Myanmar, ASEAN and the Rohingya Issue

March 30, 2017

Myanmar, ASEAN and the Rohingya Issue

by Mathew Davies

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.– Davies

Image result for Myanmar, ASEAN and the Rohingya Issue

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’.

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Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Dato’ Seri Anifah Aman

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.

Image result for Myanmar, ASEAN and the Rohingya IssueMyanmar’s Foreign Minister, Aung San Suu Kyi

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.

Image result for Najib in protest for the Rohingyas

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. You can follow him on Twitter at @drmattdavies.

7 thoughts on “Myanmar, ASEAN and the Rohingya Issue

  1. The question should be “What is Mathew Davies motive to instigate ASEAN on the Rohingya issue by playing up Malaysia’s devious stance?”

  2. DDM, CLF is the resident expert on Myannmar with first hand info and very strong connections including members of the junta. I believe he would be able to paint a better picture of the real situation and what Jibby is up to.

    To me Jibby is trying to champion the cause of the Rohingyas to ride on the Islamic issues in view that the elections is around the corner. His domestic overture to PAS has been lukewarm and has to abandon the RUU 355 legislation. He’s also caught in a catch 22 situation on Zakir Naik’s case. He’s desperate for Malay Muslim votes and has now taken it to the ASEAN arena to show the Malay Muslim voters that he is a Muslim champion and can be relied upon to protect the rights of Malay Muslim.

  3. Me no expert on Burma, my friends. I only understand what i perceive and experience over there. Although i’ve been to Yangon, Naypyidaw, Bagan, Pegu, Mandalay and other much less ‘exotic’ locales, i have never step foot in Rakhine.

    Before we go on, let’s come to a very basic understanding of what drove the Rohingya FUBAR. There was already a simmering discord at the moment the Union of Burma gained independence. Because of the large number of tribes which had different social-cultural-religious-economic functional levels, the main preoccupation of the Bamar majority was to claim over-lordship to all those within it’s borders. Unfortunately, the Rohingya were never included as they were deemed as ‘Bengalis’ and did not have a cohesive or proper leadership stricture in place – Takdir A***h?

    Meanwhile, the Union was already in disrepair because of the horrific wars of autonomy and independence, that persist til today – waged by the different tribes against the hegemony of the Center. That is also why the Tatmadaw remains all powerful.

    Rakhine (as Arakan) was relatively stable until the discovery of vast oil and natural gas reserves in the Bay of Bengal and Martaban Gulf, because the Rohingya who occupied the borderlands with Bangladesh were a ‘forgotten’ people. It was only with the development of Sittwe, the capital, and surrounding areas as O&G transhipment and logistics centers, that the Rohingya were ‘rediscovered’ occupying real estate. Thus the conflict – which has much to do with economics, land ownership and corruption – as with religio-ethnic difference, resurfaced with a vengeance.

    Another complicating fact is that the economy of Burma is largely in the hands of the Sino-Burmese. They have no truck with what they perceive as exclusive religion, Islam. This unfortunate attitude does not extend to Christians whom are accepted as a religion of the previous colonizers. It may surprise many that Ne Win and Khin Nyunt, the Generals who turned Burma into a Military State were ethnic Chinese. Talk about affirmative policies pulak..?

    ASEAN will not have any say in this conflict cum genocide. The Burmese are the most militaristic of all ‘SE Asian’ nations, and if you think the Cambodian ‘Killing Fields’ are atrocious – wait until you experience the horror of rapine, torture, slavery, atrocities and genocide under the hands of the Tatmadaw!

    Why is ‘The Lady’ silent? Because she understands the ‘mentality’ of these inbred psychopaths, who now count radical monks in their side. It is indeed a crime against humanity, but the Rohingya were never considered ‘human’ by these creatures.

    Jibros and PASUMNOb have no idea of what they are facing and as it is, our Malusian businesses, especially those led by Malay-Muslims have been adversely affected in Burma. If there is any influence on Burma by anybody, it will be TS Robert Kuok and geng. ASEAN and the UN are nothing!

    I will leave it at that.

    • The forecast for the by-election today is not good for her.

      CLF, how much of a setback will it be for her and the country?

  4. Closer to home, what happened to the case of Kim Jong Un? Ha the North Korean wins and all our Ministers and Chief Twitter KBAB had to eat humble pie. Is Malaysia going to deport the legal and illegal North Korean still in Malaysia? The Police have now said the three suspect hiding in the NK Embassy are justperson of interest, not enough evidence to prosecute.

    Wish Malaysia have shows like The Daily Show with Trevor Noah or the Late Show with Seth Meyers. Plenty of comedy material provided by the Cabinet and Heads of Government departments.

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