“Ethnic cleansing” in Rakhine brings pressure on “spineless” ASEAN bloc to take collective action

The ASEAN economic bloc’s principle of non-interference is facing its toughest ever questions as human rights defenders call for action on the alleged genocide tearing up Rakhine State. Unless violence subsides Aung San Kuu Kyi  may yet have to face the anger of her partners at the ASEAN table. 

By Argee Abadines

Thousands of so-called Rohingyas have fled Myanmar’s western Rakhine state towards Bangladesh to escape from alleged gang rape, torture, and burning and looting by security forces. It is ethnic cleansing say United Nations officials. Alone and scared these people are running for their lives. But can the nations of the ASEAN bloc help them?

Prime Minister Najib of Malaysia has spoken out to condemn the violence and called on Myanmar’s government to take all necessary action. This is a significant development considering there is a principle embedded within the ASEAN framework of not interfering in the internal affairs of another member country. Meanwhile back at home, a small crowd of around 500 Malaysians, including activist and pressure groups and local Rohingya Muslims ploughed through a heavy downpour to Myanmar’s embassy to protest the “genocide” happening in Rakhine.

To look a little deeper at this historical precedent, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, joined the ASEAN bloc in 1997 despite Western criticism of its military Junta. However, as per its hands-off principles, the countries of the ASEAN community did not impose economic sanctions on the country, and its economy has grown considerably ever since. The question now is whether the ASEAN community will change strategies when dealing with a humanitarian crisis. Myanmar has often been noted for its poor human rights record, but if the allegations are true then this ethnic cleansing of the so-called Rohingya is a whole new level of human persecution.

Calls for removal

And now, the pressure is building. The Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (Abim) has strongly condemned the humanitarian crimes against the so-called Rohingya and has called for Myanmar to be removed from the ASEAN group. They argue that the principle of non-interference is void in such situations, adding that the democratic principles that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party proclaims are a meaningless sham.

Other human rights groups in Malaysia have also called for the ASEAN group to collectively persuade the Myanmar government to stop the violence and killing immediately. In fact, they want to go a step further and grant the right of citizenship to the so-called Rohingya.  This is highly unlikely, but collective action among the ASEAN community and potentially China, India and Japan – all of which have significant economic ties with Myanmar – could exert a huge influence.

That said, China almost certainly will not be vocal with Myanmar until they iron out their own border violence issues that plague their strained relationship. And anyway, even the prospect of removing an ASEAN member state is almost impossible territory. Remember, there is business to be done as Myanmar opens up to investments and commerce.

In this environment, it will be interesting to see if Malaysia steps up to influence the other ASEAN members to put pressure on Myanmar. After all, countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore have not yet had much to say. This kind of action, though clearly necessary, would be a huge deviation from the established principle of non-interference. And according to Evi Fitriani, a senior international relations expert from the University of Indonesia, ASEAN is unable to enforce human rights in its discussion with member countries – even if Najib wanted to. She describes the ASEAN bloc as ‘spineless’ when it comes to the rights issue and advocates member countries taking a more personal approach. In fact, Malaysia is already a

She describes the ASEAN bloc as ‘spineless’ when it comes to the rights issue and advocates member countries taking a more personal approach. In fact, Malaysia is already a leader in taking in so-called Rohingya refugees and integrating them into its society.

Indonesia rises

Meanwhile in Indonesia, home to over 200 million Muslims, hundreds if protestors from various Indonesian Islamic organisations chanted “Allahu Akbar! (God is great!)” outside Myanmar’s embassy. Aside calling for an immediate stop to the violence, they want the Indonesian government to break off diplomatic ties with Myanmar over the issue. They also want Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize to be revoked. Is the treatment of the so-called Rohingya because they are Muslim, they demanded of embassy representatives?

If that is the case, then Indonesia will become one of their enemies, they said, moving on to try and speak with United Nations officials right after their protest. And it is worth noting that Indonesia can play a significant role in influencing Aung San Kuu Kyi and Myanmar to tackle the Rohingya issue. Furthermore, it should, considering it is the biggest Muslim country and member of the ASEAN. If it follows Malaysia in taking a much stronger stance, it will be sending an unyielding message to Myanmar and potentially inspire other countries to do the same.

Meanwhile, anti-Islamic sentiment is very strong in Myanmar. Even Aung San Kuu Kyi seems to dislike Muslims. She also dislikes the word ‘Rohingyas’ and prefers to refer to them as “Bengalis” because the consensus perception in the country is that they are from neighbouring Bangladesh. In Myanmar, Rohingya is a taboo and shameful word.

While the ASEAN bloc watches and waits to see what happens next, the investigation commission led by former UN chief Kofi Annan seems a step in the right direction and will recommend conflict prevention measures, and try to ensure human rights and assistance for all affected groups. As a distinguished and highly respected diplomat Annan’s message that Buddhists and Muslims need to embrace the values of justice, fairness and equity to start building a brighter future for Myanma may have an effect.

What is at stake?

But the change really needs to start with Aung San Kuu Kyi. Creating labels and showing narrowmindedness will not unify a country. She has to prove that her talk of democracy and human rights were no mere rhetoric. Is she willing to risk her popularity and political career to stand up for what she is perceived to stand for? The base she is working from is hardly strong; Myanmar has much to accomplish with regards to ratifying international human rights treaties.

She has been more successful in diplomacy, including the productive bilateral meeting she had with President Barack Obama that brought the lifting of US sanctions. In that discussion, a partnership and new era of cooperation between both countries were also floated. Clearly, she is saying the right things outside Myanmar but will she be more vocal locally where sentiment against the so-called Rohingyas remains very hostile?

Myanmar has much to lose economically if it were to lose the support and respect of its ASEAN counterparts. Free trade among members is increasing and Suu Kyi’s government could potentially lose significant business and investment if they play this badly. More broadly, this will be a big test for the ASEAN group going into 2017. Can the bloc wield influence over member countries not just economically, but also on the grounds of human rights? Or will the ASEAN group refuse to evolve and just focus on economic matters? Will Malaysia take the lead in this new evolution of regional partnership?