ASEAN and the Myanmar Conundrum

What is the Rohingya Crisis?

The ongoing violence that is taking place in Myanmar has turned into the world’s fastest-developing refugee crisis. More than 420,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh in the last three weeks, 240,000 of them are children. In his public statement, one UN official called this crisis “ethnic cleansing.” The situation has tarnished Aung San Suu Kyi’s status as a human right champion and posed serious security concerns on Myanmar’s neighboring countries.


The violent oppression of Rohingyas by Myanmar’s security forces can be traced back to the passing of Myanmar’s Union Citizenship Act in 1948, of which the Rohingyas were not given the citizenship status. Deprived from their basic citizenship rights, the Rohingyas have been victims of various acts of oppressions for many decades.

The recent crisis started in October 2016, after nine Myanmar police officers were killed. Shortly thereafter, the government started a crackdown against Rohingya Muslims, resulting in various human rights abuses. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), has been reluctant to act on the issue, damaging its status as the region’s main intergovernmental organization.

Implications in the Region

Several ASEAN countries have experienced the impact of the violence, with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Myanmar. As Myanmar’s closest neighbor, Bangladesh is currently hosting the majority of these refugees and providing them with food, medicine and water. As we have learned from the Syrian crisis, the influx of refugees on hosting countries can have serious political, social, and economical implications.

In recent years, various militant groups such as the Islamic Defender Front (FPI), the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASF) in the Philippines have been able to establish solid footholds in South East Asia. The crisis in Myanmar has provided these groups with momentum to gain followers. Several mass protests have taken place in Indonesia, calling the Indonesian government to take measures to end the crisis in Myanmar. Last week, the FPI leadership called upon the Indonesian Muslims to wage “Jihad” in Myanmar.

ASEAN’s Failure

Politicians in Indonesia and Malaysia have condemned the violence and criticized ASEAN for its unwillingness to take action. One Indonesian MP has publicly stated that the Rohingya crisis demonstrates the failure of ASEAN experiment. After ASEAN’s failure to explicitly mention the Rohingya community as the main victim of the crisis, the Foreign Minister of Malaysia said that ASEAN’s statement on the crisis was a “misrepresentation of the reality of the situation,” and that Malaysia “would like to disassociate itself” from the statement.

Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy recently published The ASEAN Miracle, where he argued that the world should learn from ASEAN on how to manage regional conflicts. ASEAN, he said, is the world’s most effective regional cooperation that puts consultations and consensus over sanctions and military actions, hence allowed South East Asia to be the world’s most peaceful region. However, many would wonder if there is truth behind his argument, as ASEAN has been ineffective in mitigating the crisis in Myanmar.

The Way Forward

Whether through ASEAN or not, it is clear that countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia need to be more involved in the conflict. There are several ways where these two countries can be constructive partners in the region. First, they need to increase the humanitarian aid to ensure that those who are affected by the crisis have adequate access to food, water and medicine. Second, they need to manage relationships between religious groups in their respective countries. Measures like dialogue between religious leaders and empowering moderate Muslims can be effective tools to achieve this. Third, they should assist Bangladesh in taking Rohingya refugees. Fourth, they need to put more pressure on ASEAN to address this issue collectively.

ASEAN leaders need to wake up and realize that the crisis in Myanmar is not just an issue for Myanmar. It is a humanitarian issue that will affect the region and the world.

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