The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has failed to respond effectively to the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar thanks to a lack of leadership and the 10-member organisation’s inability to grasp the scale of the human rights abuses, a report from a group of regional lawmakers said on Tuesday.
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights said ASEAN had been hampered by its own institutional structure, which allowed member state Myanmar the space to “set the parameters of ASEAN’s engagement”.
It noted a lack of leadership within the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, and among member states themselves.
“Caught between respect for its key principles of consensus and non-interference on the one hand, and (an) international and domestic outcry on the other, 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 group said in the report, which examined the reasons for ASEAN’s weak response to the crisis.
Some 750,000 mostly Muslim Rohingya fled Myanmar for neighbouring Bangladesh in the face of a brutal military crackdown that is now the subject of a genocide investigation at the United Nations’ top court. While those who fled now live in sprawling refugee camps, those left behind in Rakhine are in camps for displaced people that rights groups have described as “open prisons”.
Critical issues ignored
Myanmar does not recognise the Rohingya as citizens, even though the minority group has lived in the country for generations.
ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi, centre, arrives at Sittwe Airport, Rakhine during a visit in December 2018 [File: Nyunt Win/EPA]“ASEAN has chosen to look at it from a humanitarian point of view, which is Myanmar’s approach,” Charles Santiago, a Malaysian MP who chairs the APHR board, told a press conference to release the report, noting that the organisation had not addressed key concerns including citizenship, religious rights and land issues. “ASEAN literally got cornered. The critical issues were ignored.”
The report noted that while ASEAN’s approach had enabled it to maintain a dialogue with the Myanmar authorities, it had failed to acknowledge the gravity and scale of the human rights crisis in the western state and the Myanmar authorities’ role in creating it.
The situation there has deteriorated since the Rohingya exodus, with more people forced from their homes as a result of the escalating conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine armed group.
The government has now said that the November election will not take place in many parts of the state because it is no longer safe. International media are not allowed to visit the area.
“How can we talk about Rohingya refugees returning to Rakhine State, when that area remains an active war zone?” said Santiago. “ASEAN’s reluctance to adopt a holistic approach to Rakhine State, that addresses all aspects of the crisis, risks making the regional group at best counterproductive and at worst actively contributing to human rights abuses.”
ASEAN delegations visited the Bangladesh refugee camps in 2019, where they promoted the controversial National Verification Card (NVC) that Rohingya people see as a tool of persecution. The organisation and its member states are also providing financial aid and assistance in Rakhine for infrastructure projects, including schools and hospitals.
“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.
Rohingya women in Rakhine where conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army escalated this year [File: Nyein Chan Naing/EPA]The continuing crisis has also prompted Rohingya to risk their lives crossing the ocean in an attempt to reach safety. With the COVID-19 pandemic, countries including Malaysia – the most common destination for the Rohingya – have closed borders and some boats have drifted at sea for months before being able to land.
Last month, villagers in the Indonesian province of Aceh took matters into their own hands and brought ashore nearly 300 Rohingya refugees, including women and children.
“ASEAN has an obligation to serve and protect the people of the region, and has the potential to play a positive role in resolving the situation,” the report said. “However, it must examine and address its own weaknesses. Failure to do so will not only harm the bloc’s credibility and legitimacy, but will likely cause further harm and suffering to the Rohingya and others who call Rakhine State, and indeed the ASEAN region, home.”
The report noted the ASEAN Secretariat declined to be interviewed for the report, while other bodies failed to respond to APHR’s requests for interviews and information. Only the Myanmar government responded to its requests for information, it said.