Assessing ASEAN’s “Non-interference” principle: A lost cause for Rohingyas?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 09 Oct , 2017


One of the principle fundamentals of ASEAN is its “non-interference” principle which plays a key role in its extensive interaction with member countries. The principle is highlighted in the ASEAN’s “Treaty of Amity and Cooperation” Article 2(c), which came into existence in 1976. The purpose of this principle is to ensure cooperation, coordination and correlation among member nations while observing “respect to each sovereign member country”, while retaining “domestic issues” within a state, an affair “internal” to the particular state rather than an issue of discussion among member nations. Furthermore, the principle further enhances “discussions and deliberation” within member nations keeping the worrisome issue of “foreign influence” aside especially in the case of “internal disturbance” on-going in a state. Domestically, the issue of non-interference is a “free card” for a nation, particularly the host nation. Hence, in the light of Rohingya’s mass flux to neighbouring countries followed by deplorable conditions on the Bangladesh border, especially when Myanmar is a member of ASEAN, the issue today highlights the application of ASEAN’s “non-interference” in a country rigged with “internal conflict” which not only adversely affected the stability of the region, but also, the states systematic human rights violations and rigorous crimes against humanity has called for a response from not only member nations of ASEAN but from the global world particularly when the issue which no longer remains “domestic” in nature. 

Challenges in the global order

In both theory and practice, the policy makers within ASEAN faced numerous “complex” situations amid scenarios of dilemma while initiating the framework for non-interference principle. In theory, viewing it from a “realist” perspective, the world is in a “state of anarchy”. Moreover, the inability to establish relations between nations particularly the ones which are members of a regional organization (in this case ASEAN), opens the door of “probable scenarios” and highly possible equations of conflict. Furthermore, in the absence of “interlinking” mechanism, or “binding principle” gives further rise to “contentions” between nations particularly when the nations are “common” members of a regional forum. It is important for policy makers to note that, nations participating in common groups within a region enhances the notion towards “regional identity”, while making sure that regional countries do not put “self-benefitting” agendas on the discussion table but keep in mind the interests of fellow member nations in the region. Hence, regionalism in the 21st century will face many problems particularly when it comes to probable scenarios of a conflict or “war-like” situations because of the “weak” regional cooperation and coordination between nations and sheer absence of “common” values and notions.

Moreover, in the light of poor “coordination and cooperation” among member nations, the ASEAN’s non-interference principle followed by sheer absence of binding mechanism within ASEAN, the ability to build a “unique” regional identity diminishes, leaving behind a group with “non-existent” operational properties along with insecurity in the region. In the light of aforementioned argument, when a scenario of “internal conflict” or “civil war” arise in country, it has drastic effects on neighbouring countries, failure to counter an already “infuriated” issue, countries then arm themselves at the border in an effort to prevent the “fog of conflict” reaching their state. This process of “non-interference” is further reinforced by nations hesitant in safeguarding the “human principle” while strengthening their borders, inspite of realising its effects and the flames of “war” that could drastically alter regional politics.

On the contrary, the non-interference principle in theory is considered to be “passive” in nature particularly when a nation respects the sovereignty of other countries and chooses not to interfere in domestic politics of other countries.

Policy makers must note that, the non-interference principle particularly in the case of ASEAN has more to do with history than politics. This historical “misconception” within ASEAN particularly in its decision to involve in the “internal affairs” of a member nation, has crippled the framework of decision making particularly with respect to the non-interference principle.

Furthermore, policy makers must understand that, the non-interference principle of ASEAN holds “fundamental importance” and the principle reason behind the non-interference of ASEAN in an armed conflict either directly or indirectly, since its establishment in 1967 till today.

Rohingyas – A case of systematic exploitation by state

Rohingya is an ethnic group, which have been living in rural parts of Myanmar (then Burma) from over centuries. In Myanmar,they are majorly “cornered” in Rakhine State and has been witness “systematic” discrimination from the hands of state and communities instigated by the state because of difference in ethnicity and religion. Myanmar is packed with over 135 ethnic groups, making Rohingyas the only ethnic group that remains unrecognised by the government. With a population roughly over a million, they have no rights, no freedom of movement and no country to take their formal responsibility, diminishing both their “right to exist” along with the basic human rights. In 2012, the systematic discrimination against Rohingyas turned “ugly”. The excessive violence induced by the Rakhine Buddhists against Rohingyas resulted claimed thousands Rohingya’s lives while many were displaced. Moreover, the properties owned by the Rohingyas were confiscated while limiting the “access” of Rohingyas to “certain areas” in an effort to isolate them in particular regions.

This “systematic” expulsion of Rohingyas which was instigated by the indigenous Buddhists communities of Rakhine State became uglier when the Buddhists masses of Rakhine state urged the then government of Myanmar to initiate legal measures to displace Rohingya population from the country. With more than a million masses already stranded at sea, the Government of Myanmar made all possible measures to prevent Rohingyas from qualifying for a citizenship.

This “horrific” systematic violence and discrimination instigated by the state and its supported “elements” against the Rohingyas continues to become one of the largest “human rights violations” and a “principle reason” of instabilityin southeast Asia, particularly when it hosts one of the largest organised crime factions operating principally from Thailand and Malaysia. Without a state to formal represent, Rohingyas are forced in slavery, sex racketing, drug trafficking in an effort to survive, on the contrary, this is also a principle reason behind the contentions between ASEAN member nations and Myanmar, where Rohingya, living in the then long before the 17th century, existing in large masses even before the country originated.

In the light of aforementioned arguments, Rohingyas stranded at sea become vulnerable to many diseases, they suffer from nutritional deficiencies because of inadequate, insufficient food and medical supply, making their survival difficult. According to a report published by UNHCR in 2013, between the years 2012-13 over 300 to 400 Rohingyas have died due to starvation at sea, in the light of inadequate data and non-cooperation from state agencies, the numbers could be more. The situation particularly for Rohingya women are at the worse, they are subjected to sexual exploitation, crimes against humanity while often forced into slavery and sex trafficking by organized crime factions, they are then given options to either work as “wives” of smugglers to face the barrel of the gun. Today, policy makers should note that, Rohingyas are the most persecuted, systematic exploited people in the world. In the light of “active” participation from the Myanmar authorities as principle instigator of human rights violations and crimes against humanity, the state inflicting repetitive wounds has resulted in humanitarian agencies terming the crisis to “systematic state sponsored”.

Myanmar response, or no response at all

The horrors committed by the state of Myanmar against the Rohingyas cannot be justified. Moreover, in context to its regional membership with ASEAN, Myanmar could have abided with the Charter of ASEAN, especially the rules, guidelines and resolutions passed by the ASEAN members. In the light of human rights violations against the Muslim Rohingyas, ASEAN has many agreements on “nature of response by a state to minorities”, predominantly being the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. Thus, it was the duty for Myanmar state to respect the Human Rights Declaration, especially before committing mass atrocities against Muslim Rohingyas. Furthermore, the clause 18 of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration explicitly states the right of every individual to citizenship. “Every person has the right to a nationality as prescribed by law. No person shall be arbitrarily deprived of such nationality nor denied theright to change that nationality”.

The atrocities committed against Muslim Rohingyas “systematically” induced by the state of Myanmar is “unacceptable” and “condemnable in all forms”. However, the ASEAN institution, unlike other global groups do not possess a “binding principle” due to which, ASEAN failed to put necessary pressure on Myanmar to stop such atrocities. On the contrary, member nations, particularly those with significant Muslim populations could have played an aggressive role to stop atrocities committed by the State against the Muslim Rohingya. Islamic nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam, could invite Myanmar along with other member nations of ASEAN and extensively deliberate on the “future” of Muslim Rohingyas.

However, the fundamental objective of ASEAN is to ensure “non-interference” in domestic issues, internal affairs of the state in an effort to respect sovereignty of member nations. To make matter worse, the absence of any other state in this issue not only increases the plight of Muslim Rohingya’s, but questions the “deterrence” of member nations of ASEAN against human rights violations, while questioning the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, on the whole questioning the existence of ASEAN as a regional forum. In other words, the need of aggressive response towards this issue would only arise from Islamic countries. Since, the masses will only able to understand the viewpoint towards the issue from Myanmar’s actions, which is the principle actor, instigator and violator in this case, the systematic “Human Rights violation” perspective against the Muslim Rohingyas diminishes while the acts committed against the state becomes justified.

In the light of massive displacement of Muslim Rohingyas as refugees, ASEAN member nations and Australia has largely rejected these refugees and asylum applicants. Highlighting the aforementioned narrative, the rejections were principally done on the grounds of hysteria, xenophobia, along with other socio-politico-economic factors. But it is now clear that, the word “human rights” does not exist in the world today and in the light of massive displacement, irresponsibility showed by principle actors in this case will be called to answer on their crimes and atrocities committed against an ethnic population. It is now in the hands of global communities and international human rights institutions, agencies of the UN to further prevent the displacement of masses at seas, while effectively pressurise Myanmar in an effort to fulfil the “little” hope Rohingyas have left, “a citizenship of what once they called home”.

ASEAN’s “seriousness” towards Rohingyas

This section explains the importance of ASEAN to pursue the issue of Rohingya’s “aggressively”. It is important for policy makers at ASEAN, a regional forum for multinational organizations to deliberate on subjects of importance, to actively contribute, in an effort to maintain peace and stability in “its own backyard”. ASEAN, if the situation escalates, will be blames as a failed “regional organization”. In an effort to create vacuum of leadership in South East Asia and protect the “integrity of ASEAN”, member nations must come forwards to de-escalate the Rohingya issue highlighting the broader principle of “Responsibility to Protect”.

Most importantly, irrespective of ASEAN’s “Non-Interference” policy it is important for Islamic countries to take the initiative of de-escalating the issue of state sponsored “human rights violation”, which would not only bring Myanmar under pressure, but also temporary halt the violence. Then only could Myanmar be held responsible for instigating systematic discrimination and heinous acts of violence against the Muslim Rohingyas while the perpetrators responsible would be prosecuted under the law at ICJ or at ICC, for their participation in spreading violence and direct participation in aforementioned human rights violations. This would not only bring relief to Rohingyas but it also put an end to decades of systematic stated induced violence. Furthermore, ASEAN needs to extensively enhance its principle of “non-interference”.

In the context of international relations, the active involvement of regional organization comprising certain member nations of a region, would only be applicable in terms of necessities which will vary from crisis to crisis. If the intervention is not done timely, the issue could compromise regional stability and security.


Indeed, the non-interference principle of ASEAN retains certain “positive” aspects, to respect the state sovereignty and refrain from interfering into member nations domestic issues, however, when the issue escalates to an “alarming level” and threatens the safety and stability in the region, it is the responsibility of the regional forums to address the issue effectively.

However, in particular cases, intervention becomes the only viable option to retain the stability and security in the region. In the light of systematic state induced discrimination against Muslim Rohingyas, the ASEAN’s non-interference principle needs further extensive interpretation since an interference in scenario such as these cannot be ruled out. Interference, on many occasions, leads to positive outcomes, to address the issue effectively and efficiently through cooperation and coordination but within the rules of international law.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Anant Mishra

is a security analyst with expertise in counter-insurgency and counter-terror operations. His policy analysis has featured in national and international journals and conferences on security affairs.

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