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The Conflict in Rakhine State and the Role of ASEAN

ISSUE 2019
No 11
Release 11 August 2019
By Mr. Lim Menghour and Dr. Leng Thearith


Rakhine, located in the western coast of Myanmar, is currently under a state of conflict and unrest, due to the clash between Myanmar’s armed forces and the Rohingya population. The government has claimed that the operation from the armed forces is a legitimate response to the attacks from the insurgent group named ARSA – Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. However, the Rohingya and international organisations have regarded Myanmar’s military action, as a violation of human rights and an act of genocide.

To date, the conflict in Rakhine has not only affected the internal peace and security of Myanmar, but also Myanmar’s neighbouring countries. Bangladesh, for instance, has suffered from the crisis of Rohingya refugees. Other countries including Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and even India, at varying degrees, have also been affected by the problem. This article will examine the root cause of the conflict in Rakhine State, ASEAN’s role, and potential solutions.

What’s the story behind the conflict in Rakhine?

The conflict in Rakhine has been originally associated with the ethnic and religious identity in Myanmar. It should be noted that Myanmar is a multi-ethnic country with at least 135 distinct ethnic groups, among whom, Bamar accounts for 68% of the total population.1 As Bamar outnumbers the rest of ethnic groups, they have been able to hold power of the country. After Myanmar gained independence from the British in 1948, the ethnic armed conflicts have become more prevalent. The legitimate government, however, tried to resolve these ethnic conflicts by using military means to control Myanmar under one race and one language – Burmese, and one religion – Buddhism.

Rakhine is home to Buddhist Myanmar and Muslim Rohingya. The people of Rohingya, have lived in this region for many centuries, but Buddhist Myanmar has treated them as unwanted Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. The majority of the Myanmar population have called them the “Bengali intruders”, rendered stateless and stripped of their citizenship by the government of Myanmar. The Rohingya people represent the largest Muslim group in Myanmar with the majority living in Rakhine.

After the democratic election in 2012, conflict in the state of Rakhine exploded. The root cause was religious conflict between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists. Claiming to suffer from ethnic cleansing, Rohingya established an illegitimate force known as ARSA in 2016 to counter Buddhist villagers in Rakhine. In response, the Myanmar government has launched a series of military operations against ARSA, claiming that the group posed a grave threat to national security and the culture-religion status quo. As a result, the conflict has ever since evolved into clashes between the government’s armed forces and the Rohingya’s ARSA. Since August 2017, hundreds of thousands of the Rohingya population have fled the country to many different destinations, as their homes have been destroyed.

What’s the role of ASEAN?

The conflict in Rakhine has raised a deep concern from the government of Myanmar and the international community, particularly ASEAN, as it has put its credibility and reputation at stake. The Rohingya crisis is not, in the eyes of ASEAN, just an issue of a nation, but the whole region. As such, ASEAN has responded to this tense and complex situation in Myanmar.

At the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting dated 18 January 2019 in Chiang Mai, ASEAN leaders came up with solutions regarding a safe and voluntary repatriation of more than 720,000 Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh. Specifically, terms of reference of the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) was established to coordinate the repatriation and trust building process, which allowed refugees to travel back to their homeland in Rakhine. ASEAN played an important role in creating a conducive environment for the safe return of the refugees and peaceful resettlement of those people in the state.

However, as the recent armed conflict between the government forces and the ARSA has unfolded, the humanitarian missions through the AHA Centre could not be accomplished. ASEAN has encountered a stalemate at the moment, as the Myanmar government has attempted to limit ASEAN’s involvement in the issue. One can say that the non-interference principle traditionally adopted by ASEAN members has undermined this organisation’s response to the crisis.

What can ASEAN and the International Community do to tackle the issue?

ASEAN’s engagement is crucial to conflict resolution in Rakhine. The association needs to have both short and long-term strategies to address the underlying causes that have torn apart Rakhine for decades. Specifically, ASEAN and international community should consider the following solutions to respond to the Rakhine crisis. Firstly, ASEAN and international organisations [herein after referred to the concerned parties] should set up concrete working mechanisms with Bangladesh and other international organisations, i.e. the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in order to meet the immediate demand of the refugees through building a safer and more suitable refugee camp, providing adequate humanitarian supplies to the refugees. It is worth noting that ASEAN proved its success in resolving the non-traditional security issues in the region, as evidenced in the case of the Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Specifically, this regional organisation was able to convince the military government to facilitate ASEAN’s humanitarian aid arrangements at the time of crisis.

Secondly, the concerned parties should seek ways to stem the outflows of the refugees from Rakhine by imposing the target sanctions against individuals, who may trigger the above refugee crisis, or violate agreements reached between the conflicting parties in Myanmar.

Thirdly, the concerned parties should, with the consent of the warring factions, nominate a mediator to broker peace deals, and observe the implementation of those agreements. Fourthly, it is essential that the international community, especially ASEAN, dispatch peacekeeping forces to the affected area so as to ensure compliance to peace agreements of both the Myanmar government’s troops and the Rohingya armed group.

In the long run, ASEAN and other relevant stakeholders need to work out a long-term peacebuilding plan with both Myanmar government and ARSA. Concretely, they should carry out peacebuilding activities that ensure sustainable peace of the Rohingya community. Those peacebuilding activities shall not only target the current refugees, but also focus on the whole minority group currently settling in the conflict zone of Rakhine. Those peacebuilding activities include the improvement of educational system (e.g. building schools and providing of equal chances of education), recognition of citizenship rights of the Rohingya population and development community healthcare facilities in the affected area. These should be the priorities that ASEAN could support in order to prevent future eruption of internal violence in Rakhine.

Last but not least, one of the notable obstacles to ASEAN’s effective intervention in the Rohingya crisis is its inherent nature of decision-making mechanism, i.e. the non-interference norm. Whenever ASEAN attempts to discuss any pressing problems of its member states, the principle of non-interference has been brought up on the table. The strict adherence to this norm, at times, causes the organisation’s ineffective responses. In certain instances, such as the Rohingya crisis, ASEAN should demonstrate its flexibility in order to have a timely and effective response. In other words, in times of crisis, ASEAN should be ready to embrace ASEAN Minus X formula, which allows certain member countries [who are ready to act] to act on the crisis.

Cambodia’s Potential Roles in the Conflict

The Kingdom can play an important role in the peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding of Myanmar. In terms of peacemaking, this small state can become a potential mediator considering its past success in brokering peace between her factions in the late 1990s. Further, Cambodia can play a role in the peacekeeping of Myanmar by sending her peacekeepers to the affected region. Cambodia’s peacekeepers, in this regard, shall be sent to monitor the compliance of the agreement reached by conflicting parties, but shall not be dispatched to fight with any of them. In addition, the peacekeeping operation should be carried out the framework of ASEAN or the United Nations, and be subject to consent of the government of Myanmar so that it will not be perceived as an act of violation into the internal affairs of Myanmar.

Given the Kingdom’s rich experience in peacekeeping in Africa and Middle East, it is very likely that Cambodia could become an ideal candidate for the peacekeeping operation in its ASEAN neighbour. Lastly, Cambodia could also play a role in the peacebuilding process of Myanmar through the Kingdom’s active engagement in facilitating humanitarian aid provision to the people in the affected region.


The conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine state is the one of identity in nature. The mishandling from the military government in Myanmar over the ethnic dispute has worsened the situation, and led to a protracted armed conflict. ASEAN’s response to the crisis has so far remained inefficacious given the association’s strict adherence to the non-interference norm. Hence, ASEAN and other concerned parties should formulate both short and long-term conflict resolution strategies so as to address the root causes of conflict in Rakhine state. By doing so, sustainable peace will prevail.

The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.