By Eva Kusuma Sundari
While a renewed humanitarian crisis was beginning to unfold in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in late August, member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations were busy having a party at the SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.
In the days since Rohingya militants attacked police outposts on 25 Aug, tens of thousands of civilians have been forced to flee as the military has moved in and violence escalates. Eyewitness testimonies and photos, videos and satellite images obtained by rights groups and journalists indicate the commission of serious atrocities, including widespread killings and burning of entire villages.
The death toll reported by the government has already surpassed that of the violence that engulfed Rakhine State in 2012, as well as more recent violence that began last October, and the official statistics very likely underreport the total number of casualties. With no signs that the Myanmar military or government is working to deescalate tensions, the situation is likely to deteriorate further. And yet, action from ASEAN and its member governments has been limited.
The Malaysian and Indonesian governments — to their credit — have issued statements calling for restraint, as well as measures to be taken to protect civilians. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi also visited Myanmar this week to discuss the crisis with officials behind closed doors.
But other ASEAN governments have simply ignored the issue in an attempt to sidestep their responsibilities. In a meeting with Myanmar army commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing last week in the midst of the crisis, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha vowed not to intervene, describing the situation as Myanmar’s “domestic affairs”.
But the scale of the current crisis, as well as past precedent, clearly demonstrates that the situation is not simply a “domestic affair” and has the potential to directly impact other ASEAN member states. The region got a taste of this in 2015, when thousands of Rohingya refugees were stranded in boats in the Andaman Sea, having fled deplorable conditions and state-sponsored persecution in their native Rakhine.
During a previous bout of violence in 2012, then-secretary-general of ASEAN, Surin Pitsuwan, warned that the issue could lead to radicalisation and further destabilise the region. The underlying dynamics remain unchanged since 2012, and we are beginning to see Dr Surin’s words come to fruition. If the situation now is to be resolved and innocent civilians protected, ASEAN needs to speak louder, with one voice, and take action.
The basis for such action should be the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, headed by Kofi Annan, which were delivered to the Myanmar government on 24 Aug. The recommendations, including those to foster inter-communal dialogue and ensure accountability for past rights violations, are aimed at addressing root problems and promoting sustainable solutions. ASEAN should commit to working with the government to implement them.
ASEAN should also take note of the power dynamics at play. A great deal of international anger has thus far fallen on Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads Myanmar’s civilian government as state counsellor. As a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, it is deeply disappointing to see her failing to stand up for basic human rights, and to see her office spread false narratives implicating aid workers in terrorism.
But it is critical that more international attention, including from ASEAN, also focus on the role of military Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing. He — not the State Counsellor – has direct control over all of Myanmar’s security forces, and he — not the State Counsellor — has the direct power to stop the massacres and end the crisis. In the absence of significant pressure, however, it appears unlikely he will do so. Speaking to soldiers and others on 1 Sept, Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing said, “The Bengali problem was a long-standing one which has become an unfinished job,” employing a derogatory term to describe the Muslim population in Rakhine that even Ms Suu Kyi previously said makes “it very difficult for us to find peaceful and sensible resolutions to our problems”. Even more troublingly, his remarks foreshadow further horrors to come.
ASEAN has a collective responsibility to protect all civilians and promote longterm peace in Rakhine State. If the regional grouping really intends to promote successful economic and social integration, it cannot allow this problem to fester any longer.
We are far past the point of quibbling over “non-interference”. It is time for ASEAN to act. The regional body should immediately convene an emergency meeting to discuss the situation and take measures to ensure that civilians are protected. It should also work with the Myanmar government to implement the recommendations of the Rakhine Commission with haste.
Eva Kusuma Sundari is a member of the House of Representatives of Indonesia and a Board Member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.
This article was originally published in The Bangkok Post.