Boats of Acehnese fishermen (in front) tow a boat of Rohingya migrants off the coast near the city of Geulumpang in East Aceh district, before they were rescued on May 20. (AFP Photo/Januar)

Johannes Nugroho: Rohingya Crisis a Test Case for Asean — And Indonesia

MAY 26, 2015

The plight of Myanmar’s pariah Rohingya community has become a major headache for several countries in Southeast Asia. Persecuted by their own government and harassed by the majority Burmese, the Rohingya have taken to the sea in rickety boats in the hope of finding a safe haven.

Indonesia and Malaysia recently agreed to provide temporary shelter to the refugees, but a permanent solution is needed. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the organization to which all the countries affected by this crisis except Bangladesh belong, is conspicuous by its absence.

Instead of trying to solve the Rohingya problem within an Asean framework, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have consulted one another and agreed to hold a meeting on Friday in Thailand, to which Myanmar has been pressured to send a representative.

The Rohingya crisis is but the latest issue to show Asean’s irrelevance in solving difficult regional problems. Stubbornly clinging to the hallowed principle of “non-interference” in the internal affairs of member states, the ten Asean countries have proved resistant to change.

Asean does not aspire to develop into a supranational entity like the European Union in the near future, but the Asean Economic Community, scheduled to take effect at the end of the year, is a big step in that direction. For the sake of its own credibility, Asean should be able to respond to urgent issues affecting Southeast Asia.

The Rohingya problem first became internationally known in 2012 with the outbreak of the Rakhine state riots. Asean has persistently chosen to treat the issue as Myanmar’s internal matter. But the recent exposure of jungle camps in Thailand where abducted Rohingya refugees were held in appalling conditions until their families agreed to pay ransom for their release is one example that the crisis hasn’t been limited to Myanmar for a while. It is wishful thinking to believe that this humanitarian, cross-border crisis does not have regional implications.

For many years, most Asean countries’ reluctance to “regionalize” the South China Sea question played into China’s hands. As a result, skirmishes took place in 2014 between China and, respectively, the Philippines and Vietnam. At long last, Beijing’s land-reclamation projects prompted an Asean statement in April, in which the ten member states expressed “serious concern” over China’s latest unilateral action.

The April statement contained the strongest language Asean had ever used in relation to the South China Sea. China predictably replied that it had no quarrel with Asean and would rather settle disputes bilaterally, an approach which allows China to play one Asean state against another. Similarly, last year China rejected a proposal to discuss the South China Sea in the November forum of the Asean Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM-Plus), which includes eight non-members of Asean.

It is too early to see whether Asean states can create lasting unity and solidarity among themselves on the South China Sea issue, but a regional approach is likely to work better than any alternative. So it goes with the Rohingya. The start of a solution would be an admission by Myanmar that the problem started there.

This will be a test case for Asean. If it fails to persuade Myanmar to accept ownership of the Rohingya issue, how can Asean hope to force China to agree to a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea?

Asean needs a more flexible and adaptable approach. Perhaps the principles of “non-interference” and “respect for individual states’ sovereignty” were appropriate for Southeast Asia in the late 1960s, when Asean was formed. Indonesia had just ended its "confrontation" with Malaysia and President Suharto was keen to assure the neighboring states that Indonesia was no longer expansionist. Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines were also eager to see Indonesia behave responsibly and perhaps believed that a new regional organization might help it stay that way.

Meanwhile, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was still on. China was then self-destructively absorbed in its Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and was a decade away from starting its economic modernization, let alone acquiring regional hegemon status.

The situation is different today. Vietnam is keen on strengthening its ties with the United States, while the Philippines likewise wants a strong US naval presence to offset China. Four Asean member countries, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, have territorial claims in the South China Sea, while China’s nine-dash-line impinges on Indonesia’s EEZ. In these circumstances, should “non-interference” still hold sway?

Indonesia can play a key role in brokering an Asean solution, but it must pressure the Myanmar government in order to do so. Passing the buck to other countries, whether Asean member states or otherwise, will not show Indonesia’s pre-eminence in Southeast Asia.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at