More than 6,700 Rohingya Muslims, were killed within a month during the crackdown in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state in 2017, a number far greater than the official death toll of 400. Furthermore, Myanmar has been reluctant to allow international humanitarian agencies access to the state.
Much has been debated on how the guiding norms of the “ASEAN way” have become a stumbling block to the group’s capacity to respond to human rights issues like the crisis in Myanmar. It is important to note that ASEAN is not the only international organization which abides by principles of compromise, consultation, and consensus. The Organization of American States (OAS) abides by similar principles. Furthermore ,these principles have been endorsed by the United Nations. It is indeed true that ASEAN has limited capacity to interfere in the Rohingya crisis; however it is more so because Myanmar has rejected offers to reconcile the situation, not just from ASEAN, but also from China as well. In view of the deteriorating human rights situation for the Rohingya, what roles can neighboring countries and international bodies play?
With neighboring relations and security of the region at stake, the Rohingya crisis is a concern for ASEAN members and it has been discussed in private, in the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). On the one hand, ASEAN has been consistently reassured by Myanmar that it will keep ASEAN informed of developments and call for help when needed. On the other hand, ASEAN is worried that taking an aggressive stance on the Rohingya issue would prompt Myanmar to leave the group. The formation of this regional grouping had required great efforts from all 10 countries in Southeast Asia. More importantly, ASEAN ensures that Southeast Asian countries are represented in the broader international arena. Therefore ASEAN is reluctant to compel Myanmar to take any steps, even as intensifying pressure falls upon the organization for not doing so.
The Myanmar government has been active in dishing out threats if any form of external intervention occurs. To cite an example, Myanmar warned the UN that their negative comments may potentially harm refugee repatriation talks with Bangladesh. Last month, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, mentioned in a statement that the International Criminal Court at The Hague has no jurisdiction over Myanmar because it is not a member to the Rome Statute, which established the court. Myanmar accused the ICC of violating international legal norms by seeking to assert jurisdiction over the Rohingya crisis.
ASEAN has been trying to allay the humanitarian situation in Rakhine. However, without reference to the crisis it is challenging not just for ASEAN but also the international community when it comes to framing the issue. This is made more difficult because Myanmar rejects the term “Rohingya.” A statement issued by ASEAN during the 30th ASEAN summit in 2017 on the humanitarian problem in Rakhine state emphasized the need to establish a task force to respond to “crisis and emergency situations rising from irregular movement of persons in Southeast Asia.” The statement refrained from mentioning “Rohingya,” instead referring to the stateless Muslim minority as “victims and affected communities of the conflict.” Similarly tensions grew when former UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon referred to the Muslim minority as Rohingya. From Rakhine’s point of view, acknowledging the name “Rohingya” inadvertently means taking the latter’s side.
The facts surrounding the Rohingya crisis are blurred, particularly regarding the terms on which the Myanmar government would allow Rohingya refugees to return. The government has not been transparent on this issue. The Myanmar government still does not recognize Rohingyas as early occupants of the state, despite centuries of settlement in the Arakan region. Only 675 names from a list of 8,000 refugees provided by Bangladesh were signed off by Myanmar, citing discrepancies in the verification forms proving their residency in Rakhine state. With a vague picture and a lack of information relating to the crisis, it is no doubt that ASEAN finds it difficult to intervene.
What About the International Community?
After years of empty promises from the Myanmar government, the international community has widely condemned the violence escalating the crisis. A series of Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) have been signed; however there were concerns about how effective these MoUs were in resolving the situation. In April 2018, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the government of Bangladesh finalized an MoU relating to voluntary return of Rohingya refugees once conditions in Myanmar are conducive. Consequently, another MoU was signed with Myanmar to outline the scope of cooperation between these agencies and the Myanmar government. On top of everything, the Myanmar government barely approved 374 refugees for repatriation, out of 920,887 refugees in Bangladesh. It all seems like the repatriation agreement was no more than a half-hearted attempt by the Myanmar government.
The United States and several EU countries placed sanctions on Myanmar recently. The EU placed sanctions on seven senior officials accused of committing serious human rights abuses against the Rohingya Muslim minority. The effectiveness of these sanctions are questionable as it only applies to a few targeted individuals. Looking at the trade figures of Myanmar during the period of U.S. economic sanctions in 2003, Myanmar’s total trade increased from $6.28 billion in 2001 to $6.54 billion in 2003. This reflects the limited effectiveness of adopting methods like economic sanctions to improve the situation for the Rohingya. Countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands have so far held back from applying broader economic sanctions against Myanmar in fear of threatening the economy. What then, can the international community do since condemning violent acts and sanctions are not effective?
China and India to the Rescue?
Given Myanmar’s place in China’s larger Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), stability in the region is especially important to Beijing. Myanmar is equally dependent on China. Besides being Myanmar’s largest trading partner, making up one-third of its total trade, China’s latest power transmission line and a substation project in Myanmar’s northwestern region could potentially help the country’s power industry development as well as improve the wellbeing of locals. China offered to mediate between Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2017, proposing a three-phase solution. Bangladesh rejected the offer.
Until recently India has been especially muted about the Rohingya crisis. The issue involves two of India’s neighbors, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Considering India’s stature in the region, many expected India to adopt a more active role in the crisis. However, India is caught in a dilemma as it is reluctant to displease either of its neighbors.
In view of India and Beijing’s vested interests in Myanmar and Myanmar’s reliance on China, both countries make appropriate mediators. Setting up a Quadrilateral Coordination Committee between China, India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar could be a probable arrangement. ASEAN and the international community could play a supportive role in providing humanitarian support like restoration of infrastructure and providing aid to returning Rohingya refugees.
Hui Ying Lee is a Senior Analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.