The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is not very popular at the moment.
Four of its members – Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia – are embroiled in a human rights scandal of biblical proportions. Travelling along maritime smuggling routes, thousands of Muslim Rohingya – fleeing western Myanmar – and Bangladeshi refugees have up until very recently been refused entry at regional ports or towed back out to sea amid a crackdown on human trafficking.
Their boats bob up and down in a watery no-man’s land, depleted of supplies and drinking water. Horrific reports of people drinking their own urine, stabbing each other for food and of dead bodies being thrown overboard continue to be published.
Naturally the world’s attention has turned to ASEAN, which Malaysia chairs this year. As anger over the crisis mounts, so have the number of news stories that blast away at the group’s fecklessness and inactivity.
“Rohingya crisis highlights toothless nature of Asean,” reads the headline for an Associated Press piece published on Tuesday.
“ASEAN’s Refugee Embarrassment,” declares another from regional online magazine the Diplomat, an article that packs an extra subhead hammering the point home: “The Rohingya refugee crisis is quite possibly the greatest embarrassment ASEAN has ever faced.”
There’s certainly something toothless and embarrassing about the way that countries in the region have responded to the situation. But it’s hardly shocking. As history shows, for ASEAN, this is par for the course.
Founded in 1967 in Bangkok with five members (Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore), ASEAN’s raison d’être has long been economic growth and stability, both in the foreign policy realm and at home.
This led to the signing, in 1976, of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. In the words of journalist Bill Hayton writing in his book The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, the treaty represented what would be known as the ASEAN Way, or “pledging to work by ‘consensus’ and turning a blind eye to unpleasant events in each other’s countries”.
Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Chiang Mai, says the 1976 treaty was effectively a block on meddling in the problems of other member states.
“ASEAN countries would not have been able to respond collectively to human rights crises originating in one member state because of the treaty’s clause requiring non-interference by members in the affairs of other members. Consensus and not ‘rocking the boat’ was in fact the ASEAN Way,” he said.
Anyone who has covered an ASEAN summit witnesses this guiding philosophy embodied in the seminal and much-ridiculed photo op. The leaders, or senior officials, of each country stand side by side, united, while the cameras flash. Then they take a new photo posing in “the ASEAN Way”, an awkward lineup in which each person crosses both hands and shakes the hand of the leader to his or her right or left.
The ASEAN Way has proved remarkably durable over the years, and remarkably attractive. Other countries in the region liked what they saw and signed up. From its original five, ASEAN added five new members, including Myanmar in 1997. Later this year, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) will be formally launched with the goal of bringing down trade barriers and spurring economic growth.
The bloc is bigger and more powerful than ever, but that has done little to change the status quo. New members and a globalising world brought new problems, but ASEAN has proved adept at skirting conflict.
The organisation as a whole has done little of substance to address the coup in Thailand, the ongoing feud over the South China Sea, and the Preah Vihear temple fight between Thailand and Cambodia, which had to be taken to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. To be fair, ASEAN has no court to address conflict, but it can call regional meetings and pressure members diplomatically.
Carl Thayer, professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales in Australia, says the response so far illustrates the self-serving nature of the regional bloc.
“This crisis is occurring in a year when ASEAN will declare itself an ASEAN Community. But this refugee crisis reveals that national interest trumps cooperation on human security,” he said. “Thailand and Malaysia are acting independently without coordination and cooperation . . . so we now have a divided ASEAN. Four states are focused on the Rohingya crisis and four claimant states are focused on the South China Sea.”
An official statement from the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta says that member states “are concerned about the issue of Rohingya exodus and Bangladesh economic refugees.
“There are ongoing discussions among concerned Member States on the plight of these people involved in irregular migration. However, the ASEAN Secretariat is not privy to these conversations, and therefore, we are unable to share any information to the public at present.”
What makes this time different from past flare-ups is the magnitude. More and more comparisons are being made to the exodus of boat people from Vietnam in the 1970s, when refugees landed in Southeast Asian countries but were largely resettled elsewhere.
What also makes it different is the slowly evolving nature of ASEAN. Rights issues are starting to play a larger role in the conversation; larger being a relative term, because as the current catastrophe shows, rights are still not a huge focus.
As Chambers points out, the 2008 Asean Charter paved the way for the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), which investigates and reports on rights abuses in member countries.
“Though the commission is rather lax, it represents a beginning toward scrutinising human rights standards in ASEAN,” he said, adding that member states also promulgated the ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights and the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (ACMW).
Elliot Brennan, a research fellow at the Sweden-based Institute for Security and Development Policy, highlighted a new declaration signed in Kuala Lumpur by heads of state in April.
The so-called People-oriented, People-centred ASEAN “underlines a core principle of the ASEAN charter and looks toward the introduction of the ASEAN Community, across all pillars – political-security, economic and socio-cultural. In that declaration there was a commitment to the peoples of ASEAN to uphold their rights.”
Brennan added that ASEAN governments are watching how the European Union deals with its own migrant crisis. While some key circumstances are different – people are not fleeing within the EU as they are within ASEAN – the response “offers some framework for a solution, [and] that framework is a regional solution with equal burden sharing of a regional problem”.
Meanwhile, thousands of people are still adrift at sea, waiting for these problems to get sorted out. But international pressure from the United Nations and other foreign governments may finally be having an impact. While Myanmar has indicated it will not attend a summit addressing the emergency in Bangkok on May 29, Malaysia and Indonesia (though not Thailand) expressed a willingness in Kuala Lumpur yesterday to temporarily shelter refugees. The Philippines has also offered help. This is not the ASEAN solution many were hoping for, but it’s better than nothing.
Charles Santiago, a Malaysian lawmaker who is chairman of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said before the meeting yesterday in Malaysia, which led to the statement on sheltering refugees, that he hoped some “direction” would come out of it.
He added that much was at stake.
“Governments are aware that if they mess up, people’s faith in ASEAN as a sharing and caring regional bloc it will be in tatters. So this is going to be a real test.”
This article was reprinted with permission by Coconuts Media