Marred by criticisms of being too lenient or too slow, ASEAN's ability to credibly engage Myanmar on the Rohingya issue was discussed at length during the 34th ASEAN Summit. Unfortunately, this decades-long problem is one that needs time and patience to resolve in a meaningful and lasting manner.
In the weeks leading up to the recently concluded 34th ASEAN Summit under Thailand’s chairmanship, the question of ASEAN credibly engaging Myanmar on the Rohingya issue was among key topics for discussion in Bangkok.
Significantly, the Chairman’s Statement of the 34th ASEAN Summit reported ASEAN’s deliberations regarding this issue in two paragraphs among the updates for the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. In the past the Rohingya issue had been reported under a separate heading on developments in Myanmar. This indicates current ASEAN Chair Thailand’s sensitivity to further politicising the issue, while recognising the imperatives of addressing “the root causes of the conflict” which are indeed deeply embedded in social inequalities and cultural misperceptions. Stressing the importance of finding a “comprehensive and durable solution” further indicates the long-term nature of the issue, for both ASEAN and Myanmar.
ASEAN’s dealings with Myanmar over the years have highlighted the need to invest time and patience to bring results. When ASEAN attempted to bring up the Rohingya issue for discussion in 2009 and 2015 Myanmar insisted that the issue was mainly domestic. The National League for Democracy government started acknowledging the regional dimensions of the issue in November 2016. It has also prioritised briefing ASEAN counterparts and engaging ASEAN mechanisms. This is the single ray of hope for ASEAN’s continued engagement with Myanmar – bilaterally and regionally – in finding a lasting solution to this decades-long problem.
Even so, ASEAN’s moves have been criticised as too lenient or too slow. ASEAN’s consultative process of decision-making makes for thoroughness and compromise, but not speed. Meeting the press after a meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers prior to the 34th ASEAN Summit, Thailand’s Foreign Minister said that Myanmar and Bangladesh need to set a timeline and procedures for repatriation. In the meanwhile, Rohingya refugees in the camps in Bangladesh continue to be reluctant to return voluntarily. Access to social services, education and employment opportunities are ongoing concerns for the communities in the various camps, as they continue to seek some security from the difficult situation in which statelessness leaves them. Fighting between Myanmar’s military and the ethnic Rakhine insurgent group Arakan Army has also affected perceptions of human security in Rakhine State, where attitudes against the Rohingya continue to harden. Hard attitudes and negative narratives towards Rohingya are found across Myanmar.
ASEAN’s dealings with Myanmar over the years have highlighted the need to invest time and patience to bring results.
In early June 2019, the leaked contents of a needs assessment report by the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) caused an outcry over what were viewed as overly optimistic scenarios and inconsistent numbers of the Rohingya to be repatriated to Myanmar. The AHA Centre’s Executive Director defended the report’s contents, citing the limited ambit of the Centre’s mandate to identify where ASEAN could work with Myanmar to facilitate the repatriation process.
Myanmar continues to shoulder the main responsibility for implementing the repatriation and ensuring safe and conducive conditions for lives and livelihoods of the Rohingya. But ASEAN’s long experience in dealing with Myanmar caution that no aspect of this issue can be satisfactorily resolved in the short-term.
Moe Thuzar is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.