Rakhine crisis needs holistic approach
When Myanmar joined Asean in 1997, it was considered a strategic move to counter the influence of China and India. Since then, Asean's relationship with the country has had many ups and downs, often due to persistent reports of human rights abuses.
In 2006, Myanmar had to forego the block's rotating chairmanship because the US and EU threatened to boycott Asean meetings. And in 2007, nine Asean foreign ministers spoke of their revulsion towards the government's violent reaction to peaceful demonstrations during the Saffron revolution.
Asean intervened again in 2008, when Cyclone Nargis struck. Despite some 140,000 deaths and at least 800,000 made homeless, Myanmar rejected international assistance. In an emergency session, foreign ministers decided to establish a mechanism to facilitate the distribution of assistance from the international community.
But Asean has been much more reluctant to become involved in Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state and, notably, in the appalling treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority. After decades of discrimination and violent persecution, in 2012 waves of violence in Rakhine lead to restrictions which international institutions said amounted to apartheid.
Asean did not pay much attention until 2014, when an ever-growing number of desperate Rohingya fled Myanmar aboard ramshackle boats, trying to reach Malaysia and Indonesia. A global outcry over the treatment of refugees in the region led to a special meeting on irregular migration in the Indian Ocean, called by Thailand in 2015.
But regional efforts have largely remained ineffective. Until today, thousands of Rohingya refugees continue to risk their lives as they try to cross the high seas. In this year alone, more than 2,000 are thought to have tried to make the journey.
Calls for Asean to take on a greater role grew exponentially in 2016 and 2017 when the Myanmar military undertook what it called clearing operations. They claimed these brutal campaigns were to counter terrorist attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa).
These and other details are outlined in a new report called "Asean's Rakhine crisis, assessing the regional response to atrocities in Rakhine state".
One of its key findings is that as the grouping often struggled to respect its key principles of consensus and non-interference while balancing international and domestic pressures, it resorted to a piecemeal rather than holistic approach to the Rakhine situation. It also failed to engage with external actors and to promote transparency.
To be fair, other international actors have also been resorting to piecemeal approaches when it comes to Rakhine state. Ever since the massive enforced deportation of Rohingya to Bangladesh in 2017, many in the diplomatic community have put significant emphasis on the Rohingya refugees' safe, dignified and voluntary return to Rakhine state.
While this is an understandable first impulse which helped to meet immediate humanitarian needs, particularly also in Bangladesh, it had unintended consequences. The limited humanitarian focus contributed to the neglect of the underlying causes of the Rakhine state conflict. The massive flight of the Rohingya was not a stand-alone problem. It was and remains a symptom of serious underlying issues.
The 2017 report of the Rakhine Advisory Commission, headed by the late Kofi Annan, speaks of two recurring conflict narratives: first, the conflicted relationship between the people of Rakhine and the central government; and second, the troubled relations between the ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya communities. While cautioning that there is no quick fix for these challenges, it identified three interrelated crises, of development, of human rights and of security. These issues must be addressed simultaneously.
As often happens, the more complex conflicts are, the greater the urge to be seen to do something, rather than digging in to try to assist with the development of a comprehensive approach. It buys a seat at the table and it eases some of the pressure.
Asean's initial responses to the 2016 and 2017 violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine were slow and muted, even though some of its members, such as Indonesia, were more proactive. But like many others in the international community, Indonesia overestimated its leverage in Nay Pyi Taw and, more specifically, its foreign minister Retno Marsudi's personal relations with Aung San Suu Kyi.
By 2019 Asean started expressing support for a more visible and enhanced role, but it hardly moved beyond humanitarian assistance and the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. By that time the situation in Rakhine state had already started to change significantly. From late 2018 onwards, fighting between the Myanmar military and the insurgent Arakan Army (AA) had already started to turn larger swathes of north and central Rakhine into a war zone.
To this day, Rohingya repatriation remains high on the agenda, even though it is clear that given the circumstances, returning refugees to Rakhine would be highly irresponsible. An international conference planned for Thursday, for instance, is specifically organised to raise funds for the refugees.
While we fully agree that it is important to keep the appalling plight of the Rohingya high on the agenda and that humanitarian support for Rakhine state is urgently needed, an international conference that does not address the underlying causes of the crisis may contribute to the further entrenchment of the status quo.
This is where the humanitarian principle of "do no harm" comes in. Asean must be aware of the context in which it acts and take care to avoid unintended consequences of its actions. The APHR report gives examples of how Asean support has actually contributed to entrenching restrictions and discrimination in Myanmar. One of them is the endorsement of the National Verification Card (NVC), which forms part of Myanmar's plans for the repatriation process. The Rohingya reject these NVC's because they are categorised as "foreigners" on these cards.
"Asean has failed to engage Myanmar on key human rights issues and has alarmingly propped up government narratives and policies of discrimination," says APHR. It also urges Asean to recognise that the Rakhine crisis is not only a humanitarian one and to develop a comprehensive strategy guided by non-discriminatory principles.
Asean is doing itself a disservice with its reluctance to engage Myanmar more comprehensively. As the most important regional organisation, it has an interest in resolving threats to peace and stability which go beyond one member's borders. The souring of relations with Bangladesh is not in Asean's interest either.
Finally, it should also be more aware that Myanmar has become a frontline in the new war for regional supremacy between China, India and Japan. Asean risks becoming irrelevant if it does not assert itself. The United States has also started to assert itself and, depending on the outcome of the US elections, it may become more prominent in the region.
Laetitia van den Assum is a former Netherlands ambassador and Kobsak Chutikul is a retired ambassador and former member of the Rakhine Advisory Commission.