The Straits Times says

Need to preserve Asean's credibility

There is a glimmer of hope that Myanmar may be prepared to take a measure of responsibility for the Rohingya. This hapless group numbers about a million, most of whom now live outside its borders because of this year's massive state-backed violence. After months of quiet negotiations, a tentative agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh, which hosts some 600,000 of the refugees, was signed in Naypyitaw last month. Details of the agreement are sketchy, but what little is available does not portend a mass repatriation since the agreement appears to follow a 1992 formula that required the refugees to produce residence papers. Since these papers were denied to most of them in the first place -Myanmar even declines to use the term Rohingya, calling them "Bengalis" instead - no more than a few thousand, if at all, are likely to go back.

As a humanitarian crisis that has gained global attention, the Rohingya issue has become a point of concern for Asean, which, after prolonged deliberations, admitted Myanmar into its fold in 1997, along with Laos. With the Myanmar government refusing to countenance even the friendliest advice on the issue from its Asean peers, including Indonesia, the regional grouping has hit a stone wall. In September, Malaysia disassociated itself from the Asean chair's statement on the issue, calling it "a misrepresentation of reality". Not since its 2012 summit, which was wrecked by the failure to produce an agreed statement because of divisons over the South China Sea dispute, has the grouping been affected so visibly.

Myanmar's stubbornness, and Asean's failure to be more assertive with it, has resulted in outside powers and influences playing in the region. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; his Chinese counterpart, Mr Wang Yi; the European Union's foreign affairs head, Ms Federica Mogherini; and Pope Francis are among those who have voiced their concerns and presented what appear to be the contours of a solution. It was Mr Yang who announced the deal between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

As an inter-governmental organisation rather than a supranational one, Asean does have its limitations. With its 10 members at various levels of economic and political development, finding a common voice on sensitive national issues will not be easy always. Without question, the principle of non-interference has been a useful glue to maintain unity amid such disparities. Quiet advice, both given and accepted with goodwill, humility and grace, is the only way to maintain lasting ties, whether in personal friendships or in regional ties. When that is spurned, the consequences will be dire. This is something for Asean to ponder. What the world thinks of Asean is important, of course. Even more key is what it makes of its own coherence as a grouping.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2017, with the headline 'Need to preserve Asean's credibility'. Print Edition | Subscribe