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Mainstream, VOL LV No 40 New Delhi September 23, 2017

ASEAN and the Rohingya Refugee Crisis: Time to Act

Saturday 23 September 2017, by Bharti Chhibber


South-East Asia cannot ignore the Rohingya crisis any longer as it is not only about Myanmar but it has repercussions for the whole regional scenario. Although the issue had been brewing up for quite a few years, the international community realised it in 2015 when thousands of Rohingya refugees were marooned at sea for many days as they were not allowed in neighbouring Thailand’s and Malaysia’s coasts. Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia’s initial refusal to take refugees abandoned in water received wide criticism from international quarters. The Phili-ppines did offer assistance, but that country being far away from the Rohingyas it was impractical.

This year on April 30, the ASEAN Summit took place on ‘an integrated, peaceful, stable, and resilient ASEAN Community’ in the backdrop of the Rohingya crisis. However, the Rohingya issue was not discussed officially. Not taking up the Rohingya issue is part of the ASEAN’s guiding principle of non-interference in member-states’ internal affairs. However, ASEAN leaders have deviated from this principle many a time including in December 2016, when Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak protested against it. Similarly, during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting in December 2016, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman called for regional resolution of the Rohingya problem. However, at the informal Foreign Ministers’ meet in Yangon, members could not work out anything concrete. Further, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit, Indonesian President Joko Widodo told Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi that regional cohesion is relative to cohesion in Myanmar. Irrespective of the reasons behind Indonesia and Malaysia’s concerns, it is imperative for the ASEAN, considered to be a successful regional organisation, to move beyond a reactive position and take a more pro-active approach.

So far the ASEAN states may have projected an inward-looking approach but now it is critical to recognise the Rohingya problem as an issue which demands immediate collective attention as it has reached a stage of spill-over with potential security inference for the entire region. The ASEAN has to go beyond establishing task forces to deal with the situation as instability in the area may seriously hamper trade and investment prospects which may jeopardise economic and political relations in both intra- as well as inter-regional spheres.

The ASEAN has often been reluctant to to act on any political crisis in the region as we have seen way back in 1999 in the East Timor crisis. However, at the 2003 Summit of the ASEAN in Bali, ASEAN leaders declared the Bali Concord II calling for formation of an ASEAN Security Community. Further, at the 27th ASEAN Summit in November 2015 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) Blueprint 2025 formed part of ‘ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together’. The ASEAN Community Vision 2025 consists of a ‘Resilient, Inclusive, People-oriented, and People-centred ASEAN’ among other features. Now if the ASEAN wants it to be taken seriously as an impending Security Community, they have to adopt a coherent approach on political-security issues.

The ASEAN has to give due attention to the issue to protect it from division on ethno-religious lines with Muslims, Buddhists and Christians forming the major component of the ASEAN population. Another major challenge is fear of refugees, Rohingyas being soft targets for terrorist recruiting and terrorist-related activities. With the deepening of the crisis there are increasing chances of extremist organisations entering the field to lure them. It will not only be detrimental to the growth and development of the region, but will result in the growth of insurgency. ASEAN states have to work towards a diplomatic solution so as to ensure that the crisis is contained without further threat to the people, regional cohesion and extra-regional security ramifications.

The Rohingya crisis is not confined to the South-East Asian region, but it is affecting neighbouring South Asian states too. Apart from Thailand and Indonesia, Bangladesh and India are also reeling under the effects of refugees seeking asylum in these countries. Already, Bangladesh may have about 400,000 Rohingya refugees or even more. Bangladesh, which is struggling to ensure basic services to its own population of about 170 million, is under tremendous pressure due to the influx of a huge number of Rohingyas. India has also sent a consignment of relief materials to Bangladesh recently.

Although the ASEAN states may not like a direct confrontation among the member-states which may prove to be ineffective, definitely mediators and the diplomatic approach of the ASEAN should be pursued with vigour. Ultimately it is question of ASEAN solidarity and a testing time for the whole organisation which puts a question-mark on the group’s ability to deal with an issue of trans-national impact. The ASEAN cannot continue to look powerless all the time nor can the ASEAN states refuse to take responsibility of refugees and force them to go to extra-regional states for refuge. The ASEAN states have to share the refugees till the situation improves.

The policy of non-intervention should pave the way for diplomatic efforts with continuos engagement.

The ASEAN is respected as an economic unit, a community with a collective identity. The ASEAN should show more accountability in taking care of the regional humanitarian crisis. In order to deal with conflicts and disasters affecting regional states, the ASEAN has established an ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre). This can be seen as promotion of humanitarian assistance beyond borders. However, the Centre has so far confined its humanitarian initiatives to cases of natural disasters.

In the final anaysis, the ASEAN states cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility to protect the refugees and it is high time that instead of some ad hoc mechanisms, Myanmar and the neighbouring countries work out a solution. The ASEAN should collectively rise to the occasion. With the ASEAN aiming at a security community, they have to work in tandem to resolve the refugee crisis created by the movement of Rohingyas of the Rakhine State in Myanmar. It is time to act and adopt a more transparent and strong approach to ensure they work together on critical issues, especially relating to regional tensions.

Dr Bharti Chhibber is teaching Political Science at the University of Delhi. Her Email is: bharti.chhibber[at]

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