Written by Ronan Lee.

Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis is a man-made humanitarian disaster. The actions of Myanmar’s military in northern Rakhine state are accurately described by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

The scale of human suffering is staggering. Amnesty International describes the situation as “a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe”. Almost 400,000 Rohingya have now fled to Bangladesh, where the authorities and humanitarian agencies struggle to feed them. Most of the refugees will have little more than a tarpaulin to shelter them from the Asian monsoon.

…this situation could ignite regional religious tensions as the group’s two major religions, Buddhism and Islam, risk conflict over the treatment of the Rohingya.

There can be little doubt this is not how the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) wanted the group’s 50th anniversary year to begin – with the global media focussed on atrocities committed against a Muslim minority by an ASEAN member’s military. Celebrations of ASEAN’s golden anniversary began in early August and included a parade in Jakarta, the lighting of lanterns in Manila, and dance performances in Kuala Lumpur. But the August 8th anniversary of ASEAN’s founding has special resonance for the people of Myanmar who remember August 8, 1988 as the auspicious date when a Rangoon (now Yangon) student protest developed into a full-scale uprising, launching the country’s pro-democracy movement and almost toppling one of the world’s longest running military-led governments.

Despite this anniversary being mostly unacknowledged by Myanmar’s state media, the 8888 Uprising set Burma (as Myanmar was then officially named) on a path towards its current quasi-civilian administration and began the remarkable political journey of Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi would come to domestic and international attention as an icon of democracy and human rights, resulting in her prolonged house arrest, a Nobel Peace Prize awarded in her absence, and today, to her being Myanmar’s de-facto civilian leader.

In other circumstances, Suu Kyi could have played a pivotal role in celebrations of ASEAN’s longevity and its successes. Myanmar’s journey towards democracy could have been presented to the world’s media as an ASEAN success story. Instead, Suu Kyi finds herself domestically sidelined by her country’s military, while internationally criticised for failing to address the mistreatment of the Rohingya. ASEAN meanwhile, finds the world’s media is reporting serious human rights abuses including ethnic cleansing by a member state.

ASEAN is accustomed to member states struggling to address domestic political goals, and even the challenge of insurgencies, including those that attract sympathy from within other member states (Muslim insurgencies in Thailand’s Pattani and the Philippines’ Mindanao are on-going). But central to ASEAN success is the contribution it has made to regional stability, largely because of its principle of non-intervention in other members’ domestic affairs. Limiting the temptation for member states to interfere in the domestic affairs of their neighbours has helped promote ongoing economic and political cooperation between members. It is a recipe that has contributed to remarkable regional stability, rising living standards, and economic growth. ASEAN is now the world’s seventh largest economy – McKinsey calls it an “economic powerhouse”.

This is now jeopardised by the ferocity with which Myanmar’s military has targeted the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. The Rohingya claim a centuries-long heritage in Myanmar but their collective rights have been denied by the authorities who have subjected them to decades of persecution. While violence directed against the Rohingya is nothing new, in recent times, Muslim militants have emerged in the borderlands between Myanmar and Bangladesh, capitalising on the disenchantment at appalling living conditions caused by official mistreatment of the Rohingya. In late 2016 these militants attacked security posts, prompting an aggressive Myanmar military “clearance operation” which caused 90,000 Rohingya flee to Bangladesh. Described by a UN official as “ethnic cleansing” and by Amnesty International as “collective punishment” of the civilian population, the Myanmar military’s actions allegedly included the widespread use of sexual violence as a military tactic, the burning of villages and the arbitrary detention of hundreds of Rohingya. Myanmar’s authorities, for months, prevented World Food Program deliveries to tens of thousands of Rohingya villagers reliant on this food aid.

This mistreatment led to a growing pressure in ASEAN’s Muslim-majority member states for their political leaders to intervene. In 2016 there were protests in Indonesia and Thailand in support of the Rohingya’s rights, but the biggest international escalation came with the suggestion by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak that the Rohingya’s situation was an “insult to Islam”. Razak, under domestic political pressure because of a financial scandal and facing a national election within a year, perhaps opportunistically, became a vocal advocate for the Rohingya’s cause. He pledged 10 million ringgit (2.25 million USD) in aid, and told a Kuala Lumpur rally, “We want to tell Suu Kyi enough is enough…the world cannot sit by and watch genocide taking place”. Similar sentiments were expressed by the thousands who protested outside the Myanmar embassies in Jakarta and Bangkok carrying banners demanding “Stop Genocide against Rohingya in Myanmar”.

Suu Kyi, who serves as Myanmar Foreign Minister, refused to discuss the Rohingya with Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Aniyah Aman, citing ASEAN’s principle of non-interference. Whatever the motivation for his strong stance, Razak’s statements about the Rohingya are a reflection of public opinion in Malaysia, and of widespread opinion within the global Islamic community – that the mistreatment of the Rohingya is an insult to Islam, and is an international concern, despite what Myanmar’s government may wish. Razak is seen as defending the rights of a Muslim minority who are mistreated by Myanmar’s authorities because they are Muslim.

Razak’s testing of ASEAN’s principle of non-interference has involved strong statements, the provision of humanitarian aid, and recently raising the issue with US President Donald Trump (Razak then Tweeted about doing so). And there is surely a danger that as Indonesia’s next nationwide election approaches in 2019 similar pressures will be brought to bear on Indonesian politicians including President Joko Widodo. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation, its 260 million people account for more than one third of ASEAN’s population.  Its politics have come to be increasingly influenced by hardline political Islam, as evidenced by the high profile 2017 jailing of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (popularly known as Ahok), Jakarta’s first Christian Governor. Strong words may not be enough to soothe Indonesian hardliners concerned about the persecution of Muslims by another ASEAN member.

Michael Vatikiotis has highlighted how this situation could ignite regional religious tensions as the group’s two major religions, Buddhism and Islam, risk conflict over the treatment of the Rohingya. Throughout the 2017 Rohingya crisis, ASEAN’s Muslim political leaders have routinely ignored the non-intervention principle and vocally criticized Myanmar’s actions, but an equally concerning problem for ASEAN is that the group’s role has been almost minimal.

Myanmar’s birthday surprise for ASEAN was to showcase the group’s inadequacy to cope with a regional crisis. While the Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh rather than to another ASEAN member, neither Myanmar, the UN, nor other prominent members of the global community have considered ASEAN the body most capable of mediating the conflict. Put simply, ASEAN does not have the institutional capabilities to address this crisis – as a regional political player, ASEAN has been effectively sidelined.

Not so India and China. In the midst of the crisis, Myanmar hosted a state visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi followed Myanmar’s line on the Rohingya, promising that both countries would work together to solve “a terrorist problem”. And when a UN Security Council discussion and censure of Myanmar’s actions appeared likely, Myanmar turned to what it described as “friendly countries” China and Russia, both permanent Council members, in an attempt to prevent this. Unlike ASEAN, China and India can offer Myanmar something of material benefit – moral and practical support to tackle insurgents, and a reliable vote on the UN Security Council.

Myanmar’s mistreatment of the Rohingya, as Vatikiotis rightly points out, brings to the fore an internal ASEAN rift along religious lines that threatens the region’s long-term stability. However, ASEAN’s problems go beyond the potential break-down of the non-interference principle. The group’s lack of capacity must surely leave many questioning ASEAN’s viability in its current form. ASEAN is presented with two challenges: it must now surely consider finding a new way of managing the expectations of a diverse membership, as the principle of non-interference appears increasingly inadequate to do this.  The body needs to seriously consider its capabilities – what should ASEAN be able to do when confronted by a regional crisis?

The Rohingya crisis undoubtedly marks the low point of Suu Kyi’s international standing (close to half a million people support a petition calling for her Nobel Peace Prize to be stripped), but in ASEAN’s golden anniversary year, Myanmar’s mistreatment of the Rohingya has also helped identify ASEAN’s political impotence.

Ronan Lee (@Ronan_Lee) is an Irish-Australian political advisor and PhD candidate at Deakin University researching questions of Rohingya history and identity. Ronan has travelled extensively in Myanmar, witnessing Myanmar’s 2010 general election and meeting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi shortly after her release from house arrest. Image credit: CC by Mathias Eick EU/ECHO January 2013.

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