Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Oral Reply to Parliamentary Question 2648, 13 February 2019

13 February 2019



Ms Anthea Ong: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs (a) at the recent ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on 18 Jan 2019, what did ASEAN agree to do in addressing the challenges of repatriation of Rohingya refugees, namely lack of security, citizenship status and access to education and employment; and (b) given the current ground situation in Rakhine, how will ASEAN be working with the Bangladeshi government to ensure that the refugees have access to education and employment.





1 Mr Speaker, I attended the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Chiang Mai on the 17th and 18th of January. As usual, the subject of Rakhine State came up for extensive informal discussion amongst the Foreign Ministers. We focused on efforts by ASEAN to support the refugees as well as Myanmar and, in particular, focused on the safe and voluntary repatriation of these refugees. Members will appreciate that this is a current and still-evolving situation, not all of which is positive.


2 We welcomed the finalisation of the Terms of Reference (TOR) for the needs assessment team that will be despatched by the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre). This needs assessment team will help us identify the possible areas of cooperation for which ASEAN can provide support. I think, just as importantly, the presence of an ASEAN needs assessment team will also help enhance the confidence and the trust of refugees on the ground, and we were hoping that it would help create a conducive environment for the sustainable and voluntary repatriation, resettlement, and ultimately rebuilding of lives on the part of the refugees.


3 However, I’m sorry to note that in light of the recent outbreak of violence, which this time involves the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army – a different community from the Muslim refugees, so you now have a triangular situation of violence amongst the stakeholders in Rakhine State – the despatch of the ASEAN needs assessment team has had to be postponed.


4 Mr Speaker, it is important for the refugees to return home so they can rebuild their lives but I would emphasise it is just as important that the manner of the repatriation be voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable. I have met the Prime Minister of Bangladesh and also the State Counsellor of Myanmar just two months ago and I am absolutely certain that leadership of both countries is committed to the ultimate repatriation of the refugees, and in fact the two countries have had extensive discussions on how to bring this about. The point I want to emphasise here is that it is not possible for us, or for ASEAN, to impose a deadline for this process to begin. The reason for this is that you need sufficient confidence on the part of the refugees before you can begin repatriation in a voluntary, safe and dignified way. When that happens, and we hope that it will happen in the not-too-distant future, it is possible for ASEAN to provide support in the form of providing or assisting in the provision of health and education facilities and promoting inter-faith dialogue. But on the more difficult and fundamental issues of, for instance, citizenship and political rights, this is not something for ASEAN to decide, or indeed, to debate. We cannot do so on behalf of Myanmar and ultimately, Myanmar has to sort out its own political challenges.


5 During my visit to the refugee camp in the end of November last year, I had the opportunity to speak to some of the refugees. Two key issues always came up.  One, security – safety for their families; and two, livelihood – what they would do to make a living when they go back. These are not trivial details; these are essentials that need to be sorted out before the refugees would be willing to go back. More fundamentally, Myanmar has to address the root causes of the problem, and it is worth emphasising that this has been a longstanding chronic problem for many decades, if not a century, or more. The late Kofi Annan and the Advisory Commission on the Rakhine State had provided a set of comprehensive recommendations. Furthermore, the Myanmar government established the Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE) and this, if properly pursued, will provide for accountability. We hope that this Commission will be able to carry out its investigations with full impartiality.


ASEAN stands ready to support the efforts by all stakeholders to address the root causes of the problem in the Rakhine State. ASEAN countries, including Singapore, have provided assistance to Myanmar on a bilateral basis. But ultimately, I need to emphasise that it is the responsibility of the Myanmar government and all the other stakeholders to reach a viable and durable political solution. On matters like this, we cannot expect any quick fixes.





Ms Anthea Ong:  Thank you Minister for the clarification. I was also there in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in my personal capacity with one of my community projects, Playground of Joy, last December, and I totally agree with you that the two main concerns that you brought up – one, security for the families; and two, livelihood did come up as well, but the third concern that was mentioned to me was education. I have two questions for the Minister.  One, has ASEAN, and Singapore, come to any contingency plan should the funding by the UN and different donors for Cox’s Bazar and the different refugee camps around Asia and ASEAN run out; and two, can we do anything in the meantime, if not for their livelihoods, then for the education of the children in Bangladesh? Thank you.





1 Thank you for that supplementary question. If you had been there, I think you would join me in commending the incredible generosity and efforts that the Bangladesh government and people have made to welcome, protect, and support these refugees. These are refugees on an enormous scale. If you have gone to the camps there, for as far as the eye can see to the horizon, you would have seen tents, habitation, and homes that were built. As a previous Environment Minister, the things that I look out for: cooking, drains, wells, toilets, environment protection – all those measures have been put in place. The first point is to commend Bangladesh and the international community, including NGOs such as yours that have done an incredible job.



2 The next point is that, paradoxically, because the refugees are safe and are receiving support there, they are not going to leave unless they are certain that they will have better prospects across the border. As I said, better prospects are not going to occur in a hurry, and the latest bout of violence – involving this time the Arakan community, complicates matters even further. Do I foresee a sudden cessation of support from the UN, the UN agencies and the international NGOs for the refugees there? No, I don’t foresee that contingency occurring, at least not for the foreseeable future.  In the meantime, I need to commend the work of NGOs such as yours (I know you focus on education), expressing support in a very real and meaningful way that makes a difference on the ground. I share your concern because whilst I have said that there are no quick fixes and that it takes time, it would be a tragedy for children to spend their entire childhood in such circumstances, be deprived of a full and proper education and more importantly, prospects for a job and livelihood later on.  We will all try, and are trying – and I commend you for making a difference on the ground – but we also need to be realistic on time frames and also on the ultimately limited role that we play.  Let’s keep working on it. As I’ve said at the beginning, at every ASEAN meeting, this matter is discussed. It may not be on the formal agenda but I can guarantee you that it takes up a significant amount of bandwidth on both the parts of the Leaders at the Summit-level as well as the Foreign Ministers.





Mr Louis Ng:  I thank again Minister for consistently looking into this issue and trying to find a way forward, but I would like to bring up the point I raised before, which is also the fourth request from the refugees, on citizenship. I’m not asking for the Singapore Government to give them citizenship in Myanmar, but I’m asking whether this issue can be discussed at a deeper level at the ASEAN meetings, because that really is one of the roots of the problem.





Citizenship is a fundamental political right.  It goes to the heart of sovereignty; it goes to the heart of the construction of how a country looks at itself and identify who is in and who is out. I would humbly put to you that because this is such a fundamental point, it has to be settled within the country through the political system, processes and stakeholders. This is not something foreigners should get involved in, so I reiterate, therefore, that my short answer to that point, which you have made repeatedly, is no.





Mr Vikram Nair:  A few questions on this topic. First of all, ASEAN is a group that works by consensus – is there division amongst ASEAN members on this matter? Second, related to that, does division on this matter prevent us reaching agreements on other points which are more important? If so, is this a matter that ASEAN should spend a lot of time on, if it sours relationships and prevents ASEAN from moving on other matters where agreement can be reached?





1 That is an important and nuanced question. I would not say that there are divisions within ASEAN on this matter. I would say that there are different perspectives and different weights given by the different ASEAN countries which often reflect our own domestic considerations. But it is not a division. As I said previously, at our recent meeting we were able to settle the Terms of Reference of the needs assessment and we agreed that when the conditions are suitable, the ASEAN team should be present on the ground. We agreed that the presence of an ASEAN team would help enhance confidence and trust of refugees. ASEAN is also willing in our own, albeit limited, way to participate in providing education, creating jobs and implementing healthcare facilities in order to help the refugees who need help.



2 No society and no community can progress without first finding its way to creating their version of a fair and just society; without providing security; without providing education, jobs and livelihoods. My one line to you is that there are no divisions within ASEAN. ASEAN stands ready to help.


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13 FEBRUARY 2019

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