Members of the Islamic Defenders Front and other Muslim organizations hold a rally in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, on Aug. 3, 2012, in protest against the reported killings of Rohingya Muslims in the Myanmar state of Rakhine. (Antara Photo/Jessica Helena Wuysang)
Hot on the heels of the divergence over the South China Sea conflict, Asean is facing a new dilemma over how best to deal with the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar, without tearing apart the already fragile solidarity or further damaging the principle of non-interference.
For nearly three months after the violence between the Arakan Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, when at least 80 people were killed and more than 60,000 displaced, Asean remained mute. The grouping was careful not to make comment and initiate any action that could stir up religious elements and politicize the issue. That could render a negative impact on the ongoing democratization and reform process in the country. After all, Asean leaders had given the green light in Bali last November for Myanmar’s chair in 2014, providing an impetus to its rapid reforms and diminishing trade sanctions.
As the situation deteriorated, international organizations, including the United Nations and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), stood up and expressed concern over the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state, formerly known as Arakan, which is still under an emergency law.
While outside pressure continued to grow unabated over the fate of the Rohingya, Asean foreign ministers were still preoccupied with their annual meeting in early July. As it turned out, the event was overwhelmingly dominated by the debate over the South China Sea disputes and the failure of Asean to issue a joint communique due to the claimants’ different positions. As international efforts intensified to assist Myanmar, Asean still was working on a compromise statement on the South China Sea.
The absence of an Asean response prompted OIC secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu to write to his Asean colleague, Surin Pitsuwan, urging the grouping to respond to the dire situation in the Myanmar state. For its part, the OIC wanted to see a common Asean position on this sensitive issue ahead of the special OIC summit in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Without an Asean consensus on the issue, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei — the Asean members of OIC — jointly pushed for international access to provide humanitarian aid to the Rohingya and displaced people at the OIC summit, which was later reflected in the final statement.
The issue took center stage only after Asean issued the six principles on the South China Sea on July 20 as a face-saving exercise by reiterating the commonly held Asean positions. Later in the same month, a visit by UN special rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana to Rakhine further stepped up pressure on Asean and Myanmar to bridge their perception gap. After the joint press conference with Quintana, Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin refuted the reports on the excessive use of force and vowed to do everything to restore calm. It was only then that Asean ministers felt a bit more at ease to address the issue.
Initial discussions among Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and Surin during the Asean Day celebrations at the Asean Secretariat in Phnom Penh indicated that the time had come for Asean ministers to call a special meeting to address the problem. On Aug 10, the Asean chair wrote to all his colleagues, requesting them to meet in Phnom Penh on August 14. In his letter, Hor Namhong depicted the situation in Rakhine as a humanitarian crisis as well as a cultural and religious issue.
The description immediately met with a fierce rebuttal on the same day from Myanmar’s Wunna Maung Lwin, who quickly turned down the invitation, pointing out that the chair had not engaged in prior consultations. The Rohingya, he reiterated, was an internal issue in which Asean should not intervene. Following Myanmar’s strong reaction, within hours the chair called off the plan, even though Indonesia and Thailand were positive, and if there was a consensus others would go along.
Marty was the first leader to take up the chair’s idea as he was preparing to attend the OIC summit. Asean, he argued, needed a timely statement on the matter in order to shape the international community’s perspective and response. In anticipation, he even prepared a draft statement on the Rohingya on behalf of his Asean colleagues. A week later, Asean foreign ministers released the Indonesian-proposed draft as their own, with minute amendments.
For the time being, Myanmar prefers to engage international organizations to avoid the issue of the Islamisation of Rohingya at all costs. This is a very tricky situation. At the moment, Indonesia and Malaysia, the grouping’s leading Muslim-dominated countries, are also mindful of this dangerous entrapment. They are using their own approaches.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono appointed former vice-president Jusuf Kalla as his special envoy on the issue. Malaysia has hosted international conferences and will do more in the future. Demonstrations against Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya were held in both countries’ capitals. In Jakarta, protesters threatened to storm the Asean Secretariat. They also called for a boycott of the upcoming Southeast Asia Games hosted by Myanmar and demanded the country’s expulsion from Asean.
Other Asean members such as Thailand and the Philippines have their own problems related to Muslim minorities, so their hands are tied. As the OIC involvement increases, there will be greater pressure on the Muslim-majority Asean members to do more, which could turn into an Islamic-centric undertaking.
There is no clear signal from Naypyidaw. Asean is well aware of the sensitivities over the national reconciliation process, especially when it involves relations with various nationalities. The dialogue and reconciliation process under Myanmar President Thein Sein with seven nationalities at the moment have made progress.
However, that is not the case for the Rohingya. In the long run, the issue would be best dealt with through an Asean-wide approach in the context of human rights and democracy, which is considered an Asean issue. The Asean Charter and the blueprint of political and security cooperation provide the mandate to tackle the matter.
Indeed, Asean can use as a model the experience of the Cyclone Nargis humanitarian engagement, which was considered a success. Throughout the 2 and a half years of assistance, Asean and Myanmar have benefited a great deal in terms of profile and efficacy. At the time, strong leadership and stern warnings from Singapore and Indonesia convinced Myanmar to cooperate with Asean. Indeed, with the current situation, Asean can help Myanmar mobilize resources from all around the world, including civil society groups.
Myanmar has nothing to fear. As it is going through an important democratization and reform process, the best way forward for Asean and Myanmar would be to engage each other on the Rohingya issue.
The writer is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group in Thailand, which publishes the English-language daily The Nation.