Nasima Khatun lived a quiet life before Myanmar’s military barged into her village. Brandishing their guns, soldiers fired in all directions. Nasima ran. She fled to the jungle, hid, and waited. It was not until later that she learned her husband had been shot dead.
“I felt helpless and afraid,” Khatun told Al Jazeera in an interview in September 2017. “I cried and cried the whole way so my neighbors took pity on me and paid for our boat trip across to Bangladesh.”
Khatun is one of the 370,000 Rohingya who crossed the Bangladeshi border from Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority that is not recognized by Myanmar’s government. The United Nations considers them one of the world’s most persecuted people.
Violence has intensified in the fall of 2017, ever since the military launched a crackdown against alleged attacks by Rohingya insurgents.
Members of the international community have denounced the government’s lack of response to the crackdown. Aung Sang Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 for her opposition to Myanmar’s military dictatorship, but her refusal to denounce what the United Nations is calling ethnic cleansing has tainted her reputation.
The cries from abroad have been loud.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called on Myanmar to halt its military campaign, giving Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar’s government, “one last chance” to end the attack. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, a South African anti-apartheid leader and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, wrote that he was “breaking [his] vow to remain silent on public affairs” to issue a plea to Aung Sang Suu Kyi to end the violence. The European Parliament has even threatened to pursue sanctions.
Closer to home, the Rohingya waited for a call to action by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional grouping of Myanmar’s closest neighbors. That call never came.
“Why isn’t ASEAN taking a role in trying to mediate the crisis?” asked Edith Terry ’74, author, journalist, and adjunct business professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Business School, in an interview with The Politic.
Is it possible that ASEAN’s unique structure hinders meaningful political action?
ASEAN was created in 1967 to broker disputes between Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia. At the organization’s founding, Adam Malik, then Indonesian Minister for Foreign Affairs, said that he hoped the group would foster “a region which [could] stand on its own feet, strong enough to defend itself against any negative influence from outside the region.”
ASEAN’s ten members—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam—“[represent] an effort to bring together a very diverse set of countries and societies into a sense of shared regional identity,” said Tom Pepinsky, associate professor of Government at Cornell University, in an interview with The Politic.
But, he continued “ASEAN baked into it a series of structural contradictions that prevent it from [doing] what it wants to do.”
ASEAN’s unique system of values, dubbed the “ASEAN Way,” arose from its original vision and a shared history of colonialism.
“The idea of the ASEAN Way is to bring everyone along in a style of diplomacy that takes a lot of time, that requires a lot of rounds of consultations, and tries to build consensus, so the organization does not contribute to divisions among its members,” John Ciorciari, associate professor and Director of the International Policy Center at the University of Michigan, told The Politic.
ASEAN requires the unanimous vote of its members for the organization to take action. This principle of non-interference emerged from the painful experience of colonialism in Southeast Asia.
“The downside of this Westphalian conception of sovereignty is that the very same shield that protects governments from outside intervention can leave populations vulnerable to bad governance by the folks in power,” Ciorciari continued. “This has been a perennial source of debate within ASEAN.”
Ciorciari referenced the examples of Cambodia’s crackdown on opposition parties and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign against drugs. The Singaporean government, alongside those of Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, has refused to classify Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis as an international issue that requires interference.
In these cases, the principle of non-interference functions as “both a constraint and excuse in terms of non-action in neighboring countries,” according to Ciorciari.
This hands-off approach has driven academics like Pepinsky to call the organization “ineffectual.”
“In many senses, [ASEAN is] somewhat of a disappointment,” he said.
But others disagree.
“ASEAN has a different sort of profile and deliverables from classic Western institutions, but it has met the needs of itself over a long period of time,” said Terry. “You know that slogan on people’s t-shirts saying ‘Keep calm and drink tea’? I think that’s what ASEAN is about.”
ASEAN’s reputation for calm deliberation makes it an important forum for resolving regional disputes, a role that many credit with preventing major inter-state conflicts in the region. Organization members discuss major issues over golf.
“[A golf course] can be a meeting place, where people can come together in a relatively benign environment,” said Terry. “After the meeting, they’ll go play some golf. And on the golf course they’ll have a productive conversation. You can call that ridiculous. You can say that it’s a waste of time, but it is much better than their having no organizational framework at all.”
Others like Rahimah Abdulrahim, Yale Greenberg World Fellow ‘15 and Executive Director of the Habibie Center, a think tank based in Jakarta, argue that ASEAN gives its members a shared identity.
“Had [Indonesia and Myanmar] not been part of ASEAN together, had Myanmar not joined when it did, or had it remained at just the original five [Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand], I don’t think we would’ve felt the same sense of responsibility,” she said in an interview with The Politic.
Recently, Indonesian President Joko Widodo held talks with Aung San Suu Kyi after which the Indonesian government sent 34 tons of aid, including tents, rice, sugar, and sanitation supplies to Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Abdulrahim, who is from Indonesia, emphasized the importance of proximity and joint involvement in ASEAN as a motivation for this aid. “We feel such a large responsibility towards Myanmar, because the conflict is a part of our community. It is in our backyard.”
Abdulrahim also argued for the need to build relationships and a sense of regional community outside of the capital cities, where citizens from poor and rural communities tend to reside.
“Sometimes we forget how big our countries are. Sometimes it’s just easy to talk about Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, speaking to Bangkok. It’s not Bojonegoro, to Kuala Terengganu, to Marawi,” said Abdulrahim, distinguishing between the major cities and the lesser-known regions of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
ASEAN has more problems to solve than just those of Myanmar.
“ASEAN’s weaknesses may mean that it’s vulnerable to [becoming] irrelevant,” said Ciorciari. “For example, in the South China Sea issue, there is a tendency of the Chinese government to adopt a strategy of bilateralism, where they negotiate one-on-one with individual countries and hamstring the ability of ASEAN itself from negotiating their issues.”
In the past, ASEAN has struggled to adopt a joint stance on the South China Sea, with Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos—all allies of China—opposed to interfering in the issue. China and the United States are not members of ASEAN, but both nations routinely participate in its conferences.
“The risk is that these big elephants, like China and the United States, might push the nations apart,” noted Terry.
The organization’s key challenge, says Abdulrahim, is to utilize its resources and take concrete action.
“ASEAN needs to remember that it has a seat at the table and has a role in maintaining international order,” he said.
As of today, however, ASEAN’s only acknowledgement of the crisis is a statement at the United Nations General Assembly expressing “concern” and “deepest condolences.”
At least for now, it seems that ASEAN’s leaders are content with “keeping calm and drinking tea.”