Ethnic Rohingya Muslim refugees stand infront of a picture of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak as they take photographs on their smartphones during a gathering in Kuala Lumpur on December 4, 2016 against the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi must step in to prevent the "genocide" of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, Malaysia's prime minister Najib Razak said as he mocked the Nobel laureate for her inaction. (MANAN VATSYAYANA / AFP)

Managing the Rohingya Issue through Quiet Diplomacy


The Rohingya crisis is a transboundary problem that requires a regional response. ASEAN's position of non-interference towards Myanmar should be combined with an awareness of the need to act together - a validation of mutual respect and constructive engagement.

The recent flare-up of the Rohingya problem has grave ramifications on ASEAN unity when Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak broke the silence in condemning the Myanmar government on the ground of “genocide” and questioning Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership credentials. Criticising Najib’s move as interference in Myanmar’s internal affairs to gain support from Malaysia’s Muslim electorate, the Myanmar government stopped issuing new permits for its nationals to work in Malaysia. As tensions between the two countries continue to rise, there is a danger that the discord will spill over to jeopardise the unity of the ten-member regional organization.

His domestic politics consideration aside, Najib’s open criticism has been long in the making since the spill-over effects of the Rohingya problem have gone far beyond Myanmar boundaries. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand over the past years, putting physical and financial burdens on these countries. There are also valid concerns that the Rohingya problem may ferment radicalisation among Myanmar and non-Myanmar Muslims, including Rohingya refugees currently residing in neighbouring ASEAN countries.

While sharing concerns over the situation, Indonesia has constructively engaged Myanmar through direct consultation. Following the 6 December meeting between Indonesia Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar has agreed to convene a special ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Yangon on 19 December to discuss recent developments in Rakhine, reaffirming the long-standing practice of consultation and mutual respect that has been ASEAN’s DNA for almost half a century.

Malaysia embraced megaphone criticism, and in doing so, undermined ASEAN cohesion.

The forthcoming meeting offers a good avenue for ASEAN’s constructive engagement on this sensitive issue. It also indicates that application of non-interference nowadays must come hand in hand with a deep awareness of the need to act together in addressing common challenges that have become increasingly transnational. The Rohingya crisis is one such challenge with many serious aspects, including humanitarian crisis, people smuggling and jihadism, all of which are transboundary in nature and require regional response. This is the reason why the ASEAN Charter balances non-interference with other principles of shared commitment, collective responsibility and enhanced consultations on matters seriously affecting ASEAN common interest.

Perhaps ASEAN’s role in this issue should not be read as a challenge to non-interference, but as a validation of mutual respect and constructive engagement. Malaysia embraced megaphone criticism, and in doing so, undermined ASEAN cohesion. Indonesia chose the tried and tested ASEAN tradition of quiet diplomacy, and won an opportunity to rebuild unity and credibility for the group.

Hoang Thi Ha is Senior Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.