Asean Rakhine approach: Slow but sure

Asean Rakhine approach: Slow but sure

Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has discussed Rakhine state affairs with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and other Asean leaders including, amidst signs of slow Asean progress. (Photo provided)
Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has discussed Rakhine state affairs with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and other Asean leaders including, amidst signs of slow Asean progress. (Photo provided)

By October 2012, an exodus of refugees from Myanmar's Rakhine state had dominated global headlines throughout the year. Asean was under heavy pressure from the international community to do something about it.

Cambodia, as the Asean chair, decided to call a special foreign ministerial meeting to address the issue, and the first response came from Nay Pyi Taw and the administration of Myanmar president U Thien Sein.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

The rejection was so strong - Myanmar considered it an act of interference in its internal affairs - that within hours Phnom Penh realised that its initiative for a regional approach, let alone solution, would be in vain. Other Asean nations did not even respond.

It was also a very sensitive time as Myanmar was trying to integrate with Asean.

Myanmar, which joined Asean in 1997, was also preparing to chair the regional grouping in 2014 after deferring it for nearly a decade.

Truth be told, the crisis was less severe than it is today as it dealt mainly with an exodus of refugees left stranded in the Indian Ocean by human traffickers.

It took another two and half years before Thailand successfully convinced Myanmar and other affected countries to attend an international conference, with a more mundane name and outside the Asean framework -- the Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean on May 29, 2015 in Bangkok.

It was attended by nearly 200 high-level representatives from 16 countries and major UN organisations. The US and Japan also attended as observers.

For the first time Myanmar sent a team of senior officials to take part in the meeting and explain the efforts and measures it had taken.

At the meeting, Myanmar and other affected countries -- Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia -- reaffirmed their full commitment to provide humanitarian assistance, try and prevent the migrants who were victims of trafficking from fleeing, and to strengthen cooperation in law enforcement to stop criminal networks.

They emphasised that human trafficking and people smuggling must be addressed by tackling the cause and contributing factors. The conference also recommended a series of steps to be taken.

As it turned out, funding from potential donor countries was not forthcoming with few of them pledging. Otherwise, remedial mechanisms could have been in place as early as mid-2015, yielding positive outcomes that could have improved the overall situation in Rakhine.

The 2015 Bangkok meeting identified a myriad of needs to be tackled such as economic incentives for job creation, promotion of trade and investment, development assistance in at-risk areas, enhancing a sense of security and belonging, promoting full respect for human rights, and adequate access to basic rights and services.

These efforts had to involve the government, private sector and all stakeholders.

As the influx of refugees from Rakhine continued unabated, Myanmar became a democracy in 2016, with the National League for Democracy taking over the government from Thein Sein's administration.

It was an extraordinary development that quickly raised hopes for a comprehensive and lasting solution to the Rakhine crisis. As pressure mounted from within Asean and the international community, Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi called for a special retreat on the Rakhine situation.

It was also the first time in Asean history that a member had called a special meeting when it was not serving as chair.

At the retreat in December 2016 in Yangon, Ms Suu Kyi pledged to update her Asean counterparts on the situation and to consider allowing humanitarian access for Asean members.

That much was clear. At the Yangon meeting, cracks within the regional grouping was visible. Malaysia was unhappy with the outcome and the manner Ms Suu Kyi chose to respond to the crisis.

After the August 2017 coordinated attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army killed 13 policemen, the situation in Rakhine dramatically worsened.

A bloody crackdown, refugees fleeing across the border into Bangladesh and a breakdown in the social fabric left a permanent scar on Ms Suu Kyi's democratically elected government.

Within Asean, member countries responded differently. Indonesia and Brunei have been friendly, using discreet diplomacy to convey their sentiment to Myanmar.

Today, Indonesia, as the largest Muslim member, continues to serve as a moderating force. However, Malaysia has taken a different path. As domestic pressure continued to build in the run up to a general election in May 2018, the Najib Razak government incrementally hardened its position against Myanmar over the Rakhine issue.

Senior officials including then prime minister Mr Najib went ballistic, condemning Ms Suu Kyi by name and disassociating Malaysia from the September 2017 Asean joint statement on Rakhine.

Truth be told, Malaysia's strong reaction hampered Asean's efforts to step in, as a consensus would not have been possible.

In addition, Myanmar's anxieties regarding Asean continued to grow.

However, the arrival of a new Malaysian government under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad last year was a turning point that has gradually laid the groundwork for possible cooperation between Myanmar and Asean.

That helped explain why Singapore was extremely cautious in handling the crisis last year.

As one of main Asean investors in Myanmar, coupled with its hosting of tens of thousands of Myanmar workers, Singapore's stake in Myanmar is extremely high.

When Cyclone Nargis hit the Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008, it took less than two weeks for Nay Pyi Taw to allow an Asean-led core group to help with rehabilitation and reconstruction.

By comparison, the current government took much longer to involve Asean. Lest we forget, once Asean makes a decision to help, it cannot turn back. From 1979-1992, Asean backed Thailand through thick and thin during the 13-year Cambodian conflict despite dissent among its members.

However, as the 52-year-old organisation has repeatedly shown, a strong sense of regional survival and interests would finally help to resolve serious domestic turmoil in member countries.

At the recent Asean foreign ministerial retreat in Chiang Mai, Myanmar was more enthusiastic to engage the regional bloc. During a meeting in Nay Pyi Taw with Asean Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi in December, Ms Suu Kyi expressed confidence and respect for Asean and its chief in working with Myanmar.

It was a big leap of faith for a leader who was disregarded by the regional grouping during her opposition days.

Indeed, the new Asean chief was given backing in Chiang Mai to play a facilitating role to ensure close coordination within Asean on a needs assessment mission. It was supposed to take place Jan 12-26, but it was delayed by tight security in the wake of attacks by the Arakan Army in Rakhine. It is hoped that by the end of this month, the team would be able to assess needs on the ground. This time around, Myanmar and Asean will work together to create a conducive environment for the repatriation of Rohingya Muslims as well as undertaking sustainable and equitable development projects in Rakhine state. They also agreed to compile information regarding cooperation and assistance voluntarily extended by Asean members to address the humanitarian situation and promote sustainable development.

Asean has come a long way in engaging Myanmar on the Rakhine crisis, from total rejection to much closer cooperation now. All concerned parties now have to work together. Most importantly, Myanmar now should have the confidence to address sensitive issues including alleged human rights violations raised by various international organisations including UN agencies.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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