the longtime democracy and human rights advocate of Myanmar, is facing great difficulty in balancing her moral principles and the views of her constituents, who are not necessarily very open to the idea of repatriation and resettlement. It is easy to criticize Aung San Suu Kyi for not responding to the situation quickly, but what the international community has to do now is to support the efforts of her government.
The Myanmar government has been making efforts, but it needs to do more. While it has constructed facilities such as reception centers and housing, the government needs to guarantee freedom of movement and clarify its pathway towards citizenship verification process. It has also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the U.N. refugee agency and the U.N. Development Program that guarantees U.N. workers’ presence on the ground in Myanmar, which is essential for the success of the repatriation process. Their projects based on the latest needs assessment will begin soon. Moreover, no effort should be spared to tackle the multifaceted root causes of the issue, for which Kofi Annan and his Advisory Commission on Rakhine State provided comprehensive prescriptions in their report last year. The international community must help these efforts of Myanmar for enabling repatriation and resettlement of the refugees.
In order to uncover what happened in Rakhine State, the government of Myanmar established the Independent Commission of Enquiry, which is composed of two Myanmar members and two international members. Accountability should be established on Myanmar’s own initiative. We fully hope and expect the commission to conduct its investigation in a credible manner, and to that end, it needs the full cooperation from Myanmar’s military.
Many are busy criticizing the Myanmar government for not taking the necessary steps quickly enough. However, what the international community has to do right now is not to criticize, but to patiently support Myanmar’s own efforts for the early, safe, voluntary and dignified repatriation of refugees. The peace and stability of Rakhine State cannot be realized without solidifying democracy and human rights in Myanmar. The international community must not short-circuit Myanmar’s evolution toward democracy.