Making ASEAN Works in Rohingya: A Southeast Asian Perspective

Slider - Rohingnya

Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar

Research Assistant at ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada


Rohingya has become the most ironic phennomenon in Southeast Asia. Since 1990s, they have been exiled, displaced from their homeland in northern Myanmar. According to UNHCR, almost 140,000 people still displaced in Rakhine State, while over 800,000 persons are estimated to be without citizenship in the northern part of the State. This conditions “were gravely concerned” by UNHCR and seem to be one of the biggest humanitarian challenge in Southeast Asia today.

However, while international community has expressed its concerns regarding the Rohingya problem, we also witness lack of responses from Government’s officials in Southeast Asia. Until present, there is no significant response from ASEAN as the biggest regional institution in Southeast Asia, who aims to construct a ‘political security community by 2015.

What went wrong with Rohingya and, in particular, ASEAN? I would like to analyze this problem from three level of analysis: the ‘communal identity’, state regime, and regional institution.

First, the Rohingya problem is related, most importantly, with the question of identity. If we want to identify Rohingya, there will be a question: “who are Rohing people? Are they Burmese, or belong to other nationals? Myanmar’s citizen act has ironically denied Rohing as one of their citizen, thus excluding the Rohing people out from Myanmar. However, they are also unable to be identified as Bangladeshi, for example, because they have inhabited the Burmese land since hundreds years ago, even before the British colonial age.

Thus, the main problems facing Rohing people now is the identity problem –the exclusion of Rohing from the existing Westphalian political order. This should be addressed more critically by International Relations scholars.

Second, the Rohingya problem is also closely related to the political authoritarianism in Myanmar who uses its political apparatuses to repress the Rohings and exile them out from the state. Even though the authoritarian government has been much more softened within these years, the Rohingya problem is still untouchable. According to Ahmad Suaedy, one of Indonesian activist who declared his support to minority groups in ASEAN People’s Forum 2014, any attempts to discuss the Rohingya problem was cut by the local Monk. Even the government stopped any attempts to discuss this issue at ASEAN meeting. Therefore, any attempts to find a political solution to Rohingya problem have been constrained by the authoritarian regime in Myanmar.

Third, the Rohingya problem is also aggravated by the lack of response from ASEAN Member States as well as the ASEAN Institution. This is ironic because since 2003, 10 ASEAN Member States have agreed to establish a political community in the region by 2015 and since 2009 they have signed the ASEAN Charter. According to the Charter, ASEAN shall become a ‘people-oriented organisation’ and there will be a Human Rights Body in ASEAN (Later known as ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights/AICHR). Even though the body has been established since 2009, it also faces incapacity in dealing with various human rights issues, including its silence in a ‘sensitive’ minority issue like Rohingya.

I argue that bringing Rohingya problem to bigger Southeast Asian level, or by using ASEAN Perspective, can fill the gap left by ‘identity’ or ‘authoritarian regime’. By placing Rohingya as ‘ASEAN People’, for example, we can identify the Rohing people without referring them to any particular Burmese identity. Bringing ASEAN to solve this problem will also be, idealistically, avoid the use of force in dealing with Rohing people. However, with the lack of capacity, ASEAN  is still unable to do something to solve Rohingya problem.

Having said that, ASEAN’s incapability in dealing with Rohingya issue will be critically discussed. Why does ASEAN incapable to deal with Rohingya issue? To answer this question, I would like to look deeper into ASEAN’s institutional design. Since its inception in 1967, ASEAN seems to be perceived by many states as a room fit only for state’s purpose to cooperate. It did not, originally, provide space for non-state entity to participate in the decision-making process. Therefore, ASEAN, since its very beginning, tends to be state-centric or, in other words, ‘elitist’.

The construction of ASEAN as merely ‘a room for state’ was brought into discussion in 2003, when ASEAN Political Security Community was agreed in Bali. Each member states, at that time, agreed to create a regional community and, later, placed ASEAN as the main foreign policy focus. However, the state-centric nature in ASEAN was still preserved. The highest decision-making level in ASEAN is posited at the ASEAN Summit, which is attended only by state representatives. Therefore, there is no adequate room for non-state entity to influence the decision-making process.

The problem is similar in Human Rights issues –even worse. Even though ASEAN has included the establishment of ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights in 2009, The Commission was not able to engage with any Human Rights cases in the region. This limitation was occurred due to lack of authority that the Commission owns in dealing with Human Rights cases. Thus, they are only able to make cooperation with other state in Human Rights issues. Another problem that is faced by the Commission is the low degree of democratization in several ASEAN Member States, including Myanmar. Many member states do not believe with democracy as well as Human Rights and even see them as threat for national sovereignty. The nature of authoritarian regime in ASEAN Member States prevents ASEAN to discuss prominent issues in Human Rights, even weaken the Human Rights Body itself.

Against this backdrop, this paper argues that state-centric nature in ASEAN Institutional Design and Mechanism is the main constraint in Rohingya problem. From previous experiences, that any attempts to establish a progressive Human Rights decision in ASEAN were prevented by the state. It leads to several controversies over the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, that was signed in 2012. This declaration was accused by Human Rights Activist as ‘legitimizing Human Rights violation by the state’. This declaration contains controversial points that were rejected by Human Rights activist, including “the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms must be balanced with the performance of corresponding duties as every person has responsibilities to all other individuals, the community and the society where one lives” (Article 6), the inclusion of term “in accordance to national law” (e.g. article 16, 17, 18). Civil society alliances have denounced the adoption of the Declaration and stating that the Declaration “falls far below international standards”.

With this controversy, it is evident that ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights has been incapable to deal with Human Rights violation in ASEAN Member States, including the Rohingya problem. Apart from that, ASEAN also does not have any instrument to regulate refugee. Consequently, the Rohingya refugee problems were left unmanaged by ASEAN, hence raising many derivative problems on other ASEAN Member States.

Thus, what is to be done? I argue that advocacy attempts to all level should be conducted continuously. However, there are two urgent agenda that could be exercised by all parties who wants to solve the Rohingya people. First, making ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) works in dealing with Rohingya problems. AICHR should be given further authorities to facilitate state in dealing with Human Rights issues as well as preventing the Human Rights violation. Since AICHR is filled by state representatives, they should be given adequate knowledge on basic Human Rights issue so that regional awareness on ASEAN can be built, at least among ASEAN officials.

Second, establishing ASEAN Refugee institution. ASEAN has never been prioritizing refugee issue since this issue was not a dominant issue in the region. However, with the emergence of Rohingya problem, ASEAN Refugee institution should be established. This institution can coordinate with UNHCR to manage Rohingya refugee in many Southeast and South Asia States. Therefore, the internally displaced persons (IDPs) problem can be managed well in the region. These important decisions should be advocated in the upcoming ASEAN Summit.