The Financial Express

Will ASEAN criticism change Myanmar?  

Will ASEAN criticism change Myanmar?   

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi came under scathing criticism particularly by two prominent leaders of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the special ASEAN-Australia summit (March 17-18) for her procrastinations about the Rohingya atrocities, which the UN has defined as "a text book case of ethnic cleansing".

Approximately 700,000 Muslim Rohingyas have fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar to Bangladesh following a heavy military crackdown in October 2016 and August 25, 2017. Myanmar labelled Rohingyas as "illegal migrants" notwithstanding the fact that the community has been living in the Rakhine state of Myanmar for centuries.

Myanmar's de facto leader Suu Kyi's presence in the Sydney summit which was initiated by the Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull provoked angry street demonstrations and the human rights activists blamed her for abuse and crime against humanity.

The ASEAN -- a middle power regional alliance formed in August 1967 -- consists of 10 members namely-- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Aspiring to become a full member of the association by 2024, Australia became its first dialogue partner in 2017.

The protracted Rohingya crisis has dominated the first ever ASEAN-Australia summit, as Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak publicly reprimanded Myanmar's leader Suu Kyi for her country's handling of the Rohingya Muslims. In fact, PM Najib's comments were in addition to Indonesian President Joko Widodo's focus on the Rohingya crisis at the Sydney summit.

The Malaysian PM Najib, sharing the stage with Suu Kyi, condemned her silence and inaction over the killing and misery of Rohingyas by the military and security forces of Myanmar. He maintained that the "suffering" and mass "displacement "of Rohingyas made them vulnerable to radicalisation by the terrorist group(s), mainly because they had little or no hope for their future.

While Myanmar is incredibly sensitive to any outside criticism of the Rohingya crisis, PM Najib departed from the ASEAN convention of "non-interference" in a fellow member country's internal matters and bluntly asserted that "the situation in the Rakhine state in Myanmar can no longer be considered a domestic matter".

PM Najib cautioned: "The problem should not be looked at only through the humanitarian prism because it has the potential of developing into a serious security threat to the region". It is already posing a threat to Bangladesh's economy and security.

PM Najib powerfully maintained that Malaysia wants to see a "just and durable" solution to the man-made tragedy. Thus, he urged tougher stance on Myanmar. Facing an election challenge amidst corruption charges, PM Najib may be playing to the domestic politics of his Muslim majority (61.3 per cent) country. But his dismay and direct criticism of Suu Kyi's Myanmar was really an unprecedented move in the ASEAN Summit. ASEAN leaders usually evade contentious issues to avert the association from split.

While deliberating the issue, current chairman of ASEAN, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong admitted that the problem remains a concern to all ASEAN countries, but ASEAN policy is not to "intervene and force an outcome" of the crisis. He, however, added that the matter is a cause for concern for the ASEAN, and he is apprehensive of "any instability or trouble" in member countries. PM Lee further said, "We are working together in consultation with Myanmar to provide humanitarian assistance so that the affected communities can rebuild their lives".

Indeed, the power of the ASEAN to deal with the Rohingya catastrophe is limited. It was earlier criticised for its silence on the issue. As expected, the problem was not mentioned in the official communiqué of the summit. Unfortunately, economic interests take precedence over human rights issue. Even Australia which is always vocal on human rights violations does not want to jeopardise its economic interests in resource-rich Myanmar. Australia continues to provide foreign assistance to Myanmar as the eighth largest donor followed by Japan, the UK, EU and USA.

Disregarding the call from human rights campaigners and organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, to reprimand Myanmar and its leader Suu Kyi, at the post-Summit press conference, Australian PM Malcom Turnbull revealed that Suu Kyi has addressed the crisis "comprehensively" in private discussions with other ASEAN leaders and sought support from the fellow members to deal with the issue.

But scared of facing a strong media, Suu Kyi deliberately pulled out of her scheduled question-answer session at Lowy Institute think tank, Sydney, citing sickness. Notably, Suu Kyi also cancelled her planned visit to the UN General Assembly session in September 2017, because of mounting global criticism over her mishandling of the crisis.

Suu Kyi evaded the Australian robust media and civil society mainly to escape tough and embarrassing questions about her silence and inactions of the "ethnic cleansing" of Rohingyas in Myanmar. Notably, Bangladesh and Myanmar reached an agreement on November 23, 2017 to start repatriation of the Rohingyas, but till today, that didn't happen. Myanmar government has also obstructed right of entry to the UN fact-finding mission and the UN special Rapporteur for Human Rights.

Observers think that while Suu Kyi heads the so-called civilian government of Myanmar since 2016 as the State Counsellor, her military generals in reality run the state. A Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1991 for non-violent struggle for democracy and humans rights, and a former political prisoner, Suu Kyi herself is now ironically involved in a dreadful undeclared war against the Rohingya Muslims and crime against humanity.

Therefore, the key question remains: what will be the impact of the special ASEAN-Australia summit on authoritarian Myanmar on the Rohingya issue? Will Myanmar pay attention to UN and ASEAN's concerns and comply with UN's core values? Or, will Suu Kyi distance herself from the military and demonstrate her strong leadership? As the genocide and persecution of the Rohingya continue, the world remains a helpless spectator.

Dr. Kamal Uddin Ahmed is a former Professor and Chairman, Department of Political Science, University of Dhaka.

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