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Asean fails to step into the Rohingya mess



Bangkok Post:

May 6, 2013

The Rohingya problem in Myanmar could have been a blessing in disguise for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The issue reminds Asean backers that the three “legs” of its supporting pillar _ economic, social and security _ should be going in the same direction, even if at a different pace.

The “club” has moved with a singularity of purpose and made remarkable moves on the economic front as the Asean Economic Community shimmers into view, but there is less cohesiveness on other issues among the 10 members.

The Asean bloc has in fact shown a real seriousness in tightening the economic knot. Most of the promises for economic union have been implemented; the rest will eventually be tackled in time for the launch of the community at the end of 2015. These remaining issues are, of course, the most sensitive ones and are a concern for trade and economic negotiators. However, the fast-approaching deadline will force them to work harder. There could be a heavy price to pay for another delay in the launch of the Asean community, which has already been deferred from the start of 2015 to December that year.

Asean leaders are jubilant at the steps being taken towards closer economic cooperation. That was reflected after the Brunei summit on April 25. “We are pleased with the progress of the Asean Economic Community, where 259 measures _ or 77.54% of the AEC blueprint _ have been implemented,” the leaders boasted in a communique from Banda Seri Begawan.

But we must not forget that Asean also has two other legs _ security and social _ besides the economic one that are needed to make the AEC sustainable.

What was sadly missing from the 10-page summit communique was the issue that needs tackling right away _ the growing concern about communal unrest in Myanmar. The Southeast Asian leaders intentionally forgot to call it a regional worry _ at least for the moment.

Asean knows this issue is endangering the group’s security stability, but the bloc is still leaving it to be sorted out by Myanmar. The Thein Sein government is showing no desire to turn it into a regional problem. The reality on the ground is it has already stirred up trouble for Myanmar’s neighbours, especially Thailand.

The kingdom is currently sheltering 2,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled sectarian violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State and entered Thailand, mostly by ship. Others have landed in Malaysia and Indonesia, their primary destinations for reasons of Islamic religious bonds.

The plight of the Rohingya looks miserable after clashes with Buddhists in the western Myanmar state. Last year alone 200 died and tens of thousands were displaced. And there are no real moves being taken by the Myanmar government to end the problem. It seems it would be happy to see the Rohingya leave.

What is more disappointing is that no other Asean member is shouting loud enough for Myanmar to hear, except Indonesia. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told his Myanmar counterpart Thein Sein during his visit to Myanmar ahead of the summit that he was worried about the conflict. He sent a note in very diplomatic terms saying Jakarta was confident Thein Sein was “trying to do the right thing in terms of getting the communal violence under control”.

What happened last week explains why the Indonesian leader is fretting about the unrest in Myanmar. The violence spread to other areas in Myanmar, angering the Muslims in his country enough that they came out to protest against the Myanmar government. Some even planned to bomb its embassy in Jakarta.

But Thailand, which is directly affected by the problem, is being very quiet. No pressure is being put on Myanmar to quickly solve this problem. Myanmar has told Thailand that the Rohingya refugees will be taken back if there is proof that they really came from Rakhine state. That is not a solution but a time-buying tactic for Yangon to wash its hands off the refugee problem. The process to verify their nationality will take months, or years, due to the lack of documentation and other evidence. Thus the verification process for the Rohingya will be outpaced by escalating violence and more refugees.

The Rohingya issue is destabilising the security of Asean as it spills over to other members’ turf. But Asean leaders still decided not to take any action _ and that will be their stance until the situation becomes uncontrollable. After long years of eager anticipation of the Asean Community, the grouping’s “not-my-business” attitude remains almost unchanged. It is pretending that Myanmar can solve the problem and that the economic issue is the only one that matters. In the meantime, more Rohingya will set out in rickety boats, more houses will be torched and more people will be killed.