ASEAN Lacks Unity as Need to Address Rohingya Crisis Grows

Rohingya people flee the violence in Rakhine State in Myanmar. Photo: AP

SINGAPORE – Tensions are simmering among ASEAN member states: Malaysia has rejected a joint statement issued by the regional group on the situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

On September 24, Malaysia said “it would like to disassociate itself” from the statement as it was a “misrepresentation of the reality” faced by the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, which has seen horrors of army brutality, mass murder and rape.

The ASEAN statement referred to the crisis as a “complex inter-communal issue with deep historical roots.”

Without referring to the Rohingya as the most affected victims of the conflict, the statement said ASEAN “welcomed the commitment by the Myanmar authorities to ensure the safety of civilians, take immediate steps to end the violence in Rakhine, restore normal socioeconomic conditions and address the refugee problem through verification process.”

According to Malaysian Minister of Foreign Affairs Anifah Aman, the country had repeatedly expressed its concerns over the situation, but they were not reflected in the document. He pressed Myanmar to end the “atrocities which have unleashed a full-scale humanitarian crisis.”

The Rohingya refugee crisis is the latest issue that has widened rifts within ASEAN. The regional entity made up of ten nations has previously grappled to deal with diverging views over China’s claims in the South China Sea.

However, former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said the regional entity can overcome disagreements.

“While the current situation is unfortunate, I’m sure ASEAN has the necessary resilience to overcome this temporary division,” he said in an interview.

While the bloc has the capacity to mitigate the humanitarian situation through mechanisms such as the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre), having a divided front affects its ability to find a regional resolution to the crisis.

“The key problem here is the deterioration of trust, as a result of Malaysia’s disassociation from the recent ASEAN Chairman’s Statement on the situation in Rakhine state,” Hoang Thi Ha, lead researcher of political and security affairs at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, told The Globe Post.

“By doing so, Malaysia may have scored some domestic political points, but such a posturing has further eroded trust with the Myanmar government which is the pre-requisite for ASEAN engagement in this issue,” she added.

Non-interferance and humanitarian support as guiding principles

ASEAN observes the rule of non-interference in the domestic affairs of its member states. Following the method of shuttle diplomacy, both Indonesia and Singapore have held talks with Myanmar’s main civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi to find a solution to the conflict.

Alistair D. B. Cook, coordinator of the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told The Globe Post that the concern should be centered on delivering humanitarian aid to those in need instead of building consensus for a joint statement.

“Within the ASEAN context what we see in terms of previous deployments is that ASEAN officials meet and offer support to an affected state and then the state would welcome the support. Rather than it being about non-interference, it is about ASEAN Community and working together to support one another,” he said, commenting on the policy of non-interference.

Although the past year witnessed a rise in violence between the Myanmar army and Rohingya insurgents, the plight of the Rohingya was not highlighted during the 30th ASEAN Summit this April. The issues that took center stage were the South China Sea, maritime security and cooperation, the situation on the Korean Peninsula and terrorism.

Mr. Cook underscored that in situations where opinions diverge within ASEAN, negotiations take place until a consensus is reached, leading to a weaker overall commitment. “This often means that the political will to address internal conflicts, inter-communal violence, and the like is lacking.”

Rohingya right to return in question

At present, Myanmar is facing international condemnation for its actions against the Rohingya, with countries threatening to sever ties with Naypyidaw.

Myanmar has expressed readiness to take back the people it has driven out in droves since the brutal army crackdown on them in August.

Working with neighboring Bangladesh that now houses some 800,000 Rohingya, Myanmar said it would begin implementing a plan for repatriation of the population that has been violently persecuted under its hand.

Prior to the recent exodus, 300,000 Rohingya were already living in Bangladesh. More people have fled to the country after the army began a ruthless campaign in Myanmar described by the United Nations as a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.

After a meeting with senior Myanmar official Kyaw Tint Swe in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmud Ali said both countries had agreed to set up a working group that would enable the return of Rohingyas to Myanmar.

“We are looking forward to a peaceful solution to the crisis,” Mr. Ali told reporters last Monday. The Myanmar delegation did not speak to the media.

On September 28, Myanmar’s Ministry of Information said the country would begin the process of verifying how many of the half a million refugee it would allow back in.

In her first televised speech addressing the crisis in Rakhine state, Ms. Suu Kyi had said that the country was prepared to start the verification process at any time. The system would allegedly adhere to a rigorous criteria agreed between Myanmar and Bangladesh in 1993, when the latter announced it could no longer accommodate Rohingya refugees.

Previous attempts at repatriation have been fraught with challenges, and the Rohingya have never been granted citizenship upon return.

Only those deemed eligible for resettlement under the 1993 criteria would be allowed back into Myanmar. These regulations dim the prospects of the thousands of people whose homes were pillaged by the army, and who had to flee leaving their belongings and documents behind.

Ms. Suu Kyi has avoided referring to the Rohingya by name and their ethnicity has been left out of registration forms for years.

For a Muslim ethnic minority that has been historically ignored and rendered stateless, it will be hard to prove their right to return to a land where they have been rooted in for centuries.