By Ki Suh Jung
Since August 25, 270,000 Rohingya are reported to have fled Burma to escape violence and persecution inflicted by the Burmese military, who have reportedly killed hundreds. Despite calls from world leaders such as fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai to stop the violence, Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi has instead supported the military’s crackdown, claiming that critics of her policies were being deceived by “a huge iceberg of misinformation.” International condemnation has not compelled Suu Kyi to resolve the conflict in Rakhine State, so it is time for additional measures to be taken. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as the regional intergovernmental organization of which Burma is a member, is well-positioned to do so and should broker a cessation of violence against the Rohingya by applying diplomatic and economic pressure on Burma.
The Rohingya are one of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities who are at odds with the predominant Buddhist country due to a complicated history. Although they have resided in what is now Rakhine State in northwestern Myanmar since as early as the 12th century, many Muslim laborers migrated to the region during British rule from 1824-1948. When Myanmar achieved independence, the government claimed that the entire Rohingya people were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denied them citizenship. Bangladesh asserts that they are Burmese.
The purposes of ASEAN, as delineated in the 1967 ASEAN Declaration are, among others, “to accelerate…social progress and cultural development in the region” and “to promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law.” The Rohingya crisis violates those aims and therefore the spirit of ASEAN. This situation may seem to be a Burmese domestic issue and not ASEAN’s problem, since Bangladesh, which has received the bulk of the Rohingya refugees, is not a member nation of ASEAN. However, ASEAN countries have themselves seen an influx of refugees, as those who have escaped by boat have been temporarily situated in Thailand and Indonesia. As the conflict in Rakhine continues, ASEAN nations will have to assist with a more permanent refugee resettlement policy.
ASEAN can take a tiered approach to dissuade the Burmese military from inciting further violence. First, the leaders of ASEAN and its member states should also condemn Suu Kyi’s inaction. So far, they have largely remained silent on the issue, but it is time they take a stand. Given ASEAN’s policy of noninterference regarding domestic matters of member states, the regional bloc’s break from that principle by itself would send a strong signal to Myanmar. Next, they can consider imposing sanctions on Myanmar. Since much of Myanmar’s trade is with ASEAN countries, applying economic pressure would likely be effective. Thailand, which ranks second in both export destination and import origin for Myanmar, and Singapore, which is third in import origins, are especially well positioned to pressure Myanmar should they restrict trade.
The risk that Myanmar may close itself off from the regional or international community in the face of such sanctions exists, and so careful consideration must be given before ASEAN decides to take action to that scale. We must not forget that Myanmar practiced isolationism from 1962 to 2011, and prior to the political and economic reforms that started six years ago, the country’s only other experiment with democracy was from 1948 to 1962. Excessive pressure on the fledgling democracy could convince it to cut ties with its neighbors and revert to ruling with a heavier hand.
To be clear, the goal should not be to force upon Myanmar a permanent solution regarding the status of the Rohingya people; not yet, anyway. The issue is complex, going back generations, and it will not be resolved overnight. But the Burmese government and military need to immediately stop the violence against the innocent Rohingya. Only then can the two parties start working towards an acceptable and lasting solution.
Perhaps Suu Kyi, who once said, “Human beings the world over need freedom and security that they may be able to realize their full potential,” has shed her longstanding role as a human rights activist and embraced her current job as politician. It may be that she is experiencing difficulty dissenting against the majority view of the public she leads, or she is simply disinterested. And perhaps ASEAN has merely watched the crisis in Rakhine develop because it is dedicated to its principle of noninterference. But neither reasoning is excusable. If ASEAN wants to be viewed as a significant player in the international community as it strives to be, it needs to prove it by stepping in to resolve issues that occur in its own backyard. After all, isn’t that why ASEAN was created in the first place?
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