A New ‘ASEAN Way’: Finding a Regional Solution for Human Rights Violations in Rakhine State

by Sanjeev Dasgupta

Ethnic Rohingya men clean their clothes and bathe near a temporary shelter in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, Friday, May 22, 2015. Thousands of refugees and migrants have washed ashore in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, about half Rohingya and the rest from Bangladesh, according to the International Organization for Migration. The U.N. refugee agency estimates more than 3,000 others may still be at sea.(AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

Even though discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar has existed for decades, the first major regional discussion to respond to specific dimensions of the crisis only came into existence two years ago as a response to the May 2015 migration crisis. However, responses from governments in the region – specifically Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, the three South-East Asian States directly affected by Rohingya refugee flows – largely revolved around the issue of human trafficking. ASEAN has, more recently, made statements to indicate further interest in resolving the issues in Rakhine State. This is a much-needed initiative from the organization. However, the regional bloc will have to overcome some significant challenges, including moving beyond its traditional ‘ASEAN way’ of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other States, if it is to take concrete action.

Even though Myanmar is a member of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) – a regional organization aimed at political, economic and cultural cooperation – the bloc kept itself distant from the tensions in Rakhine State for decades. Viewing it as an ‘internal matter’ and standing by one of its fundamental principles of respect for the sovereignty of each Member State, ASEAN turned a blind eye to the human rights violations occurring under the rule of the military junta. Bangladesh – which is not a member of ASEAN – was bearing the brunt of refugee flows from Rakhine, and while some Rohingya did make it to States like Thailand and Malaysia, the numbers were never large enough to raise alarm in the regional bloc.

The migration crisis of 2015 proved to be the first turning point for ASEAN’s interests in managing refugee flows from Rakhine. When tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees – coupled with impoverished Bangladeshi migrants – started undertaking irregular maritime voyages through the Bay of Bengal, States such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia – the principal destinations – finally decided to take action. However, action was limited to a crackdown on the human trafficking industry, and did not extend to dealing with the actual cause of the maritime movements – human rights violations in Rakhine State.

ASEAN reactions to recent developments – especially to the October 9 incident in Rakhine State – show the first indications that the regional bloc might be willing to become more directly involved. Malaysia’s call to ASEAN member States in December 2016 to jointly provide humanitarian aid and investigate alleged atrocities in Rakhine is the first major call to action in the region to get involved with the violations in Myanmar. Using terms such as “regional security and stability,” Malaysia addressed a meeting of ASEAN member States in Yangon, stating that “the situation is now of a regional concern and should be resolved together.”

Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, center, arrives for a foreign ministers’ meeting by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries Monday, Dec. 19, 2016, in Yangon, Myanmar. (AP Photo/Thein Zaw)

Any kind of increased ASEAN involvement would be very welcome. The situation of the Rohingya shows no significant signs of improving, even under the new civilian government. Diplomatic pressure from the regional bloc could be crucial to push the new government towards important steps to resolve the issue. And there is some cause for optimism about ASEAN involvement because there are significant regional interests at stake now. Following the recent crackdown in Rakhine State, there are fears that this can result in another mass migration in the region. Secondly, there are increasing concerns about the security dimensions of the Rohingya crisis in the region. Commentators have noted that the plight of the Rohingya has increasingly become a rallying cry for sympathetic Islamist groups in the region, and some suggest that this could lead to the radicalization of Rohingya refugees in States like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. All of this suggests that the regional bloc might be able to find a new ‘ASEAN way’ to deal with the crisis.

However, ASEAN’s track record of dealing with such regional issues suggests a case for more restrained optimism. The last time the region had to deal with a significant maritime migration crisis was with the ‘Boat People’ of Vietnam in the late 70s and 80s. In that case, ASEAN – at that time a five-member bloc – was unable to deal with the mass migrations on its own. It adopted a similar approach to its reaction to the 2015 migration crisis by pushing boats bearing refugees back to sea. It wasn’t until significant international involvement convened by the UN Secretary-General that refugees were systematically and effectively dealt with through mass resettlement programs. True, ASEAN was a fairly nascent organization at that point. However, not much has changed institutionally in the organization to suggest more political capability. It still has a lightweight structure and a fairly weak institutionalized decision-making process, and continues to rely on consensus to make big decisions, all of which add to the difficulty in using the regional mechanism to resolve the Rohingya crisis.

While ASEAN involvement is theoretically a good thing, there are two big questions that need to be answered. Firstly, while there are indications, are ASEAN countries actually willing to move away from such a long standing pillar of regional diplomacy to a new ‘ASEAN way?’ And secondly, even if they do so, do they have the ability to coordinate an effective political response to the tensions in Rakhine State? Whether or not ASEAN can make crucial inroads into the Rohingya question will entirely depend on how the bloc is able to navigate these two challenges.