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The Rohingya Crisis – a catalyst for change in ASEAN

22 May The Rohingya Crisis – a catalyst for change in ASEAN

With an estimated 25,000 Rohingya refugees having fled Burma since the beginning of 2015, and as many as 10,000 refugees still stranded in the Andaman Sea, the Rohingya crisis is becoming the largest refugee crisis in Southeast Asia since the exodus of Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s.

A Muslim ethnic minority living in the Rakhine State in western Myanmar that is unrecognized by the Myanmar government, the Rohingya have been facing state-sanctioned discrimination as far back as 2012. ASEAN Member States (AMS) have until recently remained silent on the issue in respect of the diplomatic rules of ASEAN – commitments to non-intervention and sovereign equality. However, the unprecedented scale of the exodus and the transnational nature of the refugee crisis have forced AMS to address the potential implications of this crisis. The international community is pressuring AMS to pursue a long-term solution to the crisis, namely the granting of citizenship to the Rohingya in Myanmar. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon contacted officials from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand earlier this week to urge governments to take swift action to address the situation. A regional conference will be convened in Thailand to address the crisis on 29 May.

With Myanmar in attendance, this conference could usher in a new era in ASEAN politics as AMS convene to discuss the root cause of the crisis, a domestic issue previously dismissed as off-limits. By addressing the issue of Rohingya’s citizenship, ASEAN will be forced to intervene in the national identity of Myanmar, which goes against the ASEAN charter that calls for the “respect for independence, sovereignty …and national identity of all ASEAN Member States.” This crisis could shape the way ASEAN deals with future regional issues and act as a catalyst for changing the ASEAN regional framework.

The Rohingya crisis also provides ASEAN with the opportunity to prove its commitment to becoming a more people-centered organization. However, failure to reach a decision on the matter could result in a crucial loss of legitimacy for ASEAN at a time when it is needed most. With talks currently under way for an ASEAN Economic Community to be launched at the end of 2015, such a crisis could erode much-needed international confidence in this new initiative that will be essential to the future economic development of the region.

While the onus falls on AMS like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to find a resolution, they should be quick to recognize that they still lack the leverage within the ASEAN framework to persuade Myanmar. Instead, an involvement of vested international players like the United Nations, Bangladesh and the United States could help to prompt a resolution from Myanmar. International pressure has already been responsible for prompting Dr. Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party who has historically been criticized for their silence on the matter, to speak up for the rights of the Rohingya. That being said, a balance must be struck between the involvement of the international community and that of the ASEAN leaders to ensure that ASEAN is not perceived as being incapable of dealing with the problem.

ASEAN will need to realize that a passive, non-interference policy will become harder to abide by in an increasingly globalized world. The Rohingya crisis is a strong reminder of how domestic issues can become transnational issues overnight. This is illustrative of the need for ASEAN to engage in a more proactive collective approach to address trans-boundary issues. As such the ASEAN charter may need to be adapted to meet the evolving challenges that ASEAN may face in the future.



Rohingya crisis highlights ASEAN’s unwillingness to tackle difficult issues [Asian Correspondent, 21 May 2015]

Malaysia orders rescue of migrants, Myanmar to attend conference [Reuters, 22 May 2015]

Rohingya exposes dangerous vacuum at the heart of ASEAN [The Establishment Post, 17 May 2015]
Photo credit: DFID