As this year’s summit chair of Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Myanmar has insisted that the persecution of its Rohingya Muslims not be discussed at Asean’s 2014 meetings. Given the trans-border context and the violent anti-Islamic dimensions of the problem, this naive and silly attitude is doomed to fail.
Muslim-majority nations like Indonesia and Malaysia will not remain silent as their brothers and sisters in the faith are slaughtered in pogroms which the government of Buddhist-majority Myanmar seems unable or unwilling to stop.
Indeed, the issue could precipitate a crisis of the sort that occurred two years ago when the summit chair then, Cambodia, tried to put the lid on any discussion or public reference to another sensitive matter: South China Sea frictions between China and Asean members Philippines and Vietnam.
Back then, under pressure from its principal benefactor Beijing, Phnom Penh refused to include any mention of the territorial conflicts, which had already precipitated a faceoff at Scarborough Shoal between a Philippine Navy cutter and Chinese marine surveillance ships. The latter were demanding the release of Chinese fishermen taken by the Filipinos with a huge catch of fish, including endangered species.
Cambodia’s censorship of Asean discussions and statements infuriated the Philippines and Vietnam. They have been locked in acrimonious disputes with China over island chains that lie amid abundant fishing grounds, potential oil and gas deposits, and strategic sea lanes.
As a result, for the first time in its 45-year history at the time, no communiqué was issued at the end of the grouping’s summit, and the debacle drew headlines like “Cambodia: The wrecker of Asean unity.”
Meet the new, contentious ASEAN
In fact, what scuppered the usual communique and the all-important consensus wasn’t Cambodia or China, but another “c”—candour. Perhaps for the first time in Asean summitry, at least one of the leaders dispensed with decades of polite deference, the kind that swept sensitive issues under the rug in the interest of presenting a neat, solid facade of agreement.
Cambodia probably expected its guests to behave themselves back in April 2012. After all, Asean is famous for keeping mum about burning issues which might just torch its vaunted consensus, from the Muslim rebellion in Mindanao in the 1970s and 80s, and Thailand’s handling of the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis, to Myanmar’s repression of the opposition from 1990 to 2010.
Indeed, to avoid private frictions and even a very public boycott by Western nations, Naypyidaw passed up its turn to chair and host the Asean summit in 2006, just a year after it officially replaced Yangon as the national capital.
But in Phnom Penh in 2012, there was much less room for such niceties in the name of Asean unity. When the hosts sought to purge South China Sea issues from the agenda and the communique, the Filipinos and the Vietnamese cried foul, and the summit statement was, well, history.
Evidently, some Asean members are now willing to air and thrash out differences, which may well be a good thing and a sign of growing maturity among its members. For what is the value of a consensus concocted by skirting contentious matters, which may eventually flare up like festering wounds left untreated?
Hot issues in land, sea and air
Whatever may be the gains from raising instead of downplaying tough issues, it clearly makes the summit chair’s job much tougher and more delicate. And if Myanmar is not careful, it may soon get the same treatment as Cambodia did two years ago. That was abundantly clear from the way media coverage of last month’s summit in Bagan generated much criticism of the decision to block discussion of the Rohingya question.
That criticism will only get louder and louder, particularly when concurrent sectarian violence occurs, as it did in Du Char Yar Tan in northern Rakhine State in January. Expect Indonesia and Malaysia to insist that anti-Muslim killings, along with the Rohingya issue in general, are not only discussed, but also explicitly referenced in the final communiqué.
The leadership in Naypyidaw will have to agree—or suffer the same fate as Cambodia did two years ago over the South China Sea frictions. Which, by the way, are also stirring again, with Hainan’s local law requiring foreign fishing vessels to seek its permission to trawl in waters it administers. Not to mention the fear that Beijing may declare an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea as it did in the East China Sea, ruffling Tokyo, Seoul and Washington.
As if two hot-button issues were not enough, there is a third that may also plague Naypyidaw’s year as Asean chair: spying. In a Jakarta meeting last month, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak agreed to raise the subject of espionage at the leaders’ summit.
“We are calling on Asean countries to be united in rejecting espionage,” declared Yudhoyono. “I believe mutual trust and respect are important in international relations.”
When neighbours listen too much
SBY, as the President is popularly called, was stunned last year by the disclosure of American whistleblower Edward Snowden that Australian agents, working with the Americans, tapped his mobile phone. Yudhoyono promptly recalled Jakarta’s ambassador to Canberra, suspended joint military exercises, froze trade talks and immigration cooperation, and even limited imports of Australian beef.
Najib was also far from amused when Snowden revealed that the Malaysian PM’s calls had been intercepted by Singapore spies, again working with their Washington cohorts. If only to show some toughness, SBY and Najib will not cut Myanmar any slack when they demand that spying is tabled in Asean forums, and a resolution reached and made public.
That outcome, which will likely chastise America, Australia, and Singapore for spying on friendly Asean eighbours, will not be easy for Naypyidaw to finesse as it seeks warmer ties with the West. Or worse: the US might try to muddle the spying talk by intimating that perhaps the plight of Rohingyas is, after all, not just an internal matter, but an international tragedy requiring outside intervention.
That might really make Naypyidaw wonder if it would have been better to pass up the Asean chairmanship yet again. And the summiteers to miss their past confrontation-dodging politeness.
(Roger Mitton is a Southeast Asia regional consultant and a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore.)