The issue of over 700,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who are currently in neighbouring Bangladesh is one of the worst humanitarian crises of recent times.
A UN fact-finding mission report released in September this year concluded that there was a “genocidal intent” and called for the Myanmar military commander-in-chief and five generals to be prosecuted.
While governments and international organisations have spoken out to condemn the disproportionate and overwhelming use of force by the Myanmar military and or the inaction of the Myanmar civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has largely been silent on the issue.
Governments and activists around the world want to see Asean playing an active and constructive role in helping address this humanitarian crisis. Still, many who understand the complexity of Asean’s organisational structure which makes it difficult for the body to play such a role.
The fundamental principles of Asean require member states to show mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity of all nations; recognize the right of every state to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion; and not interfere in the internal affairs of other member countries.
These principles have prevented not only individual member states but the organisation as a whole from engaging with the issue since Myanmar has not invited them to do so.
That does not mean Asean member states have completely shied away from the issue. For example, the two Muslim-majority countries -- Malaysia and Indonesia -- have spoken out. The Malaysian government, in particular, has been quite vocal on the issue and criticised Myanmar.And as the Rohingya issue continues to overshadow several other important issues of the region, Asean leaders have begun taking a more visible position, especially under the chairmanship of Singapore.
On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in September this year, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said that Myanmar should start repatriating Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh and ensure that there is security, peace, justice and better prospects for everyone.
The regional grouping’s frustration was also evident during the 33rd Asean summit in Singapore in November, when, unlike previous Asean summits, the Rohingya issue was discussed in almost every forum .
During the summit, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said that Thailand, which will chair the regional grouping next year, sees the regional bloc as capable of playing an important role in addressing the situation in Rakhine state in a constructive, tangible and sustainable manner.
The key question is whether Myanmar would welcome such diplomatic interventions. There is a possibility that it could construe such moves as an attempt to interfere in its internal affairs.
But Myanmar has to understand that it has already internationalised the Rohingya issue following the constitution of the Kofi Annan Commission in 2016, and then the formation of an Advisory Commission for the Implementation Committee of Rakhine State last year with experts from home and abroad.
Moreover, in June, Myanmar signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to create conditions conducive for a voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable refugee returns from Bangladesh.
Myanmar should welcome Asean’s goodwill gesture to help address the protracted Rohingya crisis. An attempt to oppose Asean’s intent to engage will only hamper the cohesion and strength of the organisation, and invite criticism from the international community.
Besides Asean summits, platforms such as the Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) and the ADMM-Plus should be utilised to explore possible ways for the body to cooperate with the Myanmar military, which not only controls the security matters of the country but also retains significant political power.
While it is true that the Asean grouping has not taken any substantive measures on the Rohingya issue in the past, the signs are that we can hope for a more active and engaging role from it, although the results of this will largely depend on the openness and receptiveness of Myanmar, as well as the level of commitment from member states.
Nehginpao Kipgen is associate professor and executive director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including ‘Democratisation of Myanmar’