The ongoing humanitarian crisis exposes dangerous vacuum at the centre of ASEAN’s commitment to be ‘people-centred’, writes Mathew Davies.

Myanmar’s membership of ASEAN, achieved in 1997, has always been a test of the rules and norms that govern the regional body.

But the nature of that test has changed with the plight of the Rohingya, 8,000 of which are now trapped at sea – unable to make landfall in neighbouring states. ASEAN, and its members, are failing this test, a failure which will have lethal consequences for one of the most vulnerable people of the region.

In the past the test that Myanmar posed was to the diplomatic rules of ASEAN – commitments to non-intervention and sovereign equality. In the past ASEAN member states showed that they were willing to chastise Myanmar publicly when, for example in 2007, it engaged in harsh repression of the Saffron Revolution. George Yeo, then Singaporean Foreign Minister, went so far as to express his ‘revulsion’ at the crackdown – a radical and undiplomatic tone to use towards a fellow ASEAN member.

The test posed for ASEAN by the current crisis is far more existential than that they faced in the 2000s. The Rohingya expose the dangerous vacuum at the heart of ASEAN’s commitment to become people-centred. We have gone from a test of a set of diplomatic rules to a test of the very moral purpose of ASEAN as a body. This is a test ultimately for the members of ASEAN, and the signs suggest that they will be found wanting.

With the lives of thousands in jeopardy, it is not chastisement but deafening silence that characterises ASEAN’s ‘response’. ASEAN as an organisation has said nothing at all, and ASEAN members seem to be complicit in the misery of the Rohingya rather than attempting to find a solution. Indonesia and Malaysia have ordered their naval forces to return any Rohingya boats to sea. Thailand, the traditional destination for many Rohingya refugees has recently cracked down on the people-smuggling system, pushing the boats further south in search of landfall.

This is not the first instance of ASEAN and regional states paying little regard to the Rohingya – both have eagerly welcomed Myanmar’s carefully controlled experiment with limited democracy even as the government of President Thein Sein has ever more callously repressed the Rohingya in Rakhine State. Widespread accusations of the role of Myanmar’s military forces in stoking and exploiting ethnic tensions in Rakhine State have been almost completely ignored in the rush to consider Myanmar a problem solved. Western countries have been similarly disinterested – lifting sanctions and hurrying to do business with a government that was busy getting its hands bloody.

This is not, officially, a failure of ASEAN – there are no rules that say ASEAN should be helping, no intervention force that can be mobilised and, with Myanmar preferring to term the Rohingya illegal migrants rather than citizens, technical arguments could be made that there is nothing ASEAN can do to people who have the protection of no state in the region.

But all of that is beside the point, a moral tragedy hidden behind legalese. ASEAN has, with much fanfare, labelled itself as ‘people-centred’. The entire public justification of the ASEAN Community project, to be finalised this year, is to make ASEAN more caring, more focused on the lives of the people of the region not just the elites. The plight of the Rohingya refugees, trapped on unseaworthy boats limping across Southeast Asia, reveals the dangerous hollowness of this people-centred claim.

Here then is the key test ASEAN faces. It is not just about the Rohingya, but they are the current way this test is being experienced. Ultimately to care about the people of the region is to place them before the governments that persecute them. This choice is something that regional states seem very reluctant to do, preferring the platitudes of charters and declarations rather than the difficult decisions required to bring those commitments to life.

If regional states fail in their response to the Rohingya, preferring to let them die at sea rather than live on their land, then it is not just Myanmar that has been found wanting relative to ASEAN’s professed transformation – it is every state that made that decision. This would be a true sign that the cancer of disinterest is to be found not only in the most likely cases, the corridors of power in Myanmar, but in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Jakarta.

In that world, what would the point of ASEAN be?

Dr Mathew Davies is a fellow and senior lecturer researching human rights and ASEAN at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University.