On September 24, Philippine Foreign Secretary and current chairman of ASEAN Alan Peter Cayetano issued a statement on the humanitarian situation in Rakhine State of Myanmar at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. In the statement, he condemned the violence there and strongly urged all parties involved not worsen the situation on the ground and seek viable long-term solutions to the root causes of the conflict.
However, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman showed his dissatisfaction with the statement for not criticizing attacks on Rohingyas. “We are of the view that it is a misrepresentation of the reality of the situation,” Aman said. He disputed that the statement “was not based on consensus.”
Since the outbreak of the Rohingya refugee crisis in October 2016, the Malaysian government has held a tough stance toward the Myanmar government. One senior official of Malaysia has even called for a review of Myanmar’s membership of ASEAN. It seems the Rohingya crisis may lead to division in the bloc.
The Rohingya crisis has invoked a strong response from the Islamic community within ASEAN, making it difficult for ASEAN countries to distance themselves from the crisis. For example, a series of demonstrations were held in cities like Kuala Lumpur after the crisis. The demonstrators asked their governments to punish the Myanmese government and even demanded their countries break off diplomatic relations.
For ASEAN countries with a Muslim majority, governments must show their support for the Rohingya Muslims to secure votes of Muslim communities. This is especially the case in Malaysia with an upcoming election.
Indonesia faces an arduous undertaking fighting Islamic extremists. If the Indonesian government does not act on the Rohingya crisis, it can create an opportunity for Islamic extremists to develop. Thus Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi has engaged in rounds of shuttle diplomacy between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the issue.
The involvement of Malaysia and Indonesia will influence political forces in Myanmar and may intensify domestic confrontation within the country. It is hard for Myanmar to change nationalism in the short term and the proposal of Indonesia and Malaysia will be difficult to implement practically in Rakhine State, which may impair the two countries’ confidence in Myanmar of resuming order in Rakhine State and giving equal treatment to Rohingyas.
The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) has offered a platform for ASEAN to intervene in the Rohingya crisis. AICHR was inaugurated in October 2009 as a consultative body of ASEAN. The commission devotes itself to improving human rights in relevant regions and delivers reports and suggestions to ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.
Upholding the principle of non-interference, it is difficult for AICHR to get involved in the Rohingya crisis. Nevertheless with international organizations like the UN showing their strong concerns, ASEAN cannot free itself from the issue. It may be raised at the ASEAN Summit in November this year. AICHR would be the best stage for ASEAN to show their stance on the crisis, but it may cause frictions between Myanmar and other ASEAN countries and affect unity within the association.
To sum up, owing to complicated political, historic and cultural factors, it is difficult to find a fundamental solution to the Rohingya crisis in the short term. Given mounting pressure from the Islamic forces within ASEAN and the slow handling of the crisis by the Myanmar government, the division between them is likely to deepen. Whether the crisis will induce a split in ASEAN depends on the pace of the Myanmar government’s political transformation and the tolerance of the Islamic forces within the association.