EXPERTS HAVE no faith that Asean can effectively tackle the ongoing ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, as leaders of the regional group gather for a summit this week in Singapore.
“Asean’s culture of saving face and not touching sensitive issues is no surprise,” said Arthit Thongin, an expert in international security from Rangsit University at a seminar yesterday. “Asean works when it comes to mutual (economic) benefits such as free trade agreements. But when it comes problematic issues, the 10 countries scatter.”
This is also because of the weak democratic atmosphere within Asean, meaning power to manage humanitarian issues falls into the hands of leaders and other authorities.
“They tend to frame this as a topic for the nation-state rather than one of humanitarian interest,” Arthit said.
“Leaders in this kind of regime also tend to cling to the traditional approach of maintaining the status quo rather than addressing democratic values such as human rights,” he said.
International pressure, meanwhile, could not be significantly pushed due to fears that this would weaken Myanmar’s long-awaited elected government and trigger a return of military rule.
Lalita Hanwong, an academic from Kasetsart University’s social science faculty, said that there was currently no mechanism within Asean that could truly address the Rohingya issue. “Asean has problem with legitimacy. Even the term ‘Rohingya’ is not used extensively in the Asean arena,” Lalita said.
The Myanmar government, in which the Tatmadaw, or military, remains influential, uses the term “Bengali” in referring to the Muslim minority, implying that they are from Bengal and not native to the country.
The Tatmadaw commander in chief, Min Aung Hlaing, last year succeeded in convincing the Thai junta government to use the same term in reference to the Rohingya.
The current Rohingya crisis began in August last year with a rebel attack on Myanmar security outposts. Harsh reaction under the Tatmadaw’s clearance operation killed thousands of Rohingya and forced some 700,000 people to flee to Bangladesh. Some of them extended their dangerous journey to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Meanwhile on Friday Washington time, the US State Department released its annual report on human rights practices, which detailed ethnic cleansing, arbitrary and extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and legal restrictions against the Rohingya.
Apart from accounts of massive physical abuses against minorities, the report noted that the Rohingya in Rakhine State faced severe discrimination based on ethnicity as well as exclusion from the political process.
In Asean, the predominantly Muslim countries of Malaysia and Indonesia speak up for the Rohingya, but their domestic agendas are not pursued through Asean mechanisms.
The previous Asean summit, in Manila last year, addressed the AHA centre’s function, but did not discuss the Rohingya conflict at all.