Western Myanmar is under the world’s spotlight for what the United Nations calls a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people. From the other side of the globe, the European Union has slammed the crackdown in Rakhine state as “a human rights crisis with serious humanitarian consequences”.
That concern is apparently not shared by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member. Asean has remained largely silent on the Rohingya crisis.
Myanmar’s de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her government have been widely condemned for insufficient efforts to resolve the crisis. Fellow Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu recently branded the crisis “slow genocide” and urged Suu Kyi to speak out for justice and human rights. Amnesty International also calls the Myanmar military’s crackdown in Rakhine a “genocide”, intended to erase the minority Rohingya from the map.
It took Suu Kyi almost four weeks before she finally spoke out against the human rights violations last week. Many suspect her televised address merely intended to dampen criticism from the UN General Assembly session in New York, rather than to protect Rohingya Muslims’ rights.
Although almost half the population of Myanmar’s Rohingya – more than 400,000 – have already fled to Bangladesh, the exodus is apparently not significant enough for Asean or its members to take a stance on rights violations.
The huge humanitarian crisis in Myanmar confirms a now common observation – that the “Asean Way” fundamentally fails to recognise human rights.
The regional bloc claims that such recognition is in fact enshrined in its Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, leading to the introduction of the 2012 Asean Human Rights Declaration.
The Declaration was strongly criticised by the UN Human Rights Council for failures to embrace and synchronise with the international language of human rights. Nevertheless, it has gone unchanged, with its implementation overruled by the bloc’s fundamental principle of “non-interference in the internal affairs of member states”. Effectively this means that beliefs in cultural supremacy have been maintained at the expense of common humanity.
Despite Asean’s commitment to “strengthen democracy” and “to promote and protect human rights”, the institution and its member states continue to deny the universality of democracy and human rights. This results in the further alienation of their citizens from universal norms.
Asean countries do not welcome criticism of their democracy and human rights records, especially when it comes from the West. Bloc members often resort to combative “East versus West” rhetoric to defend their failures to comply with international commitments, as observed since the 1990s in the discourse of “Asian values” first championed by Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.
Of course, East and West have never and never will be the same, but fundamental human rights do not have borders, national identity or ownership. They are simply a birthright and entitlement of all of us.
Increasing international criticism of the Myanmar government’s handling of the Rohingya crisis is a clear signal that Asean must reconsider its non-interference policy in this case, if its human rights mechanism is to retain any credibility.
However, there is no indication that Asean countries will suspend that policy, which it claims is crucial for the national sovereignty of its members.
Support for the Asean Way has been growing among neighbouring countries since the previous Rohingya exodus in 2014-’15.
A nationalistic policy of non-interference in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand has been spurred by fears of the financial and security burdens that large numbers of refugees would bring.
These fears are fanned by the social media, while human rights and humanitarian concerns are dismissed by nationalist groups.
“Take them [the Rohingya] to stay in your home if you are so worried about them!”, is a familiar refrain among Southeast Asian Facebook users. This nationalist mentality allows the non-interference norms to be wielded expediently by the region’s leaders, while the Rohingya suffer as victims of the effective collusion between the Myanmar state and its Asean partners.
Southeast Asia’s leaders have indicated that changing the Asean Way by removing its focus on the supremacy of cultural norms and non-interference is not an option. This is seen, for example, in the denial of same-sex marriage in Singapore in 2015, and the increasing limitations placed on freedom of expression in Thailand since the 2014 military coup.
Asean leaders will find that human rights cannot be tailored to suit the Asean Way, since this universal value is a birthright and not something that can be limited or dictated by the bloc’s leadership.
The limited humanitarian aid now being offered by Asean is only in recognition of “pseudo-rights” expediently granted to the Rohingya. For as long as the regional bloc fails to protect their full rights as human beings, the existing 2012 Asean Human Rights Declaration will remain merely ornamental, rather than a mechanism to meaningfully promote and protect the fundamental rights of Asean citizens.
TITIPOL PHAKDEEWANICH is dean of the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University, and a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation at the University of Warwick in England.