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On the Rohingya, the ASEAN Meeting was the Message

BANGKOK, Dec 27 (Reporting ASEAN) – Was it a step forward or a flop? A real discussion or a public-relations stunt? Whatever the verdict, the December ‘retreat’ of ASEAN foreign ministers on the touchy Rohingya issue was itself the message.

It was not expected to solve the rising worries about Myanmar’s internal tensions and their impact on Southeast Asia. Playing referee was not a role ASEAN’s founders had in mind when they created it nearly five decades ago. In fact, ASEAN has had a much longer history sticking to its non-interference principle rather than being a mediator – even more so with ‘internal’ issues.

Critics of the Dec. 19 meeting in Yangon, which Myanmar called in the wake of open criticism by Malaysia and quieter but no less serious concern by Indonesia, said that it yielded no earth-shaking results. They say ASEAN was taken in by Myanmar’s “sweet talk” to ease criticism about the situation of Muslim Rohingyas in western Rakhine state, 90% of whose population are Muslims.

Humanitarian and rights concerns are rising given reports of arson, targeted and extrajudicial killings of Muslim Rohingya by security forces since an October armed attack on border guard posts in Rahkine. The Myanmar government denies persecuting the 1.2 million Rohingya, who have been largely disenfranchised and many of whom now live in refugee camps where movements are restricted.

Concern has come from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which have either interviewed Rohingya who fled Myanmar or studied satellite imagery showing widespread fire-related destruction in Rohingya villages.


But against the backdrop of ASEAN’s cautious – some say tepid – diplomacy, which marks its 50th year in 2017, the December meet was of no small import. It made the point that intercommunal tension and humanitarian strife in Rakhine state rank high among Southeast Asia’s security headaches – and are now on the ASEAN agenda.

Myanmar has thus far been testy about the situation in Rakhine state and Suu Kyi has complained about the international community “always drumming up cause for bigger fires of resentment” between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine, which has the highest poverty rate in Myanmar.

“There has never been a regional meeting specifically to discuss this issue, and any multilateral meeting in the region in the past was not initiated by Myanmar, the country of origin,” Moe Thuzar, coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Program of the ASEAN Studies Center in Singapore, said in an email interview. “So this (December) meeting – which was really a more detailed face-to-face briefing by Daw Suu to her foreign counterparts – is a step forward from the Myanmar government’s previous reluctance to discuss it.”

The December retreat may well get a regional conversation started on a domestic topic that has clear spillover effects on Southeast Asia and beyond.

The meeting’s weight becomes clearer given that more than a year ago – in May and December 2015 – the only multilateral discussions on the Rohingya could not even use the word ‘Rohingya’ due to opposition from Myanmar. Hosted by Thailand after the crisis sparked by boatloads of desperate Rohingya fleeing Myanmar, they were called conferences on “irregular migration in the Indian Ocean”.

The Myanmar government and many Rakhine people, one of the poorest minorities in the country, prefer to call the Rohingya Bengalis or descendents of migrants from Bangladesh.

But as ASEAN transforms itself from an organization to a community, expectations are inevitable that it helps keep a peaceful environment among member nations.

ASEAN has had previous forays into mediation on issues of regional concern.

In 2011, then ASEAN chair Indonesia brokered a truce between Thailand and Cambodia during their spat over the disputed Preah Vihear temple.

ASEAN has quietly played a role in Myanmar’s recent history. In ASEAN’s view, its decades of engagement gave the then military-led country a level of comfort with it. This gave ASEAN the credibility to facilitate the international humanitarian response after cyclone Nargis in 2008, when Myanmar was wary of external actors.

ASEAN diplomats see Myanmar’s political change as a fruit of ASEAN’s constructive engagement policy. Myanmar’s neighbors would not want to see this ‘success’ unravel due to intercommunal tensions from within.

ASEAN may have to find a creative way of tweaking its principle of non-interference if it is be more of the family that diplomats like to say it is. Maturity as a would-be community may force ASEAN, in its middle age, to adapt to newer realities using its unique brand of quiet diplomacy.

Myanmar’s foreign ministry called the Dec. 19 meeting “a candid and transparent exchange of views based on the spirit of ASEAN family and ASEAN community”.

Much of ASEAN’s way is to speak more softly to the world, but more frankly among themselves. “I would think that this (December retreat) shows the connection between ASEAN’s quiet diplomacy and the non-interference principle, and the illustration of this combination has usually been in trying to assist Myanmar,” added the ASEAN Studies Center’s Moe Thuzar.

Myanmar’s foreign ministry expressed its “readiness to grant necessary humanitarian access and to keep ASEAN members informed of developments in the Rakhine State”. Suu Kyi stressed “the need for time and space for the government’s efforts to bear fruit”.

But no ASEAN mechanism to monitor the situation, or next step, was announced.


Though the religious aspect of the Rohingya issue often makes headlines and stirs emotions across Islamic communities, the Rakhine situation is worrisome to ASEAN due to a wider mix of security reasons.

Instability in Rakhine adds to the tensions along ethnic or other lines in Myanmar that persist with – or have escalated – with democratization, specifically the increased fighting by ethnic armies in Kachin and Shan states.

There are about 218,000 displaced people, of which 78 percent are women and children, living in camps or camp-like situations in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine, says the UN ‘Humanitarian Needs Review’ report in December. Up to 15,000 people may have fled across Burma’s border into China from Kachin and Shan in the past month, UN officials say. Humanitarian groups remain barred since April 2016.

There are worries that the more Rakhine simmers, the more it can nurture radical elements from the Rohingya and elsewhere, against the backdrop of the Islamic State’s presumed search for other arenas of struggle in Asia.

In a December report, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group referred to “a new Muslim insurgency” in Rakhine state – because it now involves a “well-organised, apparently well-funded group” led by “Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics.”

Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia worry about radicalization at home. Thailand and the Philippines have restive southern areas home to Muslims, so it is not hard to grasp their concerns if a magnet for extremists emerges in their midst.

So far, Myanmar’s neighbors have conveyed worries about humanitarian concerns and the lack of independent access to conflict areas – the politically safest aspects of the Rohingya situation.

While it is early days for ASEAN in terms of shaping a role in the cross-border implications of Rakhine’s volatility and stability in Myanmar, the December meeting of foreign ministers at least made it clear that this ‘internal’ matter is now officially an ASEAN issue. (END)

*Johanna Son, based in Bangkok, Thailand for 16 years, is editor and director of the Reporting ASEAN media program (www.reportingasean.net).  A version of this was published in the Bangkok Post:


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