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ASEAN and the Rohingya Crisis

Project Syndicate (Global)
Syed Munir Khasru
February 02, 2017

The plight of Muslim Rohingya communities in Myanmar’s Rakhine state is worsening by the day, and could soon imperil the country’s government and the reputation of its leader, the Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Worse, the crisis could divide the region along ethno-religious lines and stoke support for Islamist extremism.

DHAKA – The worsening plight of Muslim Rohingya communities in Myanmar’s Rakhine state could soon imperil the country’s government, as well as the reputation of its leader, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The crisis has been escalating since last October, when Myanmar’s military launched an offensive in which 130 Rohingya were killed, and dozens of their buildings were torched. At the time, the military’s leaders claimed that the attack was part of an effort to locate unidentified insurgents who were thought to be responsible for the slayings on October 9 of nine policemen at three border posts in the district of Maungdaw.

According to a Human Rights Watch analysis of satellite images, still more Rohingya villages were destroyed over the course of nine days in November, bringing the number of buildings razed to 1,250; meanwhile, 30,000 people have reportedly been displaced. The United Nations considers the stateless Rohingya to be among the world’s most persecuted minorities.

Now, other countries in an otherwise stable region are becoming embroiled in the crisis; indeed, countries such as Bangladesh, Thailand, and Indonesia are increasingly feeling the spillover effects, as Rohingya seek asylum within their borders. The persecution of the Rohingya can no longer be described as merely a domestic problem for Myanmar.

ASEAN has been criticized for approaching the Rohingya issue too cautiously, and for failing to recognize that the ongoing conflict could divide the bloc along ethno-religious lines. The region’s population is 60% Muslim, 18% Buddhist, and 17% Christian; continued discrimination against the Rohingya already has become a rallying cry for sympathetic Islamic extremist groups in countries that provide asylum. This is an especially grave risk for Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia.

The fleeing Rohingya live in deplorable conditions when they reach host countries, and they have been involved in chronic skirmishes with security forces. Facing constant struggle and ongoing food shortages, the Rohingya are prime targets for terrorist recruiting. Not surprisingly, Islamic extremist groups have already posted online videos calling for jihad against Myanmar; and Indonesian authorities recently arrested two militants who were allegedly plotting an attack on Myanmar’s embassy in Jakarta.

As the Rohingya crisis deepens, more regional and international extremist groups will undoubtedly use it as a convenient tool to gain sympathy, recruit new members, and raise funds. ASEAN leaders must formulate an effective diplomatic solution to the crisis to prevent it from fueling more extremism in the region and disrupting trade and people’s livelihoods. The much-heralded “ASEAN Way,” whereby member states adhere to quiet diplomacy and principled non-intervention, served the bloc well on the economic front in its first decades of existence. But as international criticism mounts, the ineffectiveness of a “see no evil, hear no evil” strategy for addressing internal issues should now be obvious.

Malaysia seems to recognize this. At the recent ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Yangon, it called for the coordination of humanitarian aid and an investigation into alleged atrocities committed against Rohingya. Following the meeting, Myanmar showed willingness to grant humanitarian access and to keep the ASEAN members informed.

It is time for ASEAN to heed this call, shifting its mode of operation, so that mature democracies such as Singapore and Malaysia – which rank high in human-development indices – can become responsible global leaders, and expand their humanitarian problem-solving capacities. ASEAN needs to grow into a strong, politically accountable, European Union-style community. To do that, it must find peaceful yet effective ways to mitigate what is now a regional humanitarian crisis.

According to unofficial estimates, there could now be as many as 500,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh alone. Since the latest military intervention, another 20,000 Rohingya have arrived. This puts Bangladesh, which already struggles to provide basic services to its own 170 million citizens, in an extremely difficult position. Already, Myanmar’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs has visited Dhaka for talks. And a three-member team of Myanmar’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State visited the Rohingya slums in Bangladesh’s coastal area bordering Rakhine state.

ASEAN could help here. Member states such as Singapore enjoy friendly relations with both Myanmar and Bangladesh, and thus could provide a platform for the two countries to come together and arrive at permanent solutions to a decades-old problem. But first ASEAN must decide to pull its political weight, and to expend some of its political capital, to bring about a just, long-term settlement. If it does, it can serve as an honest broker between Myanmar, Bangladesh, and, most importantly, representatives of the Rohingya community, who have suffered persecution for long enough.

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