On April 26, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) leaders convened a summit where they discussed “an integrated, peaceful, stable and resilient Asean Community.”
One day prior to the high level meeting, Reuters released a report documenting Myanmar military operations that killed hundreds of Rohingya and forced some 75,000 to flee to Bangladesh in October-November 2016.
The Rohingya, now dubbed Myanmar’s perpetual other, have long been viewed by ethnic majority Burmans as ‘Bengali intruders’ despite having lived in Rakhine state for centuries.
They have been systematically and increasingly oppressed by the Myanmar government through violent crackdowns, repressive citizenship laws and census measures that have 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 into 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 pushed-back and left stranded at sea for several days until they were eventually allowed to disembark.
A February report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights described an “unprecedented level of violence” against the Rohingya including “the killing of babies, toddlers, children, women and elderly; opening fire at people fleeing; burning of entire villages; massive detention; massive and systematic rape and sexual violence; deliberate destruction of food and sources of food sources.”
The report said the violence was perpetrated by “either Myanmar security forces or Rakhine villagers.”
Despite mounting criticism, the Rohingya crisis did not made it on the Asean summit’s official agenda. The 25-page Chairman’s Statement on the summit mentioned four issues under the heading “Regional Issues and Developments,” namely the South China Sea, maritime security and cooperation, the Korean peninsula crisis, and terrorism and extremism.
The statement did welcome the implementation of various measures, including the Asean Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (ACTIP), contributions made to the Trust Fund to Support Emergency Humanitarian Relief Efforts in the Event of Irregular Movement of Persons in Southeast Asia and a “commitment to addressing the irregular movement of persons in the region.”
It also reiterated the need to explore the creation of a task force to respond to “crisis and emergency situations rising from irregular movement of persons in Southeast Asia” and “noted with satisfaction the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights’ progress on the promotion of human rights.”
But in reaffirming the regional grouping’s vision of a “people-oriented and people-centered Asean,” it did so without any specific mention of abuses against the Rohingya. The glaring omission is not surprising given that Asean countries continue to observe noninterference in member states’ internal affairs as a guiding principle.
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 Widodo discussed the Rohingya crisis with Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Widodo 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.
Acknowledging their plight entails political risk, while allocating resources to assist them would pose no immediate benefit to politicians. However, it is in the interest of every Asean country to pay attention to abuses against the Rohingya and their emerging consequences.
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) that says it seeks an end to persecution of the Rohingya and recognition of their rights as Myanmar citizens.
HaY, recently renamed the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), does not appear to have a transnational jihadist terrorist agenda, yet.
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 agendas.
Even if the situation doesn’t lead to the emergence of a radical jihadist group, any protracted conflict would further hinder the road to democratization and economic progress 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 Myanmar is slowly but surely democratizing under Suu Kyi after decades of uninterrupted military rule. Unresolved conflicts, not just in the Rakhine but in other border areas where armed ethnic groups seek autonomy, appear to justify military solutions where broad-based political solutions are needed.
Apart from Malaysia and Indonesia’s critiques, Asean as a regional grouping has been more reactive than proactive in resolving the forced displacement and 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.
The fact is that there has not been a time in Southeast Asia’s 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 Asean member’s interest to adopt and institutionalize comprehensive frameworks for managing the movement of people—whether arriving through commercial airlines or by boat, as skilled or unskilled labor, by force or by choice – and providing them protection when needed.
Any security threat is of course a threat to peace and stability which could hinder trade and investment. The Nikkei Asian Review recently reported that widespread condemnation of Myanmar’s military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims has raised concerns among some investors about the re-imposition of sanctions that could hinder future foreign investment.
There are ethical and humanitarian reasons to address the conflict in Rakhine state and the needs of oppressed Rohingya Muslims. These ethical considerations also pose questions about the kind of community Asean wants to be—whether it seeks to be a tolerant and inclusive bloc, or rather 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 Widodo and Anifah themselves recognize, 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 for growth and development in the region. Now more than ever, Asean must turn its attention to this longstanding crisis and work together towards a truly integrated, peaceful, stable, and people-centered community.