Disclaimer: Warwick ASEAN Conference would like to clarify that all opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ and editors’ own.
BY CHARLTON CHOI
For the last half century, ASEAN has demonstrated its ambition to promote political and economic interdependence across the region, gaining significant international acclaim towards its efforts in building a great international institution. Yet, the veils of economic interdependence and cultural diversity hide the struggles of minorities. Some remain within the regimes whilst others have escalated. The chronic and pressing Rohingya Crisis, which has once again attracted media attention, has already escalated into a transnational human rights issue. As Champa Patel, the director of Amnesty International said, ‘it is time for ASEAN to take human rights seriously.’ However, none of the governments and institutions can embark on these changes purely on the basis of social justice. ASEAN should have stern policy directions to halt further possibilities of aggravating the issue.
Rohingya Crisis: A General account
The Rohingyas are one of the Muslim minorities that live in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. They constitute the largest percentage of Muslims in the country. They have their own language and culture, and consider themselves heirs of Arab traders who lived in the region since many generations before.
Despite that, the Myanmarese government has denied them citizenship, claiming that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Hence, the Rohingyas are de jure stateless and side-lined by the legal system of Myanmar. Furthermore, Myanmarese president Thein Sein contended that it is impossible to regard the illegal Rohingyas as an ethnic group in Myanmar.
Being deprived of their citizenship, the Rohingyas have scant civil rights. Without proper citizenship, the Rohingya are essentially trapped in Rakhine as they cannot travel or migrate to other provinces in Myanmar. They are forced to request Common-Law marriage permits which limits couples to have a maximum of two children. Despite the fact that the government include the Rohingyas in formal registries, the temporary registration card offered to them is not considered as evidence of birth in Myanmar. They are subject to legal discrimination, infringing upon their right to movement, marriage and other basic civil rights such as education and employment.
Not only are they the subject of legal discrimination; but also, ethnic cleansing. According to Amnesty International, hundreds of Rohingyas have been killed this year while numerous girls have been raped and abused. Attacked by the Myanmarese Buddhist mobs and military, villages have been burnt and towns destroyed. The Human Rights Watch reported that 578 villages are emptied whilst 278 others were burnt. ‘We are not dead and we are not alive’, said a Rohingya refugee.
Facing recent military crackdowns and conflicts, the hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas are forced to escape from Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh. In search for short-term security, the district of Cox’s Bazar, Chittagong in Bangladesh has become a base for temporary settlement. Approximately 1 million displaced Rohingyas are now residing in Bangladesh. The remaining refugees have scattered amongst India, Pakistan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia as well as Thailand and Indonesia. According to a CNN report, the Myanmarese Rohingya issue has resulted in 370,000 international refugees.
The Rohingya’s exodus is worrying, not only for Myanmar, but also to ASEAN. ASEAN recently articulated its concern over the issue, as mentioned by the Secretary-General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, ‘We will keep our eyes and ears on the plight of these unfortunate people.’ Recently, the institution has met the foreign minister of Myanmar and Bangladesh. The two states promised to keep AESAN informed.
Rohingya Crisis: Implications for ASEAN
The painful and devastating experience of the Rohingyas, along with the risks it poses to the neighbouring countries, highlights that ASEAN should put more effort in alleviating the issue. I believe, ASEAN, as a regional coordinator, has the responsibility to prevent the deterioration of the humanitarian crisis. From a moral viewpoint, hundreds of thousands of refugees are now suffering, urging for aids and assistance. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to support the vulnerable with aids and assistance.
Realistically speaking, the Rohingya crisis hinders regional peace and future cooperation in two ways. First, as Noeleen Heyzer, a member of the UN Secretary General’s High Level Advisory Board on Mediation, notes, the continuing deprivation of Rohingyas triggers wrath and retaliation for each other and fuels radicalization, eventually hampering regional cohesion. The continuous clashes between the Myanmarese military and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army have led to destructions of infrastructure as well as casualty which have hamstrung communal harmony and economy. The crisis is not only restricted in a national level but also regional. Amid ongoing spread of hatred and vengeance, religious extremism and terrorism may subsequently emerge within the region which threatens the ASEAN’s vision of regional peace.
Second, ASEAN’s failure in preventing the gravity of the Rohingya crisis may obstruct future economic cooperation as it damages the association’s reputation in resolving regional problems. ASEAN has faced much criticism and pressure pertaining to the Rohingya crisis. United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has put pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi, urging Myanmar to protect the Rohingyas and help them return from Bangladesh. If ASEAN fails to respond more adequately to the growing crisis, its position as a regional coordinator will be compromised. As a result, it may impair future cooperation within other ASEAN-led frameworks such as ASEAN +3 and ASEAN + 6.
In respect of the crisis, the institution needs to focus on two directions in deterring further aggravation. To begin with, ASEAN should express its concerns on the crisis by rendering both short term and long term aid and assistance to the Rohingyas. For short term, ASEAN may negotiate with Myanmar about opening access to Rakhine state, enable the association to provide humanitarian aids. Besides, it may recruit volunteers and send more teams to the Rohingyas, temporary settlements to help rebuild refugee camps as well as improve hygiene conditions. For long-term, ASEAN may need to engage in education to the refugees, especially the youngsters. The institution may consider teaching the values of peace and justice to the Rohingyas and search for resolution in the light of the crisis. Some may challenge that it is too ideal and far-fetched. The ASRA conflicts and the emerge of religious extremism reveal there is an urge for spreading the ideas of peace and justice.
Last but not the least, the institution may consider inviting new players in dealing with the issue. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed his interests in joining the East-Asian Summit and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting, mentioning that Canada is ready to be the key partner for the future cooperation. Further, he said, in his meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, that Canada is willing to help with the refugee crisis. Inviting new players to the crisis may bring in more economic supports and new ideas. Not only does it help with current crisis; but also open up opportunities for cooperation as well as showing ASEAN’s open-mindedness in regional economic, security and humanitarian collaborations.