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ASEAN’s Rakhine Crisis: Assessing the regional response to atrocities in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

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“The purposes of ASEAN are to ensure that the peoples of ASEAN live in peace… in a just, democratic, and harmonious environment.”
ASEAN Charter, Article 1(4).

“ASEAN has a responsibility to protect people in the region. They have a responsibility to protect Rohingya no matter where they are. Collectively ASEAN can be and should be stronger.”
Wai Wai Nu, Founder and Director of the Women’s Peace Network, Rohingya activist.

On 25 August 2017, Myanmar’s security forces launched a devastating attack on the Rohingya community living in Rakhine State, in the western part of Myanmar. In the weeks that followed, thousands were killed, women and girls were raped, hundreds of homes and entire villages burned to the ground, and more than 740,000 women, men and children forced to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. The attacks took place against a background of decades-long discrimination, persecution, and violence against the Rohingya, a situation that continues today.

This report examines the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) response to this crisis, from the initial outbreak of violence in August 2017 to the present day. It is based on 45 interviews with Rohingya representatives, NGO workers, diplomats, ASEAN Parliamentarians, political analysts, and current and former ASEAN officials. It also draws on extensive review of official statements and other documents, as well as NGO and media reports.

The findings show how, caught between respect for its key principles of consensus and non-interference on the one hand, and international and domestic outcry on the other, the regional bloc has struggled to respond to the crisis and articulate a clear vision and strategy that would help end the cycle of violence and displacement. The report examines some of the reasons behind ASEAN’s so far weak response. These include a lack of leadership both within the Secretariat and among Member States, giving space for the Myanmar government to set the parameters of ASEAN’s engagement. ASEAN’s reluctance to acknowledge the underlying human rights dimensions of the crisis has also meant that the bloc has focused only on the “less controversial” issues, risking being at best counter-productive and at worst actively contributing to human rights abuses. ASEAN’s lack of transparency, reluctance to engage with actors other than the Myanmar government, and the weaknesses inherent in its own institutions have further undermined its response.