“Malaysia Drowns Out ASEAN’s Collective Voice on the Rakhine Issue” by Tang Siew Mun

2017/57, 1 October 2017

After weeks of deafening silence, ASEAN finally found its voice on the unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. Acting as the ASEAN Chair, the Philippines issued the “ASEAN Chairman’s Statement on the Humanitarian Situation on Rakhine State” on 23 September. The Statement, which came more than a month after the latest round of hostilities, drew an immediate response from Malaysia. Foreign Minister Anifah Aman took the unequivocal position of “disassociating” Malaysia from the Statement, going so far as to criticise the document as a “misrepresentation” of the situation.

Objectively, Malaysia’s Foreign Minister was right to call out ASEAN for failing to mention and acknowledge the Rohingya people “as one of the affected communities.” The one-sided statement could easily be read as white-washing or downplaying the plight of the Rohingya people. In addition, Malaysia’s assertion that the Statement does not represent the consensus view is not news to ASEAN watchers familiar with its processes and procedures. But the firmness in which the point was made highlights Malaysia’s disappointment in the outcome which ignored all of the substantive points made by the Malaysian delegation during the discussions in New York. Could some elements of Malaysia’s argument to incorporate an accurate and representative picture of the “on-the-ground” situation in the Rakhine State not have found its way into the Statement in the spirit of ASEAN inclusiveness and compromise?
Malaysia’s stance on the Rakhine issue is well-known. Within the ASEAN circle, Kuala Lumpur is the most vocal at calling out Nay Pyi Taw for the latter’s (mis)handling of the Rohingya situation. However, beyond the political rhetoric and noise, Malaysia’s move to distance itself from the Statement undermines ASEAN and is counterproductive.

First, Malaysia’s “disassociation move” sets a dangerous precedent that might lead to other similar fallouts in the future, which will weaken ASEAN’s collective voice and unity. ASEAN statements would ring hollow if Members States withdraw their support when their views are not reflected in their entirety. Of course, Malaysia has the right to its own view, but it also has an obligation to support the Chairman’s Statement.
Second, Malaysia played a poor hand in falling out of step with ASEAN. It could have achieved the same outcome of championing the Rohingya cause by issuing a stand-alone statement to complement the Chairman’s Statement instead of supplanting it. Instead, the act of disowning the Statement became the headline. Malaysia’s position, however justified in their eyes, effectively becomes the story instead of the Rohingya issue.
Third, Anifah’s statement shone the light on Malaysia’s division with ASEAN – a development which undermines regional unity, and puts further distance between Kuala Lumpur and Naw Pyi Taw. The fact that Malaysian aid for the Rohingya people had to be channelled through Bangladesh is evidence of the breakdown in communication and lack of cooperation between the two countries. In contrast, Indonesia, which had tacked closely to the “ASEAN line” and avoided megaphone diplomacy, was more successful in reaching out and providing aid to the Rohingya people by working with the Myanmar government.
It is also telling that the Myanmar government held high-level bilateral discussions with ministers from Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand in the wake of the August outbreak of hostilities, but none so far with Malaysia. The Statement is far from perfect, and failed to present a balanced account of the situation in the Rakhine State. Myanmar would have preferred for ASEAN to remain silent on the matter, but supported the Statement as it understood that ASEAN’s credibility would be damaged otherwise. It was prepared to shoulder the heavy domestic political cost for going along with the ASEAN position, but ironically, it was Malaysia that took a harder line.
At the end of the day, Malaysia would have to do some soul-searching and decide if it is more important to score political points among its Muslim majority population, especially with a general election looming, or to be a team player trying to bring meaningful change to the Rohingya people by working with ASEAN Member States and within the ASEAN framework.
Unfortunately, the Rohingya issue yet again exposes ASEAN’s limitations and ineffectiveness in managing intra-mural differences and reconciling divergent national interests, an increasingly frequent and alarming development that weakens ASEAN unity.

Dr Tang Siew Mun is Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

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