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What can Asean do about the Rohingya crisis?

There were high hopes that the foreign ministers’ retreat of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) in Yangon on Dec 19 would open up an unprecedented channel for the grouping to play a greater role in addressing the Rohingya issue. Unfortunately, the meeting fell short of expectations. No agreement was reached on a specific role or follow-up action to be taken by Asean. Myanmar promised to allow essential humanitarian access but remained ambivalent about when and how Asean could contribute in this respect.

Migrants including Rohingya waiting on board a fishing boat before being transported to shore, off the coast of Julok, in Aceh province, last year.  The previously taboo subject of the treatment of Rohingyas in Rakhine State has found its way to an Asean foreign ministers’ meeting, setting the precedent for future regional discussions. Photo: REUTERS

Migrants including Rohingya waiting on board a fishing boat before being transported to shore, off the coast of Julok, in Aceh province, last year. The previously taboo subject of the treatment of Rohingyas in Rakhine State has found its way to an Asean foreign ministers’ meeting, setting the precedent for future regional discussions. Photo: REUTERS

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There were high hopes that the foreign ministers’ retreat of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) in Yangon on Dec 19 would open up an unprecedented channel for the grouping to play a greater role in addressing the Rohingya issue. Unfortunately, the meeting fell short of expectations. No agreement was reached on a specific role or follow-up action to be taken by Asean. Myanmar promised to allow essential humanitarian access but remained ambivalent about when and how Asean could contribute in this respect.

The retreat was nonetheless a good step in the right direction. It marked the first time that the Myanmar government acknowledged the gravity of the problem and gave a briefing at a regional forum. It also kept the door open, however small, for Asean to keep engaging Myanmar on this matter.

At least, the previously taboo subject of the treatment of Rohingya in Rakhine State has found its way to an Asean foreign ministers’ meeting, setting the precedent for future regional discussions.

Asean must remain seized upon this issue due to its region-wide ramifications. Violence returned to Rakhine following armed attacks on three police posts on Oct 9.

A subsequent crackdown by Myanmar security forces gave rise to alleged human rights violations and caused around 20,000 Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine to flee to Bangladesh in the past two months. The unfolding humanitarian crisis dealt a reputational blow to the credibility of a ‘‘sharing and caring’’ Asean Community which was launched barely a year ago.

Beyond reputational cost, the situation has taken on new dynamics that could have a serious bearing on regional security.

The October attacks passed a new threshold of violence with a high level of planning and coordination, giving grounds for the Myanmar government to conclude that militant groups carrying out these attacks are linked to extremist elements in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Middle East.

These developments rekindled concerns about the risk of radicalisation among the Rohingya both in Rakhine and elsewhere. Pro-Rohingya sentiments could also inflame extremist elements in Indonesia and Malaysia, at a time when religious tensions and the threat of terrorism loom large in both countries.

Indonesia, for example, thwarted a number of suspected attacks in November and December, including a planned bomb strike at the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta. The prognosis is worrisome as the Islamic State, with a shrinking foothold in the Middle East, is reportedly looking to Southeast Asia for sanctuary and could well exploit the Rohingya problem as a source for new recruits.

The persecution of the Rohingya also set the stage for one of the worst refugee crises in the region last year with tens of thousands of migrants fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh on rickety boats to reach Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. More than 50,000 Rohingya remain in Malaysia and around 300 are left in Indonesia. The influx of these migrants have created physical-financial burdens as well as social strains and security concerns to these neighbouring Asean countries.

The above spillover effects have tipped Malaysia and Indonesia’s simmering discontent with Myanmar into more open criticism recently. Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak, in a stunning departure from Asean’s quiet diplomacy, publicly condemned the Myanmar government and questioned Ms Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership credentials. Calling Mr Najib’s move as interference in Myanmar’s internal affairs to shore up his domestic political standing, Myanmar has stopped its workers from taking up employment in Malaysia. As the two countries are caught in a diplomatic row, Asean unity is inevitably put under duress.

While Malaysia braced for megaphone criticism, Indonesia embraced quiet diplomacy through a meeting between its Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi with Ms Suu Kyi on Dec 6 in Yangon. Following this meeting, Myanmar agreed to call for the foreign ministers’ retreat, reaffirming the value of the consultation and mutual respect that have always been an Asean tradition.

The difference between the Malaysian and Indonesian approaches continued to play out after the retreat. Malaysia disclosed its strongly worded intervention at the retreat to keep public pressure on Myanmar. Meanwhile, Indonesian Foreign Minister struck a more forward-looking and positive tone, noting Myanmar’s future regular updates on this matter as an important outcome of the meeting.

For years, Asean’s response to the Rohingya problem has been mute and passive, constrained by its non-intervention principle. Even framing the problem for a regional approach is a challenge due to Myanmar’s rejection of the term ‘‘Rohingya’’. As a compromise, Asean recast the Rohingya issue as “irregular migration”, a move that was meant to soothe political sensitivities but in actual fact all but ignored the nub of the problem.

It is increasingly untenable for Asean to insulate itself from this thorny matter behind the shield of non-interference. As the region is getting more connected and integrated, how can Asean reconcile this non-interference approach with the imperative for collective responsibility and regional response to address common trans-boundary challenges?

An upfront defiance of non-interference to justify regional intervention would backfire. Asean should find a soft way out by promoting mutual trust and leveraging its power of persuasion. Just as Myanmar used the retreat to fend off mounting diplomatic pressure, Asean on its part should seize the momentum from the meeting to keep the issue on the regional agenda and pursue constructive engagement with Myanmar.

There are avenues through which Asean can carve a niche for itself, especially in delivering humanitarian assistance, combating trafficking in persons, anti-radicalisation and counter-terrorism.

Asean member states should also apply sustained pressure on the Myanmar government to seek a durable solution to the citizenship status of Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine — the root cause of all these travails. Asean has taken pride in its patience and wisdom in constructively engaging Myanmar during the latter’s years of isolation. This will be another test of such constructive engagement, and an ultimate sign of Asean maturity as a community.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Hoang Thi Ha is Fellow at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. This article is based on an ISEAS Perspective publication.

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