ASEAN Needs To Do a Rethink on Burma’s Rohingya Issue

Violence against Burma’s Rohingyas could become a regional issue if ASEAN does not act fast.

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has long been criticized as a toothless tiger for its inability to deal with controversial and often bloody issues. The Sabah Insurgency launched in March by Philippine-based mercenaries, the Cambodian-Thai dispute over territorial rights at Preah Vihear and overlapping sovereign claims in the South China Seas are among the nastiest and most recent examples.

However, ethnic violence launched against Burma’s Rohingya population has repeatedly underscored the absence of a collective moral backbone among ASEAN’s 10 members and unraveled Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s lauded role in promoting democracy and human rights.

Long-time observers and non-governmental organizations have been loud in their condemnations and warnings about the potential for conflict between Muslim Rohingyas and militant Buddhists to spiral out of control, while Western governments continue to welcome Burmese efforts to “normalize”.

New York-based Human Rights Watch says the Burmese government is ethnic cleansing.

Those predictions of violence are now proving true. In Indonesia anti-terror police shot dead seven men and arrested 13 suspected of involvement in a plot to bomb the Burmese embassy in Jakarta. Two raids were carried out in the operation. The unit raided their hideout in a house on the outskirts of West Java’s capital city of Bandung, but suspects refused to surrender. The ensuing firefight lasted seven hours.

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Five assembled pipe bombs were found in a backpack and the authorities said the attack was planned for last Friday.

The deadly confrontation came at the end of a difficult month for Indonesian authorities, who are dealing with a growing influx of Rohingyas fleeing violence in Burma. Their status as refugees can hardly be challenged given the well-documented threats they have lived under, which clearly violate UN laws.

At the same time, much of the world is beating an economic path to Southeast Asia in search of closer regional ties and free trade agreements. In so doing, Western countries would rather separate their business agendas from their moral obligations by leaving the distasteful business in Burma’s north to ASEAN.

While the escalating violence has displaced thousands, last month the European Union congratulated Burma on a “remarkable process of reform” as it lifted all of its sanctions except an arms embargo. The U.S. followed suit by sending Acting U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis to the country to formulate a trade framework.

In Indonesia, home of the world’s largest Muslim population, anger is rising over the Burmese government’s handling of the issue.

If ASEAN governments cannot defuse the tense situation, Rohingyas will be pushed towards the harder edges of the region and into the waiting arms of Islamic militants who still hold court in parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, southern Thailand and the southern Philippines. At that point it could become a regional issue with the potential to undermine ASEAN’s ambitious money–making agenda.