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  • Writer's pictureBait Al-Amanah

ASEAN’s Powerlessness in the Rohingya Issue: Time for Reform?

Updated: Jan 19

By Muhammad Romadhon Mubarok, Research & Advocacy Analyst of Bait Al Amanah

It has been four years since the first attempt of military crackdown employed by Myanmar authorities against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the Rakhine state. Yet, concrete solutions to avert humanitarian crises are still unsettled and instead fade away from international community concerns.

The repatriation agreement signed by Dhaka and Naypyidaw on November 23, 2017, seemingly appears to be a breath of fresh air in the region in terms of the refugee crisis and regional security. Nevertheless, on the contrary, a coup d'état in Myanmar in early 2021 has temporarily brought the repatriation process into suspension. Ultimately, as the only intergovernmental community in the region, ASEAN is nothing more than a dying association when it comes to the Rohingya issue. Perhaps, the ASEAN founding fathers, in the very first establishment of the association, had a bright, discreet vision to build and bridge Southeast Asia into a prominent and vigorous region in the international arena. But, after all, at its soon-to-be 55th anniversary, the association still encounters and deals with a long-lasting silent deadlock in regards to political negotiations on the whole.

Rohingya is but one critical issue that remains in silence without any further significant action. As a matter of fact, quiet diplomacy has become the pretext of the 'non-interference' principle to address most of the crises and political tensions that have happened in the region. Albeit the ASEAN's principle of non-interference in domestic affairs of member states has given an enormous contribution to regional stability, the unprecedented obstacles derived from the globalisation process have paved the way to the new understanding of cosmopolitan principles in which the emphasis is on human security rather than political sovereignty.

From this point of view, the association should recalibrate and redefine how the guiding principle, which is reflected in "the ASEAN Way", could still be relevant and well-navigated to address contemporary issues, notably the Rohingya issue.

In short, ASEAN regional policy should be transformed from the traditional state-centric approach to a more people-centric security policy. Back in 2018, according to United Nations estimates, over 700,000 people left or were forced to flee Rakhine State, seeking asylum in neighbouring Bangladesh. Not to mention other Rohingya people who have escaped to India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and other countries across the region; the Rohingya refugees crisis has become a significant setback to the regional development in ASEAN history.

This mass, irregular migration of Rohingya people, known as the greatest human exodus in Asia subsequent to the Vietnam war, has had domino effects negatively on the broader regional stability. Cox's Bazaar, a city on Bangladesh's southeast coast hosting hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees, is currently home to the biggest refugee camp on the planet.

In addition, the monsoon season and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated the Rohingya refugees' well-being in the deteriorating camps. Accordingly, ASEAN leaders should knock their consciences and take necessary actions to solve this prolonged, unending humanitarian crisis. What is more, Rohingya people have suffered severely in terms of civil rights due to their historical roots of ethnicity being subjectively unacceptable to Myanmar's national law. Without legal and valid citizenship, Rohingya people must experience an alarming hardship in order to access their fundamental human rights, including, inter alia; birth certificates, education, employment, social security, housing, private ownership, and the right to vote.

This discriminatory action unlawfully posed by Myanmar authorities has led the Rohingya Muslim minority to be the largest stateless population worldwide. Moreover, the United Nations described Rohingyas as the most persecuted minority globally. In fact, ASEAN had carried out several contributions to alleviate the Rohingya's plight, yet was somewhat limited and toothless in its power. Through the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA), the association demonstrated its solidarity with humanity by supplying humanitarian aid and facilitating the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to their very mainland Rakhine state.

On the one hand, ASEAN's efforts in assisting the amelioration of Rohingya's status quo should be immensely appreciated. However, on the other hand, given the current unaltered circumstances, those existing efforts hitherto denoted an inadequacy of impact to restore the crisis fully. It means that the approach should be re-evaluated from addressing the surface problems to deciphering the root, underlying causes of the issue, i.e., citizenship rights. Thus, a ton of questions would have come to our mind, such as: what ASEAN can do better to help the Rohingya people? Well, this is a tricky question. There is nothing ASEAN can do significantly unless they reinstall and adapt their mechanisms into a more comprehensive framework in which human security becomes the centre of their policy.

We could take a solid consensus that the practice of bigotry is eventually unacceptable towards any minority group. The Rohingya issue goes beyond simply the religiosity-fueled clash of Naypyidaw's domestic affairs; it is indeed our responsibility to ensure every citizen of ASEAN is in a safe, peaceful environment. Finally, reform might sound radical, yet slight change and transformation within the association would never hurt.

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