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The Asian strategic player that stinks

by August 28, 2017 General

The hope of a better Myanmar under the much-admired Aung San Suu Kyi now looks forlorn. The crisis of Myanmar’s Muslim minority community, the Rohingya, continues to escalate. Since Friday, news has been emerging of mass violence between the Myanmar army and Rohingya militants. At least 90 people are reported dead.

The Rohingya are the world’s biggest community of stateless people. Somewhere around 1 million of them live among Myanmar’s 50 million Buddhists.They’ve lived in northern Myanmar’s Rakhine state for centuries yet are despised and denied the right to citizenship. Some reported being called “Bengal bastards” as their Buddhist neighbours joined the army in clubbing them on the weekend.

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Thousands of Rohingya civilians responded to the fighting by trying to flee the country, crossing the Naf River into Bangladesh. Some made it but the Bangladeshis are turning most back.The Rohingya are not blameless; their militia reportedly started the violence on Friday by attacking  30 police stations in Myanmar. But they are not the sole culprits. In fact, it seems that the Rohingya resistance is fighting back after brutal years-long repression by the authorities.

Late last year the government forces  committed crimes of rape and murder and arson against the Rohingya that “seem to have been widespread as well as systematic, indicating the very likely commission of crimes against humanity,” according to a February report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Aung San Suu Kyi’s response? The State Councillor and de facto ruler of Myanmar said the reports were made up. Consistently, she blames the Rohingya and refuses to accept any government responsibility.

While Suu Kyi was an outstanding ambassador for her repressed opposition party while it suffered under the heel of the military regime, she seems quite indifferent, even hostile, to the oppressed minority suffering under the heel of her regime.

The news across the border in Thailand on Friday wasn’t terribly good either. The former prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, fled the country rather than face the verdict of the Supreme Court on a charge that she was negligent in operating a national rice-buying scheme. Not that she had any chance of a fair hearing. She’d already been fined $1 billion over the same matter. She was facing 10 years in prison.

The case against her was merely part of the military junta’s consolidation of power. Sadly, Thailand’s conservative establishment simply refuses to allow the people to choose their own government. It will sometimes allow elections but then overturns them if it doesn’t like the result.

First her brother’s popular, pro-poor government was overthrown by a military coup in 2006. Then, when she replaced him as head of his party and had the temerity to win an election, it was her turn. Now it seems she will join him in exile, living between Dubai and London.

The Bangkok court ruling was to merely tidy up, by firmly taking her out of future politics. It wasn’t so much the rice-buying scheme that the establishment objected to, although it was a botch job that collapsed leaving the government billions in debt. Their real complaint was that Yingluck Shinawatra used the scheme to redistribute income to farmers – mostly poor family enterprises – by paying above-market prices for their harvest. That, while disdaining the rich elites, was her true crime.

Democracy, good governance, political freedom, personal liberty from the state are in shabby condition in both Myanmar and Thailand. And looking a little further, the state of the neighbourhood isn’t much better, unfortunately.

“There are brief moments of exuberance and optimism,” says an ANU expert on South-east Asia, Nicholas Farrelly, “but when you look at the deep structure of forces across the board you see that democracy across South-east Asia is very shallow and nobody is really prepared to give it the nourishment it needs.

“As recently as the mid-2000s there were plenty of powerful voices across the region looking for a different kind of politics; they have gone quiet,” says Farrelly, founder of the New Mandala website on South-east Asian affairs.

Farrelly ranks the 10 principal countries of the region according to their success as democratic systems, and “there is not much dissent among experts that Indonesia is on the top rung”. Next, he says, is the Philippines, despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s startlingly brutal human rights abuses and the advent of a new Daesh, so-called Islamic State, outpost. This is followed by Myanmar, and then the two neighbouring quasi-autocracies of Malaysia and Singapore.

Sixth place in Farrelly’s reckoning is Thailand: “If you have a hardline military dictatorship and you’re prepared to give it mid ranking in the democracy stakes, that tells you a lot about the state of the region.” Last are Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Brunei.

But what of their regional association, the much-vaunted Association of South East Asian Nations? This is ASEAN’s 50th anniversary and there’s been much gushing about its success. But which of the region’s crises has it solved, and which is it attempting to tackle? The truth is that, whether it’s the region’s economic crisis of 1997, the Rohingya refugee crisis of today or anything in between, ASEAN is next to useless.

But isn’t ASEAN a key strategic player that can help manage China’s ambitions and maintain the peace in South-east Asia? That’s the claim of its boosters.Unfortunately not. Splitting ASEAN was child’s play for Beijing. Two of China’s client states, Laos and Cambodia, object whenever other ASEAN members try to complain about China’s conduct. So ASEAN can’t even issue a communique that breathes the least criticism of Beijing, much less takes any action.

China has picked off the ASEAN states one by one in the South China Sea while ASEAN looks on uselessly. ASEAN is useful for intermediating between the elites of the region’s capitals, says Farrelly, “keeping a certain kind of conversation. But for a serious crisis, there’s simply no way ASEAN can play a serious role.”

ASEAN is a bit like South-east Asia’s so-called king of fruits, the durian. Looks impressively large and spiky from a distance. On closer inspection it stinks.

Peter Hartcher is international editor.