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Making sense of Asean's view on Rakhine - Kavi Chongkittavorn

With Singapore as the chair, Asean's every word and move must be meticulously crafted and choreographed. There can't be any loose ends. There is no exception when it comes to the delicate situation in Myanmar's Rakhine State where violent clashes erupted back in October 2016 have forced nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to escape to Bangladesh.

The stakes are high for the chair at the coming Asean summit on April 28, which expects to come out with some tangible steps the regional grouping will take on the Rohingya crisis as a collective.


Myanmar's domestic development has always been a huge challenge for Asean to engage and manage, long before Nay Pyi Daw joined the group in 1997 and the eruption of the Rakhine turmoil. With its unique history and tradition coupled with the charisma of Aung San Suu Kyi, Asean's approach must be incremental and based on consensus. One must have a long-term view to understand Asean's behaviour.

Nearly one decade elapsed before Myanmar was able to gain a comfort level with the rest of Asean. Ironically, it took a series of political challenges and harsh words to earn mutual trust between Asean and Myanmar. Singapore, as Asean chair from 2007-2008, issued the grouping's strongest statement on a member, expressing "revulsion" of the violent crackdown on demonstrators, comprising monks and students in Myanmar, after their special foreign ministerial meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2007.

That was a wake-up call for Nay Pyi Daw. Everyone in Asean must take care of one another and do the utmost to heed the rest of the community.

A few months later in May 2008, Myanmar's Ayeyarwady Delta was devastated by Cyclone Nargis. Once again, Asean was under global scrutiny. Fortunately, Asean leaders managed to convince the military leaders in Nay Pyi Daw to allow the regional organisation to play a coordinating role with international relief organisations.

Despite the external threats posed by great powers, it was the confidence shared by the Myanmar and Asean leaders that finally persuaded the generals of the country's armed forces (known as the Tatmadaw) to give the green light for a broader framework recommended by Asean to provide humanitarian assistance in the wake of the cyclone.

The efforts to rehabilitate the region damaged by the cyclone and help its 1.5 million affected people provided an invaluable experience for local community leaders to work together with their own, regional and international colleagues. Nay Pyi Daw also learned, despite its long isolation, that the international community was still willing to provide assistance. One tangible outcome was the birth of local community-based civil society organisations (CSOs) that has turned Myanmar into a country with a young and dynamic CSO culture.

No doubt for Asean, the same tenacity and experience during Cyclone Nargis will be used in handling the Rohingya crisis under the current chair. Indeed, against heavy international criticism of its lack of dramatic actions and strong rhetoric, Asean is working ceaselessly behind the scenes to ensure that Myanmar has the same confidence in the group as before. The National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government under democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has taken exactly a year to reach a comfort level with her nine Asean colleagues. Lest we forget, for nearly two decades, Asean has not always been supportive of her efforts.

Ms Suu Kyi's past personal experience and sentiment with Asean has now been put on the back burner. On top of her diplomatic experience as NLD leader, her attendance at six Asean-related and foreign ministerial summits since she has taken over as the country's de facto leader has given her insights to understand the Asean way as well as its consultative process and narrative.

Closer examination of her statements and views from her first appearance in Vientiane, Laos in July 2016, two months after she took over in Myanmar, to the recent special Asean-Australian summit demonstrate her pragmatism and better appreciation of what it means to be an Asean member and its collective-bargaining forces and benefits. More than ever before, Myanmar needs more of that now.

Under the previous government of Gen Thien Sien, Myanmar learned to work with and trust Asean as a grouping despite different views and positions held by individual members. Myanmar's military leaders had two decades to learn from Asean's unwavering commitment of non-interference when the grouping stood firm against the West, reiterating that regional problems should be settled within the regional context in the early 1990s.

For his Asean-related efforts, the former president was awarded the Asia Cosmopolitan's grand prize by the Jakarta-based Economic Research Institute of Asean and East Asia in 2016.

Ms Suu Kyi's new Asean attitude was visible when she called for a retreat among her colleagues in Yangon on Dec 19, 2016 to brief them on the situation in Rakhine. It was an unusual move for an Asean leader to call such a meeting to discuss a sensitive domestic issue. At the meeting, she pledged to grant humanitarian access to the troubled region and keep her colleagues informed and updated.

But Malaysia was not happy with the outcome. Due to domestic pressures and a looming general election, which is expected to be held mid-May, Malaysia broke an Asean rule by condemning Ms Suu Kyi by name. At the special Asean foreign ministerial meeting last September in New York, Malaysia decided to dissociate itself from the Asean joint statement on the Rakhine situation. Kuala Lumpur wanted to see more Asean actions. Her renewed trust and confidence of Asean solidarity was severely undermined.

However, through diplomatic efforts by Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore, she gradually regained trust and appreciated their goodwill. Humanitarian assistance from these Asean members reached Rakhine in early 2017. At the Asean ministerial retreat on Feb 6, Malaysia also returned to the Asean embrace, supporting the chairman's statement including the 239-word paragraph on the situation in Rakhine.

The appointment of Surakiart Sathirathai, former Thai deputy prime minister and foreign minister, as head of the advisory board in December was proof that she preferred a regional framework. Despite the disastrous launch of the advisory board's meeting in January due to Bill Richardson's dramatic departure, it has already come up with a series of recommendations during its second meeting with Ms Suu Kyi on April 2.

Asean's patient and quiet diplomacy has paid off, now that Myanmar has appealed to the grouping through the advisory board to provide direct assistance to Rakhine. Singapore has been extremely cautious, as the island learned first-hand when engaging Myanmar in its previous chairmanship. Although the Rakhine situation would not be written down as an agenda item, Asean leaders would deliberate on it during their retreat, including the advisory board's recommendations. Nobody expects a miracle, but the outcome would demonstrate that whenever conflicts in Asean erupt, the group does not run away from the problems as Western countries often charge. Its slow-but-sure pathway is a preferable mode of conduct.

Four important issues would signify the coming together of Asean in tackling the crisis in Rakhine.

First, it must find efficient ways to improve public health care in the troubled region. It has to work together with the local public health sector there to set up mobile health clinics in isolated areas. Sittwe General Hospital has also been named a top priority facility to be improved and expanded. At the upcoming summit, Asean hopes to get Nay Pyi Daw's pledge for open, universal and non-discriminatory access to public healthcare. This effort calls for the coordination of various agencies, including Myanmar's Ministry of Health and Sports and the Committee for the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine, the Jakarta-based Asean Secretariat and the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance.

Second, Asean leaders must support the planned establishment of an independent investigative committee to look into all allegations of human rights abuses in a comprehensive manner. Myanmar will decide on the composition of the new investigative committee. An earlier misunderstanding of seeking an outside independent investigation elicited shrugs from Asean leaders. The new team would look into human rights abuses in the Rakhine, Muslim, Hindu, Kaman, Daingnet and Mro communities.

Third, Asean can help Myanmar to promote inter-communal dialogue and reconciliation in Rakhine. Myanmar can learn from the rich regional experiences of Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand that involve all stakeholders from the state and regional governments and parliamentarians as well as CSOs. Back in 2015, Asean also issued the Declaration on Global Movement of Moderates proposed by Malaysia. It aims to promote moderation at regional and global levels. The declaration should give food for thought for Malaysia's position and behaviour on Rakhine.

Finally, the issuing of national verification cards (NVCs) is still a red herring that must be carried out with urgency. It is also important to disseminate information about the benefits of having an NVC. Officials dealing with this information must provide access for local and international journalists so they can report on it.

The closing of some camps for locally displaced people was a sign they would be allowed to return to their original homes. The Asean chair expects to discuss the growing threat of terrorism and radicalisation among refugees living along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Both Thailand and Indonesia are extremely concerned about this issue.

In the final analysis, the Rakhine crisis, which has all the elements of injustice and human rights abuses and ethnic conflict, will provide a space for Asean leaders to jointly manage the situation and boost Asean centrality to a higher level.

Myanmar's willingness to engage with Asean is crucial to finding a comprehensive and durable solution to tackle the root cause of the problems in Rakhine and resolve this long-running crisis.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.