On 25 August 2017, Myanmar’s security forces launched a devastating attack on the Rohingya community living in Rakhine State, in the western part of Myanmar. In the weeks that followed, thousands were killed, women and girls were raped, hundreds of homes and entire villages burned to the ground, and more than 740,000 women, men and children forced to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. The attacks took place against a background of decades-long discrimination, persecution, and violence against the Rohingya, a situation that continues today.
This report examines the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) response to this crisis, from the initial outbreak of violence in August 2017 to the present day. It is based on 45 interviews with Rohingya representatives, NGO workers, diplomats, ASEAN Parliamentarians, political analysts, and current and former ASEAN officials. It also draws on extensive review of official statements and other documents, as well as NGO and media reports.
The findings show how, caught between respect for its key principles of consensus and non-interference on the one hand, and international and domestic outcry on the other, the regional bloc has struggled to respond to the crisis and articulate a clear vision and strategy that would help end the cycle of violence and displacement. The report examines some of the reasons behind ASEAN’s so far weak response. These include a lack of leadership both within the Secretariat and among Member States, giving space for the Myanmar government to set the parameters of ASEAN’s engagement. ASEAN’s reluctance to acknowledge the underlying human rights dimensions of the crisis has also meant that the bloc has focused only on the “less controversial” issues, risking being at best counter-productive and at worst actively contributing to human rights abuses. ASEAN’s lack of transparency, reluctance to engage with actors other than the Myanmar government, and the weaknesses inherent in its own institutions have further undermined its response.
Initially the crisis exposed significant divisions among ASEAN Member States, which were exacerbated by a lack of leadership at the ASEAN Secretariat, and led some States to take individual action. “Domestic politics so clearly trumped a regional ASEAN approach,” noted one analyst. Fears about the role of China, which has used the crisis to expand its influence over Myanmar, have also meant the bloc has been reluctant to take a confrontational approach, and has placed a strong emphasis on maintaining engagement with the Myanmar authorities.
This lack of cohesion and long-term vision for ASEAN in Rakhine State, coupled with its unwavering commitment to consensus among its members, has allowed the Myanmar authorities to step-in, control the ASEAN narrative, and dictate what the ASEAN officials engage on, how and with whom. The result is that ASEAN’s interventions have often focused on “low-hanging fruit”, and failed to address fundamental issues. “Instead of ASEAN lifting up the region, it’s being dragged down by its members,” said an NGO worker.
However, as the crisis continued and the regional and international outcry showed no sign of abating, ASEAN’s own credibility was increasingly being questioned, and leaders realized they had to take action. As a result, it embarked on a series of initiatives, which it hoped would help address the situation.
Unfortunately, when ASEAN has been proactive, it has focused on specific issues only, in particular the repatriation of refugees and humanitarian assistance, limiting itself to those the Myanmar government has agreed upon and leaving out politically sensitive issues such as the restoration of citizenship rights, restrictions on movement, enforced ethnic segregation, or the intensifying conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army. As one interviewee noted, “How can you talk about repatriation when [Rakhine] is a war zone?”.
In some cases, ASEAN has also appeared, at least in principle, to support some of Myanmar’s policies of segregation and persecution against the Rohingya. For instance, ASEAN’s Preliminary Needs Assessment for Repatriation (PNA) in Rakhine State appears to legitimize continuing restrictions on the movement of the Rohingya. When ASEAN delegations visited the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in 2019, they promoted the National Verification Card (NVC), which is viewed by the Rohingya as a tool of their persecution. ASEAN and its Member States are also providing financial aid and assistance in Rakhine State for infrastructure projects, such as schools and hospitals, seemingly without ensuring that all communities can access them.
Ultimately, if ASEAN wants to have an impact and be effective in Rakhine State, it needs to properly understand and acknowledge all aspects of the crisis, whether human rights, political, humanitarian, social, or economic. Otherwise, its attempts at intervening will be counter-productive, and risk contributing to entrenching segregation, perpetuating serious human rights violations, and pushing more Rohingya to seek safety in neighboring countries.
ASEAN’s response has also been characterized by a lack of transparency and engagement with civil society groups, humanitarian organizations and, crucially, Rohingya themselves. The extreme sensitivity around the Rakhine crisis, in particular as a result of the Myanmar government’s refusal to even recognize the Rohingya as citizens, has meant that ASEAN has been unwilling to provide information about its discussions and activities. Illustrative of this is the failure of multiple ASEAN bodies and entities to respond to APHR’s requests for interviews and information for this report.
Another key weakness with ASEAN’s response has been its failure to meaningfully engage with civil society, and in particular with Rohingya themselves. While there have been efforts to meet with the Rohingya refugees and their representatives, many felt that they were not meaningfully consulted, and that ASEAN representatives were simply echoing Myanmar’s government narratives. For many people APHR interviewed, whether Rohingya refugees, their representatives or non-governmental actors, accessing ASEAN officials also presents serious challenges. “We have tried, but there are not many opportunities to access [ASEAN]. Everything is closed-door and behind the scenes,” explained one Rohingya activist.
These criticisms are not new, nor are they limited to the Rakhine crisis. For years civil society actors and others have complained about a lack of information and feedback from official ASEAN meetings and challenges in accessing and engaging with ASEAN representatives.
ASEAN’S response has also been hampered by a lack of institutions with the mandate and expertise to respond to a crisis like the one in Rakhine State. Its focus on humanitarian assistance led to the mobilization of the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Centre), however it is primarily a humanitarian response and disaster management agency, which is ill-equipped to handle a so-called “man-made” disaster like the one in Rakhine State. The AHA Centre also lacks independence and there are serious concerns about its ability to adhere to the key humanitarian principle of “do no harm”. Despite being the main regional body tasked with protecting and promoting human rights, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Human Rights Commission (AICHR) also lacks the mandate to respond to the crisis, and has also been hampered by a lack of independence and the need to ensure consensus among members.
Many of the institutional weaknesses in ASEAN’s response are not isolated to the situation in Rakhine State, and reflect wider institutional deficiencies, which are embedded within and intrinsic to the structure of ASEAN, and which need to be addressed for the grouping to become truly people-centered.
While ASEAN’s response to the crisis has been weak and, in many respects, ineffective, it is important to acknowledge that the bloc has pushed internal boundaries, especially its founding principle of non-interference. By maintaining strict adherence to its other key principle of consensus among Members States, it has kept Myanmar at the table, maintaining access with and arguably gaining influence with the country’s leaders.
The question now is whether ASEAN is able to capitalize and build on this to push for real and meaningful progress. With little change for the Rohingya in Myanmar, almost a million refugees stranded in Bangladesh, and a new conflict threatening the safety of all communities living in Rakhine State, there is an urgent need for a holistic, people-centered strategy. ASEAN has an important, and potentially positive, role to play and this report therefore concludes with a series of wide-ranging and detailed recommendations to ASEAN to ensure that its efforts do not cause further harm, but instead contribute to and promote lasting solutions.
What has happened to the Rohingya, and continues to occur to communities in Rakhine State, is a stain on the conscience of humanity. The crisis is not an internal one, despite what the Myanmar authorities say, and its impacts are felt far beyond Myanmar’s shores. ASEAN has an obligation to serve and protect the people of the region, and has the potential to play a positive role in resolving the situation. However, it must examine and address its own weaknesses. Failure to do so will not only harm the bloc’s credibility and legitimacy, but will likely cause further harm and suffering to the Rohingya and others who call Rakhine State, and indeed the ASEAN region, home.