MANILA — The failure of ASEAN leaders to confront the root causes of the ongoing crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State constitutes a blow to the regional bloc’s credibility, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said today, following the conclusion of the 31st ASEAN Summit in Manila.
Regional lawmakers said that the lack of a strong commitment by member states to tackle the situation in Rakhine State represented a disappointing conclusion to discussions at the Summit, after some promising initial indications that the issue had been debated. They warned that the grouping’s continued inaction threatens the security and prosperity of all member states.
“Expectations have become quite low for ASEAN, an organization infamous for its inability to tackle difficult issues. But there was hope that the sheer scale and severity of the current crisis in Myanmar would be enough for ASEAN leaders to find a way to work coherently to address a situation that is not only a grave humanitarian crisis, but also a threat to the stability of the region and the organization itself. Instead, ASEAN has continued its failure to act decisively in the face of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity being perpetrated in our own backyard,” said APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament.
Over 600,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since 25 August, when the Myanmar military launched so-called “clearance operations” in northern Rakhine State following a series of attacks on police outposts by militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Human rights organizations, as well as the United Nations, have documented serious rights violations against Rohingya in the context of operations by Myanmar security forces, including widespread killings, sexual violence, and burning of homes and villages.
On 6 November, the UN Security Council issued a statement expressing “grave concern” over human rights violations perpetrated against Rohingya, including by Myanmar security forces, and calling on Myanmar authorities “to ensure no further excessive use of military force.”
A draft of the final statement expected after week’s ASEAN Summit, however, reportedly made only fleeting reference to humanitarian relief for “affected communities” in northern Rakhine State. Like the ASEAN Chairman’s Statement issued in late-September – a statement criticized by Malaysia’s foreign minister, as well as by APHR, at the time – the draft document reportedly also made no mention of rights violations by security forces and did not name as a group the Rohingya, who have borne the brunt of the abuses and displacement.
Parliamentarians said that the outcome constituted an insufficient response to developments in Rakhine State, and that the avoidance of key details indicated ASEAN’s failure to address the drivers of the crisis.
“This is not simply a humanitarian catastrophe; it is a human rights crisis with deep roots in longstanding state-sponsored persecution against the Rohingya community. ASEAN’s approach seems to ignore this fact and act as though the mass displacement and associated humanitarian challenges arose out of nowhere,” said APHR Board Member Eva Kusuma Sundari, a member of the Indonesian House of Representatives.
ASEAN leaders reportedly discussed issues in Rakhine State at the Summit in Manila, including mention of the recommendations issued by a Myanmar government-appointed Advisory Commission, headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. However, key recommendations from that body’s final report, including those focused on drivers of conflict, appear to have been sidestepped by ASEAN leaders, APHR said.
“The Annan Commission’s recommendations are a key entry point that ASEAN should be using more effectively to raise fundamental issues like discrimination, citizenship, and accountability for rights violations. This was a Myanmar government-sponsored body that pushed to deal with these drivers of the current crisis. If they can do it, ASEAN should certainly be able to,” Sundari said.
Parliamentarians said the need for regional and international action was reinforced by Monday’s release by the Myanmar military of the outcome of its own internal investigation into conduct by its forces in Rakhine State, which exonerated them from any wrongdoing.
“The Myanmar military clearly has no interest in accountability. This report further underscores the need to allow for a genuine investigation into alleged atrocities,” Charles Santiago said.
MPs also criticized ASEAN’s principle of non-interference, arguing that the policy hampered an effective response and was being invoked by leaders in a disingenuous manner.
“The non-interference policy is – in the words of Aung San Suu Kyi herself – just an excuse for not helping. It shouldn’t even apply in this case, where the issue clearly has immense regional implications,” Santiago said.
“If ASEAN leaders want to quit making excuses and actually help, they should do more to pressure the Myanmar government and military to halt the attacks, end policies that promote and institutionalize discrimination, and enable conditions for the safe return of Rohingya refugees to their homes in Myanmar.”
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