By allowing this humanitarian crisis to unfold right under its nose, Asean is starting to look more and more ineffective and irrelevant
On June 16, 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi finally was able to receive the Nobel Peace Prize that she had won back in 1991. In her acceptance speech, she applauded the fact that the Nobel Peace Prize had made the world remember the struggle for democracy in Myanmar. She noted: “to be forgotten … is to die a little.” Thus, she argued, the democratic movement could stay alive in Myanmar because it was not forgotten by the world, by the virtue of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Fast forward to today, and now the ethnic Rohingya are the forgotten people whose exodus has turned into a humanitarian crisis — forcing the world to remember. Thousands of Rohingya refugees left Myanmar to escape persecution and they were left adrift at sea after the Thai authority closed the usual human-trafficking route over land and began a crackdown after learning of grave abuses by the traffickers and discovering the existence of mass graves containing remains of likely hundreds of Rohingya victims.
In light of the crisis, Suu Kyi was pressed by Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to do something. She was urged to finally speak out to help the mainly Muslim ethnic group and to stop their persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
Unfortunately, Suu Kyi demurred. Repeatedly stating that this is a complicated issue, Suu Kyi has not done anything — publicly at least — to try and stop the persecution of the Rohingya. She ignored their fate when Myanmar President Thein Sein drove them into refugee camps. She chose to forget this inconvenient problem, especially as it may bedevil her and her party’s political ambitions in Myanmar, where a vast majority of Burmese view the Rohingya in a negative light. They are mostly seen not as fellow citizens, but as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The situation is quite ironic, considering that in her optimistic Nobel acceptance speech, Suu Kyi had expressed her hope that there would be a world without fear, where everyone joined hands to create a peaceful world with no refugees, homeless people or those without hope. Was this beautiful dream of hers simply a rhetorical device? A politically correct speech to satisfy her audience abroad?
Of course it would be unfair to simply dump the entire refugee problem in Suu Kyi’s lap, considering that she did not create the problem in the first place. Rather, it was the discriminatory policies of the Myanmar military regime that sparked the crisis. Still, as one of the world’s most prominent human rights activists, Suu Kyi bears a large amount of what the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has described as ethical responsibility. Such ethical responsibility does not come by choice — it is a responsibility everyone has, to some degree, to help others who are in need.
And that “everyone” includes Myanmar’s neighbors. The refugee crisis has turned into a regional issue, in which a couple of Myanmar’s neighbors, notably Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, are involved whether they like it or not. Countries have already provided humanitarian assistance to those stranded at sea and are allowing them to reside in refugee camps. But this isn’t enough.
The root cause of the refugee crisis is Myanmar’s discriminatory stance toward the Rohingya, who it does not recognize as its citizens. Not surprisingly, with the refugee crisis seemingly no nearer to an end and with so much money and resources now being spent to deal with the consequences of Myanmar’s policies, member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have started voicing their displeasure in pointed terms to Myanmar and its president, Thein Sein. Myanmar, however, has bluntly stated that there is no humanitarian crisis, arguing that there is no proof that the immigrants are Rohingya, and the country refuses to attend any regional meeting that even mentions the word “Rohingya” on the invitation.
A dilemma for Asean
This creates a serious dilemma for Asean, as the regional organization was formed on the basic principle of non-intervention: fellow member states are not supposed to interfere in internal matters of any other member state. But by allowing this humanitarian crisis to unfold right under its nose, Asean is starting to look more and more ineffective and irrelevant. If it cannot deal with regional issues such as the Rohingya crisis, then how could it be expected to play a role in solving external problems such as the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which have the potential to devastate the region if they spiral out of control.
The exodus from Myanmar of a group of people that is politically inconvenient to remember by one of the world’s best-known human rights activists, has brought into the open a glaring weakness of Asean. This is a problem that many would prefer to be forgotten as soon as possible and that is presumably what the members of Asean will now try to accomplish: find a face-saving compromise that would sweep the Rohingya problem under the rug while continuing to pretend that all is well in the region.
However, should the Asean member states be willing to take this refugee crisis seriously, they could end up strengthening the Asean community and taking some bold steps toward a united vision and a shared regional identity.
It is high time for the Asean community to develop a common policy to solve regional problems, notably illegal immigration and human trafficking. This common policy, of course, should be binding and unanimously accepted, which to some degree would help bypass the principle of non-intervention, which often hinders efforts to resolve humanitarian crises.
A common policy would help Asean fulfill its ethical responsibility and help the organization gain respect as a grouping that not only talks the talk but also walks the walk when it comes to standing up for human rights in the region.
Asrudin Azwar is an international relations analyst from the Asrudian Center. Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer in international politics at the National Defense University (Unhan).