By Yang Razali Kassim
04:45 AM Nov 12, 2012 SOURCE
The plight of the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar is threatening to blow up in the face of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), just before the regional grouping convenes its 21st summit in Cambodia.
To help defuse the humanitarian fallout, ASEAN has offered to work closely with the Myanmar government and the United Nations, in the same way this tripartite arrangement effectively provided relief to the victims of Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
But Myanmar has rejected the offer on the grounds that the conflict is an internal affair, according to ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan. He said that the atrocities, if not ended, could radicalise the Rohingya Muslims and destabilise South-east Asia.
Dr Surin's warning bell is timely. There are signs of growing agitation, especially within the Muslim communities of South-east Asia, at the seeming lack of peace efforts on the part of the Myanmar government and the international community.
There have been protests in Jakarta outside the Myanmar embassy and calls by non-government organisations in the region for ASEAN to address the violation of human rights of the stateless Rohingya, whom the Myanmar government does not recognise as citizens.
While Myanmar's rejection of external assistance is not surprising, ASEAN should sustain its persuasive approach to contain and defuse the crisis so that it does not spill beyond the country's shores. "If the international community, including ASEAN, is not able to relieve the pressure and pain, (the Rohingya) could become radicalised and the entire region could be destabilised," said Dr Pitsuwan.
RESPONSES SO FAR
ASEAN has been exercised by the violence since June between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, where many Rohingya have died and at least 100,000 of them are displaced. There has been long-standing animosity between the Buddhists and Rohingya, and thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar over the years, with many seeking shelter in neighbouring Bangladesh and Malaysia.
With concern growing in the region, ASEAN foreign ministers issued a four-point statement on Aug 17. They said they were closely following developments and were ready to lend humanitarian assistance "upon the request of the government of Myanmar".
A week earlier, Dr Surin disclosed he had proposed that ASEAN foreign ministers once again offer humanitarian assistance, as had been done in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. Individual ASEAN states were also offering assistance separately to the Rohingya.
Just before the ASEAN statement, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa raised the issue at an emergency meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Mecca on Aug 14-15 which declared the violence on the Rohingya as "crimes against humanity". "The Myanmar government's treatment of Rohingya Muslims is not in line with its recent efforts towards democracy. Any act of discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnicity is unacceptable," Dr Marty was quoted by Antara as saying.
The OIC subsequently announced that it was given the green light by Myanmar to provide humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya. The Myanmar government, however, later reversed the decision following protests by Buddhist monks and laymen.
FAULT LINES IN ASEAN
The unexpected outbreak of the ethnic crisis in Rakhine state is an unwelcome strain on ASEAN, which is still preoccupied with healing internal divisions sparked by Cambodia's controversial handling of the South China Sea disputes in July. How Myanmar addresses the Rohingya issue will impact on confidence in its chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014.
"Myanmar becoming the chair of ASEAN will be the focus of attention (on) how it is handling such an issue," Dr Surin said. "ASEAN cannot be perceived to be standing by without taking any action on such a big scale of humanitarian difficulty."
However, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are likely to adopt a softer approach towards Myanmar on this issue, as they are wary of international involvement in issues affecting their handling of their own Muslim minorities and are sympathetic to the concerns of their domestic Buddhist majorities.
Should Myanmar clash with other ASEAN members on the Rohingya issue, the current cracks within ASEAN caused by the South China Sea issue could worsen and complicate internal fault lines. At the same time, Myanmar cannot ignore the growing concerns of the regional and international community over the plight of the Rohingya.
Yang Razali Kassim is Senior Fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University and the school's Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies.