At the 35th ASEAN Summit held in Bangkok in November last year, the ASEAN Prize 2019 was awarded to Jemilah Mahmood, founder of Mercy Malaysia and a high-level official at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. By honouring a luminary of humanitarian activism in Southeast Asia, ASEAN leaders demonstrated their eagerness to upgrade their organisation’s profile as a linchpin in regional humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Kilian Spandler specially for the East Asia Forum.
As per the ‘One ASEAN, One Response’ declaration, ASEAN member states no longer treat humanitarian crises as national emergencies but as collective region-wide challenges. Accordingly, they have introduced regional disaster prevention and relief mechanisms, the most prominent of which is the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre).
For many observers, the humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingya people in Rakhine state and neighbouring Bangladesh is a litmus test of ASEAN’s new humanitarian ambitions. Indeed, the organisation has made efforts to formulate a joint response. In the summer of 2017, a violent campaign by Myanmar security forces, which Western human rights organisations and the UN have condemned as ethnic cleansing, caused widespread chaos and displacement among Rohingya communities.
Within a few months, the AHA Centre coordinated the handing over of relief items from regional stockpiles in Malaysia to Myanmar authorities and channelled assistance from the Singaporean government into the conflict zone. In 2019, the AHA Centre was granted access to Rakhine state to monitor the crisis and work towards a safe return of displaced Rohingya who have fled across the border to Bangladesh.
Despite these signs of engagement, tangible effects remain marginal. Recent estimates by UNICEF put the number of cross-border Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh at almost a million and that of internally displaced people around 244,000. Against this background, delivering a few hundred tents, a couple of thousand sets of hygiene and kitchen equipment, two boats and some technical equipment falls far short of what is needed.
More fundamentally, critics argue that by focusing on relief, ASEAN has left the root causes of the conflict unaddressed. When the AHA Centre’s preliminary report on the Myanmar authorities’ repatriation efforts was leaked, human rights organisations criticised it as glossing over problems and appeasing the government.
Overall, ASEAN’s engagement on the Rakhine issue has failed to meet optimistic expectations that it would replicate its productive role in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, when it brokered access for the ‘international community’ after the Myanmar government’s initial refusal to accept external aid. Does this mean that its humanitarian cooperation is nothing more than ‘organised hypocrisy’, a pipe dream conjured up by leaders that are only interested in scoring symbolic points with lofty declarations and photo-ops?
Such a conclusion would disregard not just the uniquely complex circumstances of the protracted conflict in Rakhine State and the fact that access to the conflict zone relies on continued cooperation with Myanmar authorities, but also the general political and institutional conditions of ASEAN’s humanitarian cooperation.
First, after the traumatic experience of the 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia, Southeast Asian governments have created both the legal foundations and organisational capacities for joint humanitarian action. At the same time, they have narrowly circumscribed the scope of ASEAN’s activities. Expressing longstanding political sensitivities of regional regimes, the tacit understanding has been that the AHA Centre’s core mandate covers natural disasters. ‘Human-induced’ or ‘man-made’ crises — both shorthand for violent conflicts — have mostly remained outside of its remit.
While this is ultimately an artificial division and the agency’s deployment in the Marawi crisis and Rakhine State demonstrate a certain flexibility, it makes it impossible to address these emergencies as what they are: conflicts that have deep-seated socio-political and economic roots. ASEAN’s intent behind setting up the AHA Centre was never to establish a mechanism for conflict resolution, which it traditionally prefers to pursue through closed-door diplomacy.
Second, for ASEAN governments regional disaster response is not an end in itself. But neither is it mere rhetoric. Their cooperation aims at strengthening and amplifying national capacities by decreasing reliance on external aid. Leaders hope that this will ultimately buttress their domestic legitimacy.
Accordingly, the AHA Centre’s operational autonomy is very small. The Governing Board of the AHA Centre is made up of representatives from the National Disaster Management agencies — including that of Myanmar — and its ordinary budget is barely enough to secure the agency’s day-to-day operability. Any substantial relief engagement therefore depends on a political consensus among member states to deploy the AHA Centre, as well as on the latter’s ability to secure voluntary contributions for its activities.
Thus, if ASEAN’s use of the AHA Centre in Myanmar has not enabled a large-scale and comprehensive crisis response by the ‘international community’, it is because that was not its purpose to begin with. Policy-makers argue that depoliticising humanitarian action and supporting national capacities helps them build trust and lobby for political solutions behind the scenes. Naturally, these claims are hard to verify.
Several diplomatic initiatives aimed at engaging the Myanmar government were undermined by disunity among ASEAN member states. But last year’s shuttle diplomacy by the Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai in his role as representative of the ASEAN Chair seems to have elicited some concessions from the Myanmar government regarding the conditions of repatriation. ASEAN has also contributed to a political climate in which Myanmar authorities feel they can accept bilateral aid by fellow member states without losing face.
Still, Western actors are unlikely to leave the driver’s seat in the crisis response to ASEAN. Despite all rhetoric of ‘localising’ aid, their concerns that the ‘ASEAN Way’ of humanitarian assistance will further embolden a repressive regime are overwhelming. In their view, ASEAN’s appeasement encourages exactly the kind of intransigence Aung San Suu Kyi demonstrated during her appearance before the International Court of Justice in December 2019.
After the Court’s decision in January 2020 ordering Myanmar to defend the Rohingya against genocidal violence, Southeast Asian governments now face a choice: will they put pressure on Myanmar to work with external actors in implementing the ruling, or dig in their heels in order not to exacerbate internal differences? The balancing act between enabling national ownership and building global humanitarian partnerships is certain to continue.
Kilian Spandler is a guest researcher at the School of Global Studies, the University of Gothenburg.A version of this article was originally published here on ASEAN Insights.