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Why ASEAN Can’t Ignore the Rohingya Crisis

Southeast Asia leaders pose for a group photo at the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila. Image Credit: ASEAN Secretariat

By Jera Lego / The Diplomat

On April 26, leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) convened for the 30th ASEAN Summit, where they discussed “an integrated, peaceful, stable, and resilient ASEAN Community.” Only one day prior to this summit, Reuters released a report documenting military operations by the government of Myanmar that killed hundreds of Rohingya and caused some 75,000 of them to flee to Bangladesh in November 2016.

The Rohingya, now dubbed Myanmar’s perpetual other, have long been viewed by majority of Myanmarese society as “Bengali intruders” despite having lived in Rakhine state for centuries. They have been systematically and increasingly oppressed by the Burmese government through violent immigration crackdowns, citizenship laws, and census measures that effectively rendered them stateless and disenfranchised. Denial of basic rights, various human abuses, and growing communal violence, especially since 2012, have resulted in a continuous stream of Rohingyas fleeing to neighboring countries.

In 2015, their plight briefly drew the world’s attention when some 8,000 Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants and refugees in overcrowded boats were left stranded at sea for several days until they were allowed to disembark. In February 2017, a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights described an “unprecedented level of violence” against the Rohingya, including “the killing of babies, toddlers, children, women, and [the] elderly; opening fire at people fleeing; burning of entire villages; massive detention; massive and systematic rape and sexual violence; [and] deliberate destruction of food and sources of food sources.” These horrors were perpetrated by “either Myanmar security forces or Rakhine villagers.” Shortly after the report was published, Pope Francis joined in condemning the abuses.

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Despite mounting criticism, the Rohingya crisis didn’t make its way to the 30th ASEAN Summit’s official agenda. The 25-page Chairman’s Statement on the summit mentions four issues under the heading “Regional Issues and Developments,” namely the South China Sea, maritime security and cooperation, the Korean peninsula, and terrorism and extremism. The statement did welcome the entry into force of the ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (ACTIP), acknowledge contributions to the Trust Fund to Support Emergency Humanitarian Relief Efforts in the Event of Irregular Movement of Persons in Southeast Asia, reaffirm “commitment to addressing the irregular movement of persons in the region,” reiterate the need to explore establishing a Task Force to respond to “crisis and emergency situations rising from irregular movement of persons in Southeast Asia,” and mention efforts to improve border management. The statement also “noted with satisfaction the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights’ progress on the promotion of human rights,” and reaffirmed the vision of a “people-oriented and people-centered ASEAN,” all without any mention of the abuses against the Rohingya.

The glaring omission is not surprising given that ASEAN countries continue to observe non-interference as a guiding principle in intra-ASEAN relations. There is evidence, however, that this is gradually changing.  On December 4, 2016, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak led a rally protesting what he called Myanmar’s genocide of the Rohingya. In a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers on December 19, 2016, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said that the situation of Rohingya Muslims was now “of a regional concern and should be resolved together.” More recently, on the sidelines of the recently concluded summit, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo discussed the Rohingya crisis with Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. Jokowi was said to have told Suu Kyi that stability in Myanmar was important not only for the country but also the region. Regardless of Najib’s or other leaders’ motivations in voicing their criticism, these instances reveal that there is significant concern for the plight of the Rohingya, at least in Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia.

It would be tempting for concerned countries like Malaysia and Indonesia not to push any harder, or for other ASEAN countries to look inward and focus on their respective economies and other domestic concerns. It is, after all, in the very nature of the refugee problem that politicians and government officials perceive little incentive in addressing the needs of refugees. Acknowledging their condition entails political risk, while allocating resources to assist them seems to pose no immediate benefit to politicians who are more concerned with their own constituencies. However, it is in the interest of every ASEAN country to pay attention to abuses against the Rohingya and the consequences.

Security Implications

Violence begets violence; situations of insecurity tend to breed other forms of insecurity. Longstanding oppression of the Rohingya has compelled tens of thousands of them take dangerous journeys in search of better lives. Such journeys, as in other parts of the world, both enable and are enabled by trafficking rings, often in collusion with corrupt officials, thus feeding into vicious cycles of crime, corruption, and exploitation spread across countries. Deepening violence against the Rohingya in recent years, however, appears to be causing even greater dangers. The International Crisis Group, in a December 2016 report, warns of a new Muslim insurgent group known as Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement, HaY) seeking an end to persecution of the Rohingya and recognition of their rights as Myanmar citizens. HaY does not appear to have a transnational jihadist terrorist agenda but ICG warns that continued use of disproportionate force, particularly in the absence of efforts to build stronger, more positive relations with Muslim communities, could create conditions to further radicalize sections of the Rohingya population that transnational jihadists could exploit for their own agenda. Clearly, this poses serious security threats that merit a concerted effort by ASEAN governments in response.

Political Implications

Even if the situation doesn’t lead to the emergence of a radical jihadist group, any protracted conflict would seriously hamper the road to democratization in Myanmar. Myanmar’s military continues to operate independent of the governing party, has control of key ministries, and holds enough seats to block any constitutional amendment. Fighting with ethnic groups continues and repressive laws remain in place. Yet with Suu Kyi in government, Myanmar is closer to democratizing than it has been. Unresolved conflicts, not just in Rakhine but in other border states where ethnic groups continue to seek autonomy, appear to justify military solutions where broad-based, political solutions are needed. Without progress in terms of peace and security, the military junta’s hold on power will not weaken and democratization grows more distant.

Governance Implications

Apart from critiques coming from Malaysia and Indonesia, it seems that ASEAN as a regional grouping will be reactive rather than proactive concerning displacement and forced migration of the Rohingya. At best, the regional grouping acknowledges the need to explore establishing task forces to respond to similar crises. This betrays ad hoc and short-sighted thinking rather than long-term strategizing in responding to irregular movement of people. The fact is that there has not been a time in history when every nation and people group corresponded neatly within political borders. Unresolved historical issues, ongoing and future conflicts, the possibility of religious, social, and political persecution, as well as environmental factors, are only some of the reasons that would compel people to flee their habitual place of residence. It is therefore in every government’s interest to adopt and institutionalize comprehensive frameworks for managing the movement of people — whether arriving through commercial airlines or by boat, skilled or unskilled, forced or by choice, but especially when those people are in need of protection.

Economic Implications

Any security threat is of course a threat to peace and stability which could hinder trade and investments. But before such threats could even manifest, economic implications might already be felt. The Nikkei Asian Review reports that widespread condemnation of Myanmar’s military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims has raised concerns among some investors about sanctions that could hinder foreign investment.

It goes without saying that there are ethical and humanitarian reasons for addressing conflict in the Rakhine and the dire needs of oppressed Rohingya Muslims. These ethical considerations also pose questions on the kind of community ASEAN wants to be — whether it seeks to be a tolerant and inclusive one, or one that is complicit in excluding and oppressing minorities. In an increasingly conflicted world, it is easy to be indifferent to those concerns. But as Jokowi and Anifah have acknowledged, the Rohingya crisis is not just an internal problem for Myanmar, but one with immediate and long-term economic, political, and security implications for the rest of the region. These risks include, among others, the threat of growing Muslim insurgency, Myanmar reversing its path to democratization, and undermining the peace and stability prerequisite to growth and development in the region. Now more than ever, ASEAN must turn its attention to this long-standing crisis and work together towards a truly integrated, peaceful, stable, and people-centered ASEAN community.

Jera Lego wrote her dissertation on refugee politics in Southeast Asia and currently works for an international research institute.