JAKARTA – Weeks ahead of the 37th ASEAN Summit, which is due to take place in mid-November, Southeast Asian lawmakers have today urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to step up its response to the ongoing crisis in Rakhine State, and ensure it actually helps end the cycle of violence and displacement. The calls come as Myanmar continues to demonstrate no desire to solve the protracted issues, or restore the rights of the Rohingya, said ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).
“The plight of the Rohingya is not only a stain on our region, but on all of humanity,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian Member of Parliament (MP) and APHR’s Chair. “Myanmar’s claims that this is an internal issue could not be further from the truth. Everyone who calls Southeast Asia home is impacted by this crisis, whether it is those saving refugee boats due to our governments’ inaction, or the shame we all feel on our collective conscience.”
“ASEAN has both the potential and obligation to find lasting solutions for Rakhine State and the region as a whole, but to do that it has to first and foremost recognize it as a human rights crisis that was created by the Myanmar government, and to actively include the Rohingya community in its decisions,” Santiago said.
In a new report, ASEAN’s Rakhine Crisis: Assessing the regional response to atrocities in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, APHR examined the 10-member bloc’s response to the crisis, from the outbreak of violence in August 2017 to the present day. It found that while ASEAN’s actions have marked a significant departure from the bloc’s usual insistence on non-interference, they have mostly been ineffective, if not at times deeply problematic.
The reasons for this include a chronic lack of leadership, at the Secretariat level as well as among Member States, which has prevented ASEAN from articulating a clear vision and strategy that would effectively help end the cycle of violence and displacement in Rakhine.
“ASEAN’s lack of cohesive and strategic leadership, and its reliance on consensus-based decisions, has allowed the Myanmar authorities to take total control of the narrative, which issues the bloc can focus on, and who they can engage with. Such a scenario has led to the exclusion of the Rohingya from crucial discussions about their own future.”
ASEAN’s reluctance to acknowledge the underlying human rights aspects of the crisis, resulting in it focussing on issues regarded as “less controversial”, such as repatriation of refugees and humanitarian response, instead of addressing more sensitive issues that include the restoration of citizenship rights, restrictions on movement, and the ongoing conflict between the Myanmar Army and the Arakan Army, have entirely compromised the effectiveness of its actions.
“How can we talk about Rohingya refugees returning to Rakhine State, when that area remains an active war zone?” said Santiago. “ASEAN’s reluctance to adopt a holistic approach to Rakhine State, that addresses all aspects of the crisis, risks making the regional group at best counter-productive and at worst actively contributing to human rights abuses.”
The bloc’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.
Despite the issues raised, ASEAN has managed to keep Myanmar at the table, maintaining access, and arguably gaining influence, with the country’s leaders. APHR said that the bloc has therefore the potential to play an important and positive role in resolving the crisis, and identifies a number of ways it can do so, including by adopting a holistic strategy guided by the principles of “do no harm” and non-discrimination; ensuring meaningful consultation with and participation of Rohingya in Myanmar, and the refugee camps in Bangladesh, in all decisions concerning their future; and encouraging Myanmar authorities to establish a follow-up mechanism to ensure the full implementation of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State’s recommendations.
“We currently have a million refugees stranded in Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands more stuck in apartheid conditions in Rakhine, and let us not forget an active war zone,” Santiago said. “This simply cannot continue. ASEAN has an obligation to protect the people in the region, and that begins with playing an important role in resolving this situation. Failure to do so will not only harm the bloc’s credibility and legitimacy, but will also cause further harm and suffering to the Rohingya, and others who call Rakhine State, and indeed the ASEAN region, their home.”