ASEAN’s non-interference policy hinders Rohingya justice

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Dr. James Gomez, Chairman, Asia Centre, Bangkok

In spite of the United Nations (UN) Fact Finding Commission’s indictment on 28 August 2018, recommending Myanmar’s military officials “be investigated and prosecuted” for “genocidal intent” and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya and other minority groups in Myanmar, the pursuit of justice for the victims and accountability for crimes perpetrated will be hard to achieve at the regional level as ASEAN continues to provide Myanmar protective cover through the bloc’s non-interference policy.

Add to this, regional commercial interests in Myanmar and a regional geopolitical climate that does not favour the protection of human rights, then justice for the Rohingyas slips away further.

As a regional bloc, ASEAN’s inability to influence Myanmar towards taking responsibility for atrocities it has committed shows that in this part of the world human life continues to be cheap and justice for victims is sidelined in favour of profitability and the ideology of non-interference.

Despite the ASEAN Charter of 2007 and the subsequent regional human rights Commission, calls for justice have predictably emanated from beyond the region, notably from the UN and other inter-governmental mechanisms. ASEAN “engagement” behind the scenes thus far has had no concrete justice outcomes for the Rohingyas.

The UN report, which is the latest and harshest indictment yet of the Tatmadaw, found conclusive evidence that the actions of Myanmar’s military forces amounted to the “gravest crimes under international law” not just against the Rohingyas but in Kachin and Shan states as well.

The report comes a year after the Myanmar government escalated its violent crackdown against the Rohingya resulting in more than 700,000 fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh. The humanitarian crisis has been called the “worst” in decades. The Government of Myanmar has disputed the UN report claiming it observes “zero tolerance for human rights violations” and added that a Commission of Enquiry has been set up to respond to “false allegations made by the UN agencies and other international communities”.

Given the complexity of the crisis, the difficulties in reaching an actionable resolution, the latest report by the UN and its rejection by Myanmar, ASEAN’s leadership is urgently needed to stand up for the rights of the oppressed and for human rights in general at the regional level and also support processes at the international level.

“Constructive engagement” with Myanmar by ASEAN has proven ineffective in either preventing human rights violations and providing security and justice for Rohingyas and other minorities. With China, India and Japan wooing Myanmar for strategic interests and their ineffective behind the scene conversations on the Rohingya issue to date, only formal, resolute, collective and public engagement by ASEAN can have an impact on Myanmar.

However, if ASEAN continues to be ineffective, then its people have to demand that their governments pursue a principled stand and seek a peaceful political resolution to the conflict in Rakhine. The citizenship and democratic rights of the Rohingya and other minorities have to be affirmed and asserted by Myanmar’s neighbours and partners, and the sanctity of these rights have to protected and defended by all.

In this period of heightened nationalism and nativism, ASEAN’s policy of non-interference has literally resulted in non-action allowing for the wholesale brutalisation, removal and murder of the Rohingyas.

This non-interference policy has resulted in a regional segregationist, “protectionism from human rights” approach that does not facilitate quick and effective relief from the millstone of atrocities.

Hundreds of thousands have left their homes seeking refuge across borders to escape persecution, torture and death. There has been a prescient failure to acknowledge that genocide, atrocities and conflict in one country impacts the overall stability of the region, and robs it of its potential to be productive, peaceful and progressive.

The post-colonial tragedies of the twentieth century that have afflicted countries in the Southeast Asia has shown us how conflict and genocide has spilled over national borders and had negative ramifications throughout the entire region.

ASEAN, regrettably, continues to adhere to its stealthy non-inference policy, thus providing the Myanmar regime continued cover and effectively denying the Rohingya and other effected communities the justice they truly deserve.

A clinical examination of responsibility for the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar by the UN and other international mechanisms must also consider ASEAN’s own culpability through its non-interference policy.

Dr. James Gomez is Chair, Board of Directors of the Asia Centre. He is also the convener of Asia Centre’s upcoming International Conference on Fake News and Elections in Asia, 10-12 July, Bangkok, Thailand. For more information about the conference email: contact@asiacentre.org