October 6, 2017

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) boasts of itself as a very successful geopolitical grouping that has succeeded in improving the lot of its members where other regions have failed. Some Asean triumphalists even compare their regional bloc favourably with the European Union. Underlying the smugness is the argument that Asean’s founding principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member countries is what distinguishes it from other groupings, allowing each country to focus on economics without getting embroiled in the politics.

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn on Medium.

This convenient, self-serving worldview takes for granted that for the past quarter-century, the United States’ military power maintained regional stability; China and India created economic opportunities; and Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar provided large supplies of low-cost manpower that underwrote the region’s prosperity. Most Asean elites and governments are so used to free-riding on other countries that they have no sense of responsibility towards the sources of their prosperity. It is fashionable among Asean elite to criticise the United States for its foreign policy, India for its seemingly dysfunctional democracy, and the smaller subcontinental countries for their corruption and inefficiency.

Small wonder that Asean’s recent official statement on the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas by Myanmarese security forces was so absurdly meaningless that Malaysia felt compelled to disassociate from it and offer a stronger dissenting opinion. Even so, all Malaysia had to offer were words. Stronger words, but words nevertheless.

Asean has a total gross domestic product (GDP) of over $2.5 trillion and an average per capita GDP of around $4,000. If it were a country it would have a population of 600 million people and an economy larger than India’s. So what is its contribution to the humanitarian crisis that has sent over 500,000 Rohingyas as refugees into Bangladesh? Zero. Nothing.

We will be told how the Asean is not a nation state, nor even a political union like the EU; how averages hide deep differences in income levels; and of course, and how Asean member-states cannot interfere in the internal affairs of one of their counterparts. What we will not hear is what Asean intends to do about a massive humanitarian crisis in one of its member countries that is spilling over into other countries.

Nothing has exposed the hollowness of Asean’s geopolitical pretensions as the Rohingya crisis. This comes on the back of Asean members’ inability to maintain solidarity in the face of China’s divide and conquer” to achieve its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Unless Asean elites introspect and change, Southeast Asia will be unable to deal with the expected and unexpected rough weather that will come its way over the next few decades.

Asean’s failure has left neighbouring Bangladesh to pick up the costs of the fallout of the conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The new arrivals have added to the numbers of Rohingya refugees who arrived in previous years. There are now close to a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, with recent arrivals put up in camps close to the border with Myanmar.

The camps are inadequate, registration systems overwhelmed, living conditions terrible, and prospects of return uncertain at best. What we in India need to understand is that the Rohingya refugee crisis could soon end up as a political crisis in Bangladesh, destabilising that country and recreating space for Islamists. This is no longer about Rohingya refugees. It is about Bangladesh. It is not in India’s interests for Bangladesh to descend into turmoil.

Bangladeshi society and its Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina have distinguished themselves with generosity, grace, and broad-mindedness that have thus far eluded richer countries in the region and beyond. New Delhi has done well by sending urgent humanitarian aid to somewhat ease the Bangladesh government’s resource constraints as an emergency response. India should go beyond this to provide political, diplomatic, financial, and security cover to Bangladesh to better manage the refugee crisis. This involves support both for the refugees as well as the communities that host them. Not everything needs to be done by the government. There are a number of Indian non-government organisations that have technical expertise in water, sanitation, public health, nutrition and IT that New Delhi could engage in cooperative crisis management.

In a column in March 2013, I had argued that New Delhi’s neighbourhood doctrine should unabashedly back pro-India political leaders and ensure that they are in power. Ms Hasina is one such. She faces a general election next year. New Delhi should do everything in its power to strengthen her political hand. Not only should India support the Bangladeshi government in managing the refugee issue well, but also celebrate Ms Hasina’s outstanding leadership. She and the people of Bangladesh deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. Needless to say, Bangladesh has put the wealthier countries of Asean to shame. They may yet mitigate some of the ignominy of being passive bystanders by stepping forward with technical and economic assistance to Bangladesh until the matter of the Rohingyas is resolved.

When millions of East Pakistani refugees entered India in 1971, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi went to war with Pakistan and halted a genocide, making India the first country to stop an ongoing genocide in another country. Now, Bangladesh does not have the military capability to prosecute a large scale military operation in Myanmar. New Delhi arguably has the capability to intervene, but there are few conceivable outcomes of such an intervention that will not make matters worse for everyone. That said, the Rohingya crisis highlights the need for New Delhi to invest in expeditionary military capacity that can lend teeth to its peace diplomacy.

(Published in today’s Business Standard)

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The Rohingya refugee crisis
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