Asean chair grapples with domestic uncertainties

Myanmar made succinctly clear the Rohingya problem would not be raised in any Asean meeting during its chairmanship this year. U Ye Htut, the spokesperson of President Thein Sein, reiterated his country’s position during a press conference on the eve of the first Asean informal ministerial meeting recently in Bagan.

After months of praises and applauds over economic and political reforms, Myanmar’s continued denial of the existence of this issue has put a damper on its leadership role in Asean and further tainted its otherwise rather positive image abroad.

Indeed, Nayphidaw’s firm-position has generated strong reactions from Western countries and international governments. Asean Muslim neighbors such Malaysia, Indonesia and including Buddhist Thailand were extremely uneasy but have so far abstained from criticizing the treatments of the Rohingya by Nayphidaw.

The reported massacre of 48 Muslims in Du Chee Ya Tan village in northern Rakhline State early this month, which Myanmar vehemently denied, has been condemned widely. The United Nations has already urged Myanmar to conduct an investigation. In response, Myanmar has already rebutted the UN statement as “unacceptable”.

A statement from Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry last week also urged international organizations and media to verify information with assigned officials, otherwise they would be considered an act of interference with the country’s internal affairs.

As such, it is imperative that Myanmar must come clean over the reported killings by showing transparency and accountability as soon as possible. The sooner is better as it will impact not only on Myanmar’s internal dynamic but Asean as a whole.

First of all, the unsettling violence would certainly become an electoral issue when the general election comes next year. Nobody would like to offend the Buddhist voters and worsen the security situation further. That helps explain the conspicuous absence of local voices on the plight of Rohingya.

In addition, it does not bode well with the much heralded theme of Myanmar’s Asean chair focusing on peaceful community building. Expectations within Asean are high that the chair would promote national reconciliation among various minorities groups including Rohingya in months to come.

The Asean leaders has been extremely cautious in depicting the Rohingya situation in their official references and documents. Myanmar objects strongly any attempt to label the issue as a regional problem. The leaders hope in private that Myanmar would share more information to mitigate any ill-feeling or misunderstanding among them and with dialogue partners. Under its chair, Indonesia volunteered information on its domestic turmoil including its ethnic relations. The process has strengthened the mutual trust between the chair and Asean members.

In this connection, Myanmar’s reputation would depend on how it handles the sensitive Buddhist-Muslim relations and overall narratives as well as with the Asean colleagues. At the Bagan meeting recently, the Asean foreign ministers did not discuss the Rohinya issue knowing full well it sensitivity. Myanmar strongly opposed the plan to hold a special ministerial meeting on this problem by Cambodia on in 2012. Instead, the South China Sea dispute was the key issue.

Lest we forget, the most important element of Asean Community is the wish that the Asean citizens and their countries would “live in peace with one another and with the world at large in a just, democratic and harmonious environment.”

Secondly, the Rohingya quagmire can overtime slow down the flow of goodwill and support from international community in terms of foreign assistance, investment, tourism and other forms of engagements. At this juncture, the policy-makers in Nayphidaw are confident that both state and non-state partners do not want to jeopardize their hard-gained footholds inside the country. If this issue remains unattended, it can backfire on the chair in various ways.

Due to the severity of violence and prosecution against the Rohingya, the US and UK, which have recently enjoyed the dramatic turnarounds of their bilateral relations, unavoidably issued a statement of concerns through their embassies in Yangon. It also criticized the government for insufficient actions in addressing the root causes. At the moment, it is still early to tell what would be the repercussions if Myanmar resorts to respond to these criticisms.

There could be restrictions imposed on humanitarian activities and media freed inside the country.

Myanmar is not alone in trying to grapple with domestic troubles under its helm. Previous Asean chairs had encountered domestic turmoil during their chairs. In April 2010, Thailand had to cancel the ongoing Asean summit due to intrusions at the summit’s venue in Pattaya by protesters. During its chair, Bangkok held only two summits instead of three as scheduled.