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  • Challenges to Southeast Asian Regionalism in 2018
  • Leszek Buszynski (bio)

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The year 2018 saw various trends and developments that posed challenges to ASEAN and its future. One was the ongoing difficulty the grouping has had in dealing with the Rohingya problem, which reveals the constraints and limitations under which it operates. The Rohingya problem became internationalized as the issue was taken up by international agencies and external governments in the face of ASEAN inaction. Secondly, with regard to the issue of the South China Sea, the United States and China faced off against each other in a way that sidelined ASEAN. ASEAN's relevance to this issue might be ensured in the negotiation of a Code of Conduct (CoC) with China, but 2018 saw little progress on a matter that has been on the table for several decades now. Thirdly, the ASEAN economies were being steadily integrated into a wider region that included its major trading partners and sources of investment. ASEAN's pursuit of broader trade regimes with its external trading partners such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) pose a major challenge to its centrality. Moreover, the so-called trade war that erupted between the United States under President Donald Trump and China exposed the vulnerabilities of the ASEAN economies, although opportunities were also present. Fourth, the notion of the Indo-Pacific gained currency in 2018, not only amongst ASEAN's external [End Page 3] partners but in Indonesia as well. The idea of Southeast Asia that was included in the Bangkok Declaration of August 1967 has been a supporting foundation for ASEAN regionalism, but how this can be reconciled with the notion of the Indo-Pacific will be ASEAN's major challenge.

ASEAN's Rohingya Problem

The Rohingya problem has bedevilled ASEAN for the past three decades. Myanmar's relationship with ASEAN has been troubled ever since the Myanmar military pushed some 250,000 of the Muslim minority from Rakhine State to Bangladesh in 1991 and 1992. The problem has been festering ever since and has demonstrated ASEAN's inability to deal with a member who invokes the non-intervention clause of ASEAN's founding charter, Article 2 of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and Article 2(a) of the ASEAN Charter of 2007. The Myanmar military has simply and successfully resisted demands within ASEAN to curb its campaigns against the Rohingya. In August 2017, after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked military and police outposts, the Myanmar military launched yet another campaign and, according to the UNHCR, over 720,000 Rohingya were pushed into the Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh. When the prime minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina addressed the United Nations General Assembly on 28 September 2018, she declared that there were now 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in her country.1

ASEAN has had its hands tied by its non-interference charter and the conditions by which members joined. At the ASEAN Summit on 28 April 2018, the chair's statement reported that ASEAN leaders had received a briefing from Myanmar on the humanitarian situation in Rakhine State. The statement also expressed "support for the Myanmar Government in its efforts to bring peace, stability, the rule of law, to promote harmony and reconciliation among the various communities as well as to ensure sustainable and equitable development in Rakhine State".2 The foreign ministers of ASEAN also met informally on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in late September to urge Myanmar to form an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the reported abuses. Singapore's foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan said that the purpose of such an inquiry would be "to hold all those responsible fully accountable".3 As Balakrishnan explained, ASEAN wanted to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of the Rohingya, which Myanmar has resisted.

Within ASEAN the issue has been advanced by Muslim-majority member states Malaysia and Indonesia, while being resisted by Thailand and Myanmar. [End Page 4] Frustration with ASEAN's muted response over this issue has in the past stimulated calls for a change in its internal decision-making process from...


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