Should ASEAN Do More About The Rohingya Crisis?

A new report from the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) has slammed ASEAN for its “lack of leadership, structural shortcomings and a failure to grasp the full gravity of rights abuses,” when addressing the events unfolding in Myanmar.


The Rohingya are an ethnic minority in Myanmar, differing from the dominant Buddhist groups linguistically and religiously. Over the years, as tensions have escalated, the Myanmar government has institutionalized discrimination against the ethnic group through strict restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement. In August 2017, a deadly crackdown by Myanmar’s army on Rohingya Muslims sent hundreds of thousands fleeing across the border into Bangladesh. While those who fled now live in sprawling refugee camps, those left behind in Rakhine are in camps for displaced people that human rights groups have described as “open prisons.”


A report published by UN investigators in August 2018 accused Myanmar’s military of carrying out mass killings and rapes with “genocidal intent.” The UN Human Rights Council has deemed the crisis as having a “devastating effect on vulnerable members of Rohingya communities, particularly women and children who require gender and age-sensitive interventions.”


ASEAN’s general approach has always been conscious of principles of sovereignty, non-interference and consensus decision making. However, this approach has been criticized by the APHR report. “Caught between respect for its key principles of consensus and non-interference on the one hand, and international and domestic outcry on the other,” an APHR report states, “The regional bloc has struggled to respond to the crisis and articulate a clear vision and strategy that would help end the cycle of violence and displacement.”


The primary issue the APHR had with ASEAN’s approach to the crisis was the focus on humanitarian aid and repatriation of refugees, without acknowledging the underlying issues of citizenship rights and ethnic segregation. Without addressing these underlying issues first, ASEAN’s attempt to address the crisis within the confines of its “non-interference” principle has led to it being “at best counter-productive and at worst actively contributing to human rights abuses.”


“Until ASEAN and other international actors acknowledge the situation that led the Rohingya to flee in the first place, there’s no hope of peace for any of the people who call Rakhine State home,” said Laetitia van den Assum, a former member of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State in an interview with Aljazeera.


Former ASEAN diplomats have warned that this inaction by ASEAN on the Rohingya crisis may have long-lasting effects on their credibility. As reported by the Lowy Institute, a former Indonesian foreign minister, has observed that “when these issues are being discussed at the UN about human rights, ASEAN is not even being invoked.” Former Thai Foreign Minister has advised that the ASEAN community may need to “look outside the region in their search for a moral standard and mechanism for redress.”

Lucy Xu