Speaking Of Asia

Asean centrality: What's that?

Asean risks losing relevance as a regional player over its weak response to the Rakhine crisis.


A decade ago in November, Asean heads of state gathered in Singapore got a taste of the Myanmar experience when a piquant situation unfolded at the Shangri-La Hotel's Waterfall Terrace. On the table, aside from sea bass and roast veal, was what was meant to be a frank "family" conversation. At the time it was about the military's crackdown on pro-democracy activists, which fetched Yangon severe sanctions from the West.

United Nations Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari - whose mission was to convey the UN Secretary-General's clear message to Myanmar's rulers and promote national reconciliation - was billed to address the East Asia Summit (EAS) the next day on the progress he had made.

Most Asean members had approved of the idea. But then Myanmar, which had initially seemed to go along, began to show unease as the day approached. That night, then Prime Minister Thein Sein insisted that there would be no Gambari briefing, not to the EAS, not even to Asean.

Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines - even Malaysia, seen as most sympathetic to the generals - spoke up. But Mr Thein Sein, possibly under orders, would not budge, saying this was a matter between Myanmar and Prof Gambari, and between Prof Gambari and his UN bosses. He then calmly finished his ice cream before departing. The other Asean leaders possibly went to bed with a bad taste in the mouth.

Ten years on, and now under what ostensibly is a civilian government - How else to describe a situation where the military keeps control of some very key levers of power? - Myanmar has been taking a similar rigid position, only this time on the issue of its Rohingya, which is how the world refers to the stateless Muslim people of its Rakhine state, who number about a million.

Denied citizenship papers and dismissed as "Bengali" migrants, nearly 700,000 of them have been pushed out of their homes, finding refuge in Bangladesh mostly, but also in Malaysia and India in smaller numbers. The United States, and some UN officials, have called this forced exodus "ethnic cleansing". Unsurprisingly, Myanmar denies there has been any targeted violence against the group.

Without question, it is now Asia's biggest humanitarian crisis, straining the resources of Bangladesh as it tries to cope with the influx. It has also been a slap in the face of Asean and its efforts to present itself as the unifying force around which Asia gathers itself.


Indeed, Myanmar has shown scant respect for even its biggest Asean brother, Indonesia, a country with the largest population of Muslims. In September, when Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi flew to Naypyitaw and Dhaka with a "Formula 4 Plus 1" plan to resolve the crisis, she got no more than a polite hearing from Myanmar.

Yet, the Myanmar that so dramatically insisted to Asean that it alone would decide on an internal matter seems to have acquiesced to some heavy leaning from China recently. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, having visited both Naypyitaw and Dhaka, last week announced a three-step solution to the Rohingya crisis. In quick succession, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the Myanmar military chief, has met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing and the country's de facto leader, State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, will soon be in Beijing herself and is expected to meet Mr Xi.

Details of the agreement, which seem to have caught most Asean capitals by surprise, are sketchy - most of what little is known has come from Dhaka. It also seems that bilateral talks have been going on for a while, so China may just have seized the initiative to appear peacemaker. But it does appear that that both the Lady, as Ms Suu Kyi is known, and her generals have gone along with the plan, even if reluctantly.

No one who has followed the twists and turns of the Rohingya crisis will begrudge a settlement to the issue. And, if the Chinese can indeed pull one off, good luck to them, even if there is a long road yet to be travelled before the results show up on the ground. For one thing, it is unclear if Myanmar will create the conditions for Rohingya in any substantial number to feel secure enough to return to their former homes.

Still, both Myanmar and its fellow Asean siblings have to ask themselves whether they've done each other any favours by letting an outside party arrange the furniture inside one of their homes. Who remembers now that two decades ago one of the strategic reasons for some states to push for Myanmar to be brought into the Asean fold was to prevent it from falling unduly into China's sphere of influence!

Although the issues in the Rakhine are indeed complicated, and with complex historical roots, the collective Asean response has been nothing less than a cop-out. In late September, the statement issued by the Asean chair, following a meeting of foreign ministers held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, began by condemning the attacks against Myanmar security forces a month earlier and pussyfooted around the thoroughly disproportionate response by the state, or its actions over the years that had brought the situation to a head.

Indeed, the statement was so watery that Malaysia quickly disassociated itself from it, calling it "a misrepresentation of reality" and complaining that it did not mention the Rohingya as an affected community.

Likewise, the chairman's statement, following the Manila summit that marked the group's 50th anniversary, buried the issue. It figured as a single paragraph in a section on building resilience, and humanitarian assistance for disaster management. How to countenance such squeamishness, all in the name of consensus?

Myanmar's mule-headedness, and Asean's failure to be more assertive with a recalcitrant member, has resulted in all sorts of outside powers, and influences, playing in the region. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, his Chinese counterpart Mr Wang, the European Union's foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini - and this week, Pope Francis - are part of a long procession that has entered this theatre with aid, advice, and now, what appears to be the contours of a solution.

It is painful to see the EU's Ms Mogherini visiting the camps in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazaar when many Asean foreign ministers have not been there themselves.

Where was the grouping in all this? To be sure, the Asean foreign ministers' retreat in Yangon last December was a small step that showed the grouping was taking a collective interest, but it was clear even then that Myanmar had no real desire to engage its peers in any significant way. Calls for an Eminent Persons Group to visit the Rakhine were brushed aside.

Yet, last month's summit statement, in a pathetic show of self-congratulation, "applauded Asean's efforts to preserve its centrality through effective and timely response to emergency situations in the region, projecting a unified position on issues of common interests, and ensuring that Asean's collective interests are not compromised".

Seriously? All the bleatings about Asean centrality in Asian affairs amount to nothing but a chimera if Asean itself cannot stand up and be counted on key issues that concern it.

And the instances are mounting. Earlier this year, when Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines started joint anti-piracy patrols in the Sulu Sea, it was a trilateral agreement within the region in whose construction Asean played no role.

To be sure, there probably has been much quiet diplomacy taking place on the Rohingya issue, as recent developments suggest. There also is little doubt that when it comes to the Rakhine, most of Myanmar are firmly with their military, leaving Ms Suu Kyi little room to manoeuvre, even if she wishes to drop her natural Burman orientation to adopt a more internationalist posture. That does limit Asean's ability to influence things in the vital Indochinese state.

Also, as Ms Moe Thuzar, who coordinates the Myanmar Studies Programme at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, points out, Asean's mechanisms per se do not have the funding or technical capacity to get involved in the Rohingya issue in a more direct way. That said, Asean's convening power does give it the means to play a coordinating role for individual or bilateral initiatives under the Asean umbrella.

"At the very least, it can ask Myanmar what is going on, and that is what usually happens at Asean meetings," she says.

Still, the central truth about power, whether as authority or influence, is that it is not something to be gifted but seized. By allowing others to take the initiative on a key matter within its fold, Asean may not only have done itself an injustice, but it also is at risk of losing its cherished centrality.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 01, 2017, with the headline Asean centrality: What's that?. Subscribe