Dr Nehginpao Kipgen
At the end of the 33rd Asean summit in Singapore on Nov 15, Singapore formally handed over the symbolic gavel of Asean chairmanship to Thailand, which it last held in 2009. The one-year rotating term will officially begin on Jan 1, 2019.
As the incoming chair, Thailand hinted at what the regional group should or could do when Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha told his Asean colleagues that the regional bloc is capable of playing an important role in addressing the situation in Rakhine state in a constructive, tangible and sustainable manner.
Gen Prayut suggested enhancing the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management to provide assistance to the affected people, as well as supporting the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to ensure the improvement of quality of life for all communities in Rakhine state.
As the Rohingya crisis has become a regional and international issue, Myanmar needs to start opening its doors for Asean to collectively address the problem. The engagement of Asean member states should not be seen as an interference in the internal affairs of a member state. Instead, it should be viewed as fellow Asean members trying to strengthen the internationalisation of the issue, which in many ways is Myanmar’s own initiative. For example, in August 2016, the Myanmar government formed a nine-member state advisory commission on Rakhine, chaired by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. Among others, the commission recommended citizenship verification, rights and equality, and documentation.
They also talked about the situation of the internally displaced and freedom of movement, as well as a ministerial-level appointment to coordinate the effective implementation of the commission’s recommendations. A year later in September 2017, the government established a 10-member committee advisory board to decide on implementation of the recommendations on Rakhine state, and to advise on the enactment of recommendations of the Kofi Annan commission. And in May of this year, Myanmar invited the UN Security Council members to visit the conflict-ridden areas of Rakhine state. The council members, among others, urged the Myanmar government to conduct a transparent investigation into alleged human rights abuses in northern Rakhine or face the possibility of military officials being referred to the International Criminal Court, and to speed up the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh with the help of UN agencies. The international community’s pressure was largely responsible for the signing of a tripartite agreement on June 6 between Myanmar and two UN agencies — United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and United Nations Development Program (UNDP) — which would help with the voluntary return and reintegration of displaced refugees, assist with the assessment of conditions in Rakhine state for those who are considering returning, and support programmes that benefit all communities in Rakhine state. Since it has already engaged the UN agencies and international experts, Myanmar should welcome Asean’s gesture of goodwill to help address the protracted Rohingya problem.
An attempt to oppose Asean’s desire to engage will only hamper the cohesion and strength of the organisation, and invites criticism from the international community. Many in Myanmar, including the military leadership, are more likely to be receptive and comfortable working with its fellow Asean partners than working with intervening Western governments. Moreover, historically and culturally, Myanmar has largely been on good terms with the incoming Asean chair. Asean should attempt to address the Rohingya conundrum in a mutually acceptable manner by involving the Rohingya community, the government of Bangladesh and the UN agencies (UNHCR and UNDP) with which Myanmar has signed an MoU. Besides leaders’ summits, Asean should also explore other platforms such as the Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) and the ADMM-Plus for possible ways to cooperate with the Myanmar military, which not only controls the security matters of the country, but also retains significant political power. The longer the Rohingya crisis remains unaddressed, the higher the possibility that the issue can become a breeding ground for radicalisation, which could be exploited and manipulated by Islamic terrorists. The role of ADMM and ADMM-Plus are particularly important for addressing such potential threats and for strengthening security and defence cooperation for peace, stability and development of the region. It is true that the Asean grouping has not taken any substantive measures on the Rohingya issue in the past, but given the recent developments within the organisation, we can only hope for a more active and engaging role for Asean. But the success of such engagement will largely depend on the openness and receptiveness of Myanmar, as well as the level of commitment from Asean member states, particularly from the incoming chair of the group.
While there may be some concerns about infringing on Myanmar’s national security and sovereignty, it may now be too late for the country to oppose the presence or involvement of the international community. There is even a possibility that the absence of relevant international organisations may be counterproductive. Moreover, in light of a number of unsuccessful initiatives of the Myanmar government since the quasi-civilian administration of President Thein Sein in 2012, the participation of Asean may help bring some new thinking and fresh ideas, which may pave the way for a possible solution to the protracted problem.
The writer is Associate Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including ‘Democratization of Myanmar’.
Dr Nehginpao Kipgen