Relief for Rohingyas in Chittagong. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hussain

Relief for Rohingyas in Chittagong. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hussain

Is ASEAN a newfound voice for the Rohingya?

28 March 2017

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The democratisation of Myanmar, culminating in the National League for Democracy’s assumption of power in early 2016, was meant to mark a step forward for the Rohingya. The hopes of the international community, Myanmar’s partners in ASEAN and the Rohingya themselves have been bitterly disappointed.

The March 2017 Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar notes that the Muslims of Rakhine state had not benefited from ‘any improvements’ over the last year. October 2016 had seen a serious crackdown on the Rohingya following an attack on members of Myanmar’s police force. In her report, Yanghee Lee states that 150,000 people saw the humanitarian aid that supported them interrupted during the crackdown, 3000 Rohingya were displaced from their homes and 69,000 fled across the border to Bangladesh between the start of the crackdown and February 2017.

We should not expect any swift response from ASEAN itself. December 2016 saw an informal foreign ministers retreat organised in Yangon which resulted in nothing but platitudes about the need for long term solutions. ASEAN knows this does not work. The crisis that unfolded after October 2016 was just the latest in a series of crises over the last decade which have seen ASEAN powerless to respond — the most recent coming in 2015 where thousands of Rohingya found themselves trapped at sea after the traditional land routes through Thailand were closed. Each crisis has been accompanied by ASEAN inactivity, even as scholars and activists call on it to live up to its commitments to human rights and ‘people-centred’ regionalism.

What is new, however, is the extent to which the disquiet of Myanmar’s fellow ASEAN members is being expressed both openly and stridently.

In the vanguard of this new dissatisfaction has been Malaysia. Prime Minister Najib Razak in December 2016 stood in front of a banner that decried the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Rohingya and declared ‘I don’t care’ about ASEAN’s policy of non-intervention, ‘do you expect me … to close my eyes? To stay silent? I will not’.

In March 2017, talking at the International Conference on Rohingya hosted in Putrajaya, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman called on Myanmar to address the Rohingya issue and noted both the regional consequences of the crisis and the role of ASEAN as a potential solution to it. At the same conference, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi called the situation ‘disappointing and unacceptable’.

What does this newfound voice on the Rohingya mean for ASEAN?

ASEAN’s policy of non-intervention, in the sense of the regional organisation itself taking action, is not changing any time soon. It is unlikely ASEAN will release a substantive statement on the Rohingya and it is unimaginable that they will take actions to punish Myanmar.

But we are seeing a willingness from certain member states to talk openly and critically about the domestic situation within other member-states. Here ASEAN’s policy of non-intervention has always been more an ideal than a rigid practice. But we are now seeing an escalation in the intensity of language that ASEAN has not experienced before.

The image of Najib standing publicly in front of a poster about ethnic cleansing is outside of established practice when it comes to the usually staid practices of regional diplomacy. Zahid openly stating that Myanmar is ‘committing genocide through its ethnic cleansing’ is even more inflammatory. This shift in rhetoric changes a precedent for the norms that outline legitimate practice among ASEAN members. A more open, robust and even critical engagement between members could well have consequences for their willingness to work together on other issues, and in doing so effect ASEAN’s ability to dampen down regional tensions through its veneer of decorum.

Lost in the public argument, however, is something both more subtle but also more telling about how Malaysia views ASEAN. The ‘disregard’ for practices of non-intervention just discussed is not a disregard of ASEAN itself so much as it is a desire to use ASEAN to promote action. This is a dangerous precedent.

In the run-up to the December 2016 informal foreign ministers retreat, the Malaysian Foreign Minister noted that he believed ‘that the ASEAN Member States are bound by international principles on the promotion and protection of human rights, which are also enshrined in the ASEAN Charter and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration’.

ASEAN here is not the problem; ASEAN is being used by Malaysia as a justification for solving the issue. Regional understandings about the value of ASEAN here are evolving — ASEAN is not becoming an actor that enforces its standards, but is becoming a tool for others to do that enforcing.

This is very significant for the future of ASEAN. Non-intervention, through blunting the potential for regional tension, allowed ASEAN to be viewed as a way to enhance the security and freedoms of its members. In the Rohingya case, Malaysia is using ASEAN to promote regional tensions. What this means for how other members view and use ASEAN over time is going to be something to keep a close eye on. A greater willingness to politicise ASEAN to chastise members will strike at key tenets of regional diplomacy and in turn at the sources of stability of ASEAN itself.

Myanmar has long valued ASEAN for the protection it provides not only from the wider international community but also its fellow members. But the unwillingness of Myanmar to resolve the Rohingya issue has pushed ASEAN members towards new forms of protest. This failure is already a tragedy, but for ASEAN it might become a disaster.

Mathew Davies is Head of the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at The Australian National University.

This article originally appeared in East Asia Forum, 28 March 2017.

Updated:  22 March 2016/Responsible Officer:  Su-Ann Tan/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team