Resolving the Rohingya crisis the Asean way: The Jakarta Post columnist

A view of burned down houses at the Myoma KaNyinTan muslim quarter in Maungdaw township, Rakhine State, western Myanmar on Sept 6, 2017.
A view of burned down houses at the Myoma KaNyinTan muslim quarter in Maungdaw township, Rakhine State, western Myanmar on Sept 6, 2017.PHOTO: EPA

Yulies Puspitaningtyas

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Said to be one of the most oppressed communities in the world, the Rohingya, an ethnic minority group in Myanmar, have experienced discrimination and injustice for decades.

The case has increasingly garnered international attention since boats carrying Rohingya were denied entry to Thailand's and Malaysia's coasts in May 2015, resulting in humanitarian outrage from concerned global citizens. To date, humanitarian resolution to end the deplorable conditions of the Rohingya has barely made progress.

Despite its complexity, this unavailing attempt is partly contributed by misconceptions of the root causes of the crisis. It is also important to study the evolution of the Asean and the impact of its political behaviour on Myanmar, which can give the group an opportunity to alleviate the plight of the Rohingya.

The ethics behind the humanitarian imperative is undeniably true. This protracted crisis facing the Rohingya indeed calls for immediate action. However, provisioning humanitarian relief without understanding and addressing the root causes of deep-seated discrimination against the Rohingya may only prolong suffering as the crises persist.

Jacques P. Leider, a historian known for his expertise in Rakhine studies, found that in most cases, the situation involving the Rohingya has been mischaracterised, with the global media pitching narrowed legal and humanitarian aspects only.

Among the world community, the Rohingya is referred to as an ethnic Muslim group living in Rakhine State. This shallow conclusion not only overlooks the diversity of the group (ethnic origins and social backgrounds), it also leads to ethnic or religion-driven discrimination and abuse.

In fact, the root cause of the crisis is the Rohingya's legitimacy embedded in their history, ethnicity and cultural identity.

It is the 1982 law on citizenship that sustains the structural oppression against the Rohingya. Denying the group's claim for citizenship, this law also disproportionately restricts the Rohingya's access to social services, such as healthcare, education and employment.

Children, girls and women are particularly the most vulnerable to sexual abuse, violence and human trafficking.

Abject poverty, injustice and increasing violence have been the motives behind massive migration of Rohingya to become economic migrants in neighbouring countries. This is where the Rohingya crisis has a spillover effect across the region.

Asean, of which Myanmar became a member in 1997, contributes to changing the political behaviour of its member states.

The Asean's distinct approach with its non-interference norms seems to fit in with the foreign policies of most Asean countries. For that reason, the Asean has taken a neutral stance over alleged human rights abuses carried out by the Myanmar military junta.

Over time, the Asean's approach to deal with shared issues that potentially impact the region has evolved. Internal conflicts and major disasters across borders, which potentially affect regional human security, such as the influx of refugees, epidemics, are no longer seen as national matters, but rather human rights issues.

Cyclone Nargis, which hit South and Southeast Asian countries in 2008 is an example.

Its catastrophic destruction mostly affected Myanmar and was a critical milestone in the Asean's new way of dealing with humanitarian crises.

Dubbed the first-ever Asean-led response, this approach was then considered exemplary for other interstate, joint efforts.

Diplomatic Asean measures that successfully convinced Myanmar's military junta to accept international humanitarian assistance was one of Asean's pivotal roles in humanitarian action.

In the following years, the Asean Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Center) has grown as a new interstate apparatus that deals with disasters, humanitarian impact and other relevant issues.

More importantly, this evolvement eventually promoted humanitarian and protection issues as regional affairs.

Despite its improvement, the fact that the AHA Center deliberately chooses to work only when natural disasters strike and exclude other complex humanitarian issues such as conflict and man-induced emergencies, has resulted in the slow progress of alleviating the Rohingya crisis.

Yet, talking about human suffering should not detach the analysis from its underlying, complex contributors: natural hazards, conflict and fragility. These three root causes are well fitted into the context of the Rohingya.

Therefore, the provision of humanitarian assistance has to incorporate conflict prevention, state building and mainstreaming risk management. Overlooking these considerations may result in an ineffective response.

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) Report titled "When Disasters and Conflicts Collide" discusses the role of humanitarian actors, including government and non-governmental organisations, in promoting the effectiveness of humanitarian response.

It is important to draw a distinction between affected states that are willing but unable, and those that are unwilling and unable to reduce the vulnerability of its population to disaster risks and humanitarian impact.

The outcome of this power analysis will certainly result in an appropriate strategy for humanitarian actions, and more importantly, guarantee protection for the most vulnerable and marginalised population.

For the Rohingya, it is nearly impossible to claim their civil and social rights for protection from the government of Myanmar, who denies them their rights.

As presently outcry and condemnation toward the Myanmar government could risk incoming humanitarian assistance at the expense of the Rohingya, the Asean should maintain its mediatory role and buffering other organisations or state members that employ a bolder approach to the crisis, such as the United Nations and Indonesia.

Malaysia's direct confrontation, as evinced when Prime Minister Najib Razak condemned the Myanmar government on the ground of human rights abuses and questioned credibility of Myanmar's Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, was proven ineffective.

Learning from that, the Indonesian government took diplomatic action by approaching key influential leaders at regional and international levels.

Among other urgent actions, ensuring protection for the Rohingya is imperative. The AHA Center is technically competent to coordinate protection for humanity.

Moreover, reinforcing a comprehensive risk analysis into Asean's Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER) framework can institutionalise discourse and analysis about risks, protection, vulnerability and human rights.

Fostering sustainable resolution for the Rohingya by any means, including through the facilitation of proper institutional dialogues between the government of Myanmar, ethnic minorities and Rohingya's militias, should be sought in order to resolve underlying legitimacy issues facing the Rohingya.

All in all, tackling such a complex humanitarian situation such as the crisis has to be conducted by changing the political and societal structure, which requires a thorough analysis and smart diplomatic moves.

The writer is an emergency response specialist at Plan International Indonesia.