Asean opting out of Rakhine efforts
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Asean opting out of Rakhine efforts

When Asean foreign ministers last met in Bangkok on July 31 and discussed the Rakhine crisis, their conclusions reflected the lowest common denominator of the bloc's membership. Two years after the enforced mass exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh, Asean is at risk of becoming irrelevant to the search for solutions.

Asean has been providing humanitarian and development assistance to Rakhine state, but its reluctance to recognise the underlying causes of the crisis gives Myanmar the opportunity to shield behind a shaky Asean consensus. It thus may be making matters worse.

Since the foreign ministers' meeting, Asean has continued to demonstrate that it is not only out of step on the Rakhine crisis, but also that its internal consensus is fraying. Asean as a group is being left behind as others move ahead.

Among new developments, the individual efforts of Asean's Indonesia and Malaysia stand out. They operate well above the lowest common denominator. In late September, at the UN General Assembly, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called a spade a spade and said that his old idea, that human rights criticism constitutes "interference" in a country's internal affairs, should not apply to severe abuses such as Myanmar's persecution of the Rohingya. He also shared his concern that genocide may have been committed in Rakhine.

Indonesia's foreign minister, also at the UN General Assembly, took a constructive approach and presented three key points that go well beyond the humanitarian situation: Myanmar should abolish discriminatory laws, policies and practices against the Rohingya; the country should create a conducive environment for refugees to return; and it should ensure justice and accountability over the Rohingya's persecution.

Around the same time, the US House of Representatives passed the Burma Act by a huge bipartisan vote of 394 to 21, calling for targeted financial sanctions.

Meanwhile, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the adoption of a strongly worded resolution left Myanmar even more isolated than before. On Oct 4, Gambia instructed its lawyers to initiate proceedings against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. It is taking Myanmar to court under the 1948 Genocide Convention.

Lastly, following the call by UN investigators to shun business dealings with companies controlled by Myanmar's military, a number of international corporations have now started to disengage.

One of them is fashion brand Esprit which says it will no longer source from a facility believed to be linked to Myanmar's military. Other brands, including H&M and Bestseller, have said they will re-evaluate where they are sourcing from.

These developments of the last three months confirm that the Rohingya issue is not going away. Once set in motion, the wheels of justice, adopted resolutions and legislative acts will continue to turn.

The Rakhine/Rohingya issue continues to stain the Asean "brand", and could make it less enticing for others to join Asean conferences. This undermines the organisation's credibility at a time of great political, economic and strategic uncertainty in Asia and in the rest of the world. Why bother with official communiques and agreed conclusions when they are stuck like an old gramophone record? Drafts of the section on Rakhine in the communique being prepared by officials and leaked by the Kyodo news agency do not indicate any substantive change of wording. Once again we see the lowest common denominator effect.

This is not about being for or against Myanmar. Given what is at stake in the region, Asean owes it to itself to be a constructive and solution-oriented player. This is about a crisis that transcends the borders of South Asia and Southeast Asia, one that deals with critical issues related to ethnicity, religion and national identity. The risk of spill-over to other countries is considerable, particularly given the growing use of social media to spread hate speech and incite violence.

In 2018, Asean made the services of its Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) available to Myanmar. Unfortunately, the centre has failed to make a significant difference. Not because its staff lacked dedication and expertise, but because political problems require more than humanitarian support alone. They require political will and a commitment to reform on the part of political actors.

The Asean Summit of Nov 2-4 in Bangkok is an opportunity to revisit the organisation's commitment to finding a solution to the Rakhine crisis. The urgency is higher than ever. Along with the fact that Rakhine being ravaged by a brutal conflict between the military and the insurgent Arakan Army, there is another reason why vast swathes of northern Rakhine state remain off-limits to all but a very few humanitarian organisations.

Satellite photos, media reports and information from residents indicate that the extensive preparations needed for voluntary returns of hundreds of thousands of refugees are not in place. Myanmar authorities seem to believe that if they hold out long enough, pressure to allow the Rohingya to return will ease. On the contrary, they should realise that in the eyes of those preparing cases against individuals responsible for atrocity crimes, such behaviour can help substantiate allegations of crimes against humanity.

Asean's dialogue with Myanmar should move beyond humanitarian and development issues. The report of the Rakhine Advisory Commission, chaired by the late Kofi Annan, strongly recommends that the state's crises of security, of human rights and of development should be addressed simultaneously: "What is needed is a calibrated approach -- one that combines political, developmental, security and human rights responses."

Asean could assist Myanmar with addressing these interrelated crises. They present considerable challenges, but the experience and knowledge needed to deal with them is available among Asean member states. What is needed is political will. A review by independent experts of the implementation of the Annan report would provide a good basis for dialogue. No such review is available at present.

The vast majority of people in Rakhine state want a peaceful and economically prosperous future. They are key stakeholders. Involving all ethnic communities in open dialogue and sustained engagement will help towards building much needed trust.

Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar is former foreign minister of Malaysia; Laetitia van den Assum is a former Dutch ambassador and member of the Kofi Annan Rakhine Advisory Commission; Kobsak Chutikul is a retired ambassador of Thailand and a former member of parliament; Dinna Wisnu is an associate professor in International Relations and former Indonesian representative to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.

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