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ASEAN’s Response to the Rohingya Crisis: Assessing the ASEAN Way

Updated: Mar 4, 2019


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In the second lecture of our campaign ‘ASEAN After 50 – Towards Centrality or Irrelevance?‘, our society invited Dr. Champa Patel, Head of Asia Programme in Chatham House to give a talk on ASEAN’s response to the Rohingya Crisis. Dr. Patel was most recently the Regional Director for South Asia and Southeast Asia and Pacific Offices for Amnesty International, responsible for managing the research, campaigns, media and advocacy for the region. During the talk, Dr. Patel put in context the intensity of the humanitarian crisis, and outlined the political situation surrounding the crisis. She also evaluated the effectiveness of ASEAN in responding to the crisis, and answered challenging questions from the floor.


Dr. Patel started her presentation by contextualising the Rohingya crisis in a wave of previous displacement of refugees from Myanmar, a country which has suffered a long history of ethnic conflict and violence. However, she contends that the current scale of emigration is unprecedented, and possibly irreversible, as there is very little hope that the vast majority of Rohingya refugees would return to Myanmar. This is in spite of the fact that most Rohingyas seeking refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar desire to return home, in view of the current dire domestic situation. Internationally, there is consensus that any form of reparation to the Myanmar government from the international community should be safe, secure, durable and sustainable.


Dr. Patel then went on to evaluate current ASEAN efforts at providing a potential resolution to this humanitarian and political issue. She critiques that there is a lack of initiative from the organisation, with it releasing only one statement thus far despite the intensity and long duration of the crisis. The legal frameworks which ASEAN has adopted, in the form of the Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER), the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), as well as the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, are inadequate and not comprehensive enough in providing a coordinated response to the crisis. Most member states are instead acting bilaterally, and Dr. Patel considered the effectiveness of individual member states’ actions.


Indonesia chiefly focuses on behind-the-scenes diplomacy with the Myanmar government. This method, while expedient in engaging the military junta in negotiation, is limited in effectiveness because Indonesia’s leverage with Myanmar pales in comparison to China. On the other hand, Malaysia is engaging mostly in megaphone diplomacy, projecting a public voice condemning what is mainly portrayed as a humanitarian crisis. Their political effectiveness is limited because such public calls have little influence on the Myanmar government. Thailand has contributed majorly in humanitarian operations, and while politically they have tried to limit their interference, the Thais have been quite instrumental in various push-back incidents in 2015 in violent conflicts in the Rakhine state. India, while not a core member state of ASEAN, needs to be contended with too because of its close economic relations with Myanmar. However, India perceives the Rohingya crisis via a securitised lens, as it poses a possible, though contentious, domestic terror threat from Pakistan. Moreover, India needs to tackle the refugee situation carefully, as it has to balance relations with Bangladesh.


To understand the complexity of the issue, we have to examine its crux: the Rohingya people are essentially stateless, as the military junta and the Rakhine state have denied them their citizenry status. This complicates the issue because there is no legal framework in regulating the deportation of Rohingya refugees to neighbouring countries, as they do not have any official citizenry status. Therefore, in order to mitigate the issue, it is imperative to refer to international law, particularly the Refugee Convention, Conventions on Statelessness, and Genocide Laws – the last to prevent the local conflict from escalating into an intentional extermination by the state. While the intensity of the issue has subsided, the crisis still remains. It is important that the international community, and ASEAN as a regional, political organisation, continue to seek a long-term solution to the crisis.

The society would like to thank Dr. Patel for graciously agreeing to take time off her packed schedule to help make this event such a successful one. We would also like to thank our members and the other participants for attending the event, and for their enthusiastic and critical questions. We hope this event has been value-adding and insightful, and we look forward to seeing you at our next event!

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