Rohingya plight now an Asean issue
Was it a step forward or a flop? A real discussion or a public-relations stunt? Whatever the verdict is, the Dec 19 ''retreat'' of Asean foreign ministers in Myanmar on the touchy Rohingya issue was itself the message.
The meeting was not expected to solve the rising worries about Myanmar's internal ethnic tensions and their impact on Southeast Asia. Playing referee was not a role Asean's founders had in mind when they created it nearly five decades ago. In fact, Asean has had a much longer history sticking to its non-interference principle rather than being a mediator – even more so with ''internal'' issues.
Critics of the Yangon retreat, which Myanmar called in the wake of open criticism by Malaysia and quieter but not less serious concern by Indonesia, said that it yielded no earth-shaking results. They say other Asean members were taken in by Myanmar's "sweet talk" to ease criticism about the situation of Rohingya Muslims in western Rakhine state.
Humanitarian and rights concerns are rising given reports of arson, targeted and extrajudicial killings of Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar's security forces since an October armed attack on border guard posts in Rahkine. The Myanmar government denies persecuting the 1.2 million Rohingya, who have been largely disenfranchised and many of whom now live in refugee camps where movements are restricted.
NO SMALL IMPORT
But against the backdrop of Asean's cautious -- some say tepid -- diplomacy, which marks its 50th year in 2017, this month's meeting was of no small import. It made the point that intercommunal tension and humanitarian strife in Rakhine rank high among Southeast Asia's security headaches -- and are now on the Asean agenda.
Myanmar has thus far been testy about the situation in Rakhine. Its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has complained about the international community "always drumming up cause for bigger fires of resentment" between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine which has the highest poverty rate in the country.
"There has never been a regional meeting specifically to discuss this issue, and any multilateral meeting in the region in the past was not initiated by Myanmar, the country of origin," Moe Thuzar, coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme of the Asean Studies Centre in Singapore, said. "So this [month's] meeting -- which was really a more detailed face-to-face briefing by Daw Suu to her foreign counterparts -- is a step forward from the Myanmar government's previous reluctance to discuss it."
This month's retreat may well get a regional conversation started on a domestic topic that has clear spillover effects on Southeast Asia and beyond.
The meeting's weight becomes clearer given that more than a year ago -- in May and December 2015 -- the only multilateral discussions on the Rohingya could not even use the word ''Rohingya'' as the Myanmar government preferred the term "Rohingya Bengalis" or "descendants of migrants from Bangladesh". Hosted by Thailand after the crisis sparked by boatloads of desperate Rohingya fleeing Myanmar, they were called conferences on "irregular migration in the Indian Ocean".
But as Asean transforms itself from an organisation to a community, expectations are inevitable that it helps keep a peaceful environment among member nations.
Asean has had previous forays into mediation on issues of regional concern.
In 2011, Indonesia, then Asean chairman, brokered a truce between Thailand and Cambodia during their spat over the disputed Preah Vihear temple.
The Southeast Asian grouping has quietly played a role in Myanmar's recent history including its 2008 facilitation of the international humanitarian response in the wake of cyclone Nargis, when Myanmar was still wary of external actors. Its decades of engagement gave the then military-led Myanmar government a level of comfort with it.
Viewing Myanmar's political change as a fruit of their constructive engagement policy, other Asean members would not want to see this ''success'' unravel due to intercommunal tensions from within. In its middle age, Asean may have to find a creative way of tweaking its principle of non-interference and adapt to newer realities using its unique brand of quiet diplomacy.
Much of Asean's way is to speak more softly to the world, but more frankly among themselves.
"I would think that this [month's retreat] shows the connection between Asean's quiet diplomacy and the non-interference principle, and the illustration of this combination has usually been in trying to assist Myanmar," added the Asean Studies Centre's Moe Thuzar.
Myanmar's foreign ministry expressed its "readiness to grant necessary humanitarian access and to keep Asean members informed of developments in the Rakhine State". Ms Suu Kyi stressed "the need for time and space for the government's efforts to bear fruit". But no Asean mechanism to monitor the situation, or next step, was announced.
Though the religious aspect of the Rohingya issue often makes headlines and stirs emotions across Islamic communities, the Rakhine situation is worrisome to Asean due to a wider mix of security reasons.
Instability in Rakhine adds tension to Myanmar's internal ethnic conflicts, specifically the increased fighting by ethnic armies in Kachin and Shan states.
The internal conflicts resulted in the displacement of 218,000 people, of which 78% are women and children, living in camps or camp-like situations in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine, says the UN Humanitarian Needs Review report this month.
Up to 15,000 people may have fled across Myanmar's border into China from Kachin and Shan in the past month, UN officials say. Humanitarian groups remain barred since April 2016.
There are worries that the more Rakhine simmers, the more it can nurture radical elements from within the Rohingya community and elsewhere, against the backdrop of Islamic State's presumed search for other arenas of struggle in Asia.
In a recent report, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group mentioned "a new Muslim insurgency" in Rakhine that involves a "well-organised, apparently well-funded group" led by "Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics."
Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia worry about radicalisation at home. Thailand and the Philippines have restive southern areas which are home to Muslims, and so it is not hard to grasp their concerns if a magnet for extremists emerges in their midst.
So far, Myanmar's neighbours have conveyed worries about humanitarian concerns and the lack of independent access to the conflict areas.
While Asean is in its early days of shaping a role in the cross-border implications of Rakhine's volatility and stability in Myanmar, the retreat at least made it clear that this 'internal' matter is now officially an Asean issue.
Johanna Son, based in Bangkok for 16 years, is editor and director of the Reporting Asean media programme (www.aseannews.net).
Johanna Son, based in Bangkok, is a Filipina journalist and editor who covers issues relating to Asia and Asean. She has been based in Thailand for 16 years.