ASEAN may hold key to Rakhine crisis
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.