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The Rohingya Crisis: Notes on ASEAN, Power, and Identity

The Association of Southeast Asian Nation’s (ASEAN) seeming inaction on the Rohingya crisis came as a shock to many. However, for those who have been observing ASEAN development, its failure to enact a coherent policy towards the Rohingya crisis only adds to the long list of matters it has not been able to address, such as the “Cambodian Problem,” the South China Sea Dispute, and many others.

Such failure places suspicion on the regional body’s capacity to implement the ASEAN Community by the end of the year, especially with respect to an ASEAN identity and the role of power in identity formation.

Background of the Rohingya Crisis

The Rohingyas are a Moslem ethnic group located in the Rakhine state in Myanmar. Throughout the years, they have been subjected to discrimination. The 2012 Rakhine state riots between Rohingyas and Rakhine Buddhists have aggravated state discriminatory policies towards the former. The government placed them in camps after they have lost their homes during the riots. The squalid conditions in these camps have forced the Rohingyas to leave Myanmar and head to nearby countries, to Malaysia in particular, as it is predominantly Islamic.

The perilous trip consists of crossing the land border from Myanmar into either Malaysia or Thailand. Human traffickers held the Rohingyas in makeshift camps along the border while waiting for payment for the trip. However, recent crackdowns by both Thai and Malaysian authorities in these camps have pushed human smugglers to lodge some of the Rohingyas in boats in international waters. Some of these boats are abandoned by the smugglers for fear of reprisals from authorities.

As these boats float aimlessly in international waters, adjacent states such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia initially refused to take them in. This refusal caused outrage in the international community. The Philippines offered to provide assistance, but the great distance of the Rohingyas from the Philippine area of responsibility made this option impractical due to logistical concerns.

The international community and international organizations have praised the Philippines’ policy towards the Rohingyas by calling the country a ‘beacon of hope (as cited in Esmaquel, 2015). While a meeting with concerned states was called late last month, the ASEAN’s failure to issue even a token statement is glaringly noticeable.

Identity and power

Given the general ASEAN inaction towards the Rohingyas, the implications of this crisis on the region’s struggle with identity formation is worth examining.

The formation of an ASEAN identity is discussed by the regional organization in its Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint’s strategic objective, which states: “Create a sense of belonging, consolidating unity in diversity and enhance deeper mutual understanding among ASEAN Member States about their culture, history, religion and civilization (emphasis added).”

In sociology and anthropology, identity generally means the expression of an individual’s affiliation to a particular social group. Certain elements such as religion, language, traditions, and historical experiences can be considered markers of identity.

Identity can be both self-ascribed and ascribed by others. Self-ascribed identity is how you see yourself as belonging to a group that shares identity markers. Identity ascribed by others involves power, when dominant groups impose an identity on other groups based on perceptions. Cultural hegemony is involved in the latter, and usually, the identity imposed on the non-dominant group only furthers their marginalization.

The Rohingya crisis shows how power is an influential concept in identity formation. While the historical situation of the Rohingya people – their problem of being discriminated and cast away by different governments – speak of their identity as a people who not only share cultural markers but a marginalized position as well, the inaction of ASEAN speak of how such identity is largely influenced by those who are in power.

Implications for an ASEAN identity

As mentioned earlier, identity can be ascribed by the dominant group. In this case, it could be noted that the formulation of an ASEAN identity is elitist or state-centric in nature.

Most critics of the ASEAN point to this fact as hindering participatory regionalism. However, such is not necessarily in contradiction with identity-building. For instance, Benedict Anderson (1996) discussed in his work titled “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism” the role of Creole Pioneers in formulating nationhood in the Americas. While the conditions facing the ASEAN at present are different from Simon Bolivar’s time in the Americas, the crisis proves that elites do have a role in identity-building.

In the case of the ASEAN, how will the Rohingya be depicted in the elite “imagining” of a regional identity?

The treatment received by this group as discussed earlier could partially answer that question. The Rohingya will be excluded in the “imagining” of an ASEAN identity, as the ASEAN way – the region’s use of non-interference in each member-states’ domestic affairs and its consensual decision-making process that emphasizes consultation and amicability in policy formulation – will hamper its meaningful inclusion. Such is also the reason for the regional organization’s seeming inaction on the Rohingya crisis.

Myanmar can take advantage of this ASEAN way to push for the exclusion of the Rohingyas in the crafting of an ASEAN identity.  The policy of non-interventionism in internal affairs would deter other ASEAN member-states from overtly supporting the Rohingyas in such undertaking. If these member-states are adamant in the inclusion of the Rohingyas in an ASEAN identity, Myanmar can simply veto such a measure, causing a setback in the “imagination” of an ASEAN identity.

The elite ascription of identity is also apparent in the fact that no country, save for the Philippines, wants to take the Rohingyas in. This show the ways by which the Rohingyas are seen as undesirable, despite supposedly being part of the ASEAN “community.”

While the elitist and state-centric nature of the ASEAN can be an impetus for the creation of an ASEAN identity, it is unlikely that the Rohingyas will be included in such imaginings.

Featured image taken from this site.


Anderson, B. (1996). Creole Pioneers. In Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (2nd ed.). New York: Courier Companies.

Esmaquel, P. (2015, May 29). Rohingya migrants reached PH in 2014. Rappler. Retrieved from

UN and Myanmar spar over Rohingya at migrant talks. (2015, May 29). UN and Myanmar Spar over Rohingya at Migrant Talks. Retrieved from


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