ASEAN may hold key to Rakhine cri­sis

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - News - NEHGINPAO KIPGEN

AT the end of the 33rd ASEAN sum­mit in Sin­ga­pore on Novem­ber 15, Sin­ga­pore for­mally handed over the sym­bolic gavel of ASEAN chair­man­ship to Thai­land, which it last held in 2009. The one-year ro­tat­ing term will of­fi­cially be­gin on Jan­uary 1.

As the in­com­ing chair, Thai­land hinted at what the re­gional group should or could do when Prime Min­is­ter Prayut Chan-ocha told his ASEAN col­leagues that the re­gional bloc is ca­pa­ble of play­ing an im­por­tant role in ad­dress­ing the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis in Rakhine State in a con­struc­tive, tan­gi­ble and sus­tain­able man­ner.

Prayut sug­gested the en­hance­ment of the ASEAN Co­or­di­nat­ing Cen­tre for Hu­man­i­tar­ian As­sis­tance on Dis­as­ter Man­age­ment to pro­vide hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance to the af­fected peo­ple, sup­port the repa­tri­a­tion of Ro­hingya refugees, and en­sure the im­prove­ment of peo­ple’s lives in all of Rakhine.

As the cri­sis has be­come a re­gional or in­ter­na­tional is­sue, Myan­mar needs to open up its doors for ASEAN to col­lec­tively help ad­dress the prob­lem. The en­gage­ment of ASEAN mem­ber states should not be seen as an in­ter­fer­ence in the in­ter­nal af­fairs of a mem­ber state. Rather it should be viewed as fel­low ASEAN mem­bers try­ing to strengthen the in­ter­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of the is­sue, which in many ways is Myan­mar’s own ini­tia­tive.

For ex­am­ple, in Au­gust 2016, the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment formed a nine-mem­ber state ad­vi­sory com­mis­sion on Rakhine chaired by for­mer United Na­tions Sec­re­tary-gen­eral Kofi An­nan. The com­mis­sion rec­om­mended cit­i­zen­ship ver­i­fi­ca­tion, rights, equal­ity, and doc­u­men­ta­tion for all peo­ple in the state, as well as a min­is­te­ri­al­level ap­point­ment to co­or­di­nate the ef­fec­tive im­ple­men­ta­tion of its rec­om­men­da­tions. It also talked about the sit­u­a­tion of in­ter­nally dis­placed per­sons and free­dom of move­ment.

In Septem­ber 2017, the gov­ern­ment es­tab­lished a 10-mem­ber ad­vi­sory board for en­act­ing the rec­om­men­da­tions of the com­mis­sion.

In May 2018, Myan­mar in­vited UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil mem­bers to visit the con­flict ar­eas in Rakhine. The coun­cil mem­bers, among oth­ers, urged the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment to con­duct a trans­par­ent in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­leged hu­man rights abuses in north­ern Rakhine, or face the pos­si­bil­ity of its Tat­madaw (mil­i­tary) of­fi­cials be­ing re­ferred to the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court, and to speed up the repa­tri­a­tion of the es­ti­mated 700,000 Mus­lim refugees from Bangladesh with the help of UN agen­cies.

The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity’s pres­sure was largely re­spon­si­ble for the sign­ing of a tri­par­tite agree­ment on June 6 be­tween Myan­mar and the UN High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees (UN­HCR) and UN De­vel­op­ment Pro­gram (UNDP) to help with the vol­un­tary re­turn and rein­te­gra­tion of refugees, as­sess con­di­tions in Rakhine for those who want to re­turn, and sup­port pro­grammes that ben­e­fit all com­mu­ni­ties in the state.

Myan­mar should wel­come ASEAN’S good­will ges­ture to help ad­dress the pro­tracted cri­sis. Any at­tempt to op­pose ASEAN’S de­sire to en­gage with Myan­mar will only ham­per the co­he­sion and strength of the group, and in­vites crit­i­cism from the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

Many in Myan­mar, in­clud­ing mil­i­tary lead­ers, are more likely to be re­cep­tive to and com­fort­able work­ing with their ASEAN part­ners than with West­ern gov­ern­ments. More­over, his­tor­i­cally and cul­tur­ally, Myan­mar has largely been on good terms with the next ASEAN chair.

ASEAN should ad­dress the cri­sis in a mu­tu­ally ac­cept­able man­ner by in­volv­ing the Rakhine Mus­lim com­mu­nity, the gov­ern­ment of Bangladesh, as well as the UN­HCR and UNDP.

Be­sides sum­mits, ASEAN should also ex­plore other fo­rums, such as the ASEAN De­fence Min­is­ters’ Meet­ing (ADMM) and the ADMM-PLUS, for ways to co­op­er­ate with Myan­mar’s mil­i­tary, which not only con­trols se­cu­rity mat­ters but also re­tains sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal power.

The longer the cri­sis re­mains un­ad­dressed, the greater the chance that it can be­come a breed­ing ground for rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion that could be ex­ploited and ma­nip­u­lated by Is­lamic ter­ror­ists. The role of the ADMM and ADMM-PLUS are par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant for ad­dress­ing such po­ten­tial threats and for strength­en­ing se­cu­rity and de­fence co­op­er­a­tion for peace, sta­bil­ity, and de­vel­op­ment.

It is true that ASEAN has not taken any sub­stan­tive mea­sures on the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis, but given the re­cent de­vel­op­ments within the group, we can only hope for a more ac­tive and en­gag­ing role.

But the suc­cess of such en­gage­ment will largely de­pend on the open­ness and re­cep­tive­ness of Myan­mar, as well as the level of com­mit­ment of ASEAN mem­ber states, par­tic­u­larly the next chair of the group.

While Myan­mar may have some con­cerns about in­ter­fer­ence in its na­tional se­cu­rity af­fairs and sovereignty, it may al­ready be too late for the coun­try to op­pose the pres­ence or in­volve­ment of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. The ab­sence of rel­e­vant in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions may even be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive.

More­over, in light of a num­ber of un­suc­cess­ful ini­tia­tives by the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment since the quasi-civil­ian ad­min­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent Thein Sein in 2012, the par­tic­i­pa­tion of ASEAN may help bring new think­ing and fresh ideas, which may pave the way to a so­lu­tion of the cri­sis. Nehginpao Kipgen is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for South­east Asian Stud­ies at OP Jin­dal Global Univer­sity in Soni­pat, Haryana, In­dia.

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