THE 31st ASEAN Summit in Manila, the Philippines, ended on November 14, 2017. There was the usual fanfare and show of unity as well as a largely ceremonial communiqué of ‘lofty’ but bland good wishes.
The official web site of the ASEAN secretariat said, ‘People-focused issues high on 31st ASEAN Summit agenda.’ It also said, ‘The agenda of the summit will cover political and security, economic and socio-cultural matters which ASEAN would like to address in order to bring about inclusive, sustainable and equitable development for all peoples of the ASEAN community.’
Yet it failed to say a word on one of the worst human rights violations in recent history by one of its members. The 10-member regional bloc refused to discuss, in any strongly critical manner, the ethnic cleansing of 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. It is no wonder that on the same day the summit ended, Myanmar’s military claimed on Facebook that no innocent Rohingya civilians had been killed, no houses had been razed and there were no rapes despite UN and other investigators having meticulously documented widespread atrocities.
It is not only the ASEAN members — its partners, such as Australia, the United States and China — also did not forcefully raise the issue and demand that Myanmar should stop the systematic ethnic cleaning. Donald Trump skipped the final session of the East Asia Summit and appallingly handed reporters on his plane a statement saying that he supports efforts ‘to ensure accountability for atrocities committed and to facilitate the safe and voluntary return’ of Rohingya refugees. Australia’s prime minister Turnbull in a private meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed her ‘efforts to solve the crisis’, reiterated Australia’s concerns and confirmed Australia’s offer to assist by co-leading a group to coordinate international assistance.
The only exception was Canada’s Justin Trudeau. He powerfully and publicly raised the Rohingya crisis and extra-judiciary killings in the Philippines.
Why this silence? This is because the ASEAN leaders are keen to exploit economic benefits. They are serving only corporate interests; and Myanmar, rich in natural resources, offers new opportunities for their corporations. Commitment to ‘inclusive, sustainable and equitable development for all peoples of the ASEAN Community’ is just lip service.
Fifty years ago, ASEAN was created as a beacon of unity in Southeast Asia to ostensibly foster economic prosperity. But in reality, it was a bulwark against the advancing communists to prevent the domino effect of the Vietnam war. It was the economic veil for the US-led military alliance, Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation, similar to the Regional Cooperation for Development among Turkey, Iran and Pakistan to hide the activities of Central Treaty Organisation.
Despite 50 years of existence, ASEAN has not yet achieved its major goal of economic integration. The establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015 remains just in paper. Notwithstanding the ASEAN rhetoric of ‘unity’ and ‘community’, there is incredible economic, political, religious, cultural and linguistic diversity among ASEAN states. Their national interests are hardly congruent and, thus, can easily be taken over by multinational corporations.
Thus, it is not surprising that ASEAN has a very poor reputation when it comes to tackling human rights issues. Human rights are often trampled under corporate interests on the pretext of foreign investment-led development. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of ASEAN’s richest member, Singapore, was famous for his harsh treatment of dissent and opposition. His theory of a choice between two D’s favoured ‘discipline’ — a code word for authoritarianism — over democracy. In the largest ASEAN member, Indonesia, the strongman Soeharto vanished half a million people during his anti-communist purge.
With the ‘third wave’ of democratisation since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there has been some pressure on the ASEAN leaders to uphold human rights. And ASEAN appears to have at least attempted to address the human rights issue on the surface. The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights was established in 2009 and by mid-2012 the commission had formally drafted its own ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.
However, the declaration has been strongly criticised by a number of international observers as well as members of ASEAN civil society. Human Rights Watch has described the document as a ‘declaration of government powers disguised as a declaration of human rights.’ The AICHR does not have a mandate to receive individual complaints or conduct investigations; so, it is still far behind Europe in terms of making a real difference for the rights of Southeast Asian peoples.
Myanmar’s Rohingya refugee crisis has drawn particular attention to the human rights violation in ASEAN recent years. But despite global outrage, ASEAN remains steadfast in its policy of non-interference and refuses to suspend Myanmar as a member. ASEAN and its key allies have failed to deliver a united ultimatum to the Myanmar government to immediately cease all atrocities in Rakhine and investigate and prosecute those responsible.
Anis Chowdhury, adjunct professor, University of New South Wales and Western Sydney University (Australia), was professor of economics at the University of Western Sydney between 2001 and 2012 and held senior United Nations positions in New York and Bangkok in 2012-2016.