Q&A with John Ciorciari: Tensions and Conflict in Southeast Asia

Professor John Ciorciari applies his regional expertise to foreign policy and humanitarian challenges facing Southeast Asia.

Professor John Ciorciari is an Associate Professor and Director of the Weiser Diplomacy Center and International Policy Center at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Prior to joining the Ford School, Professor Ciorciari served as an Asia Society Fellow and as a policy official in the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of International Affairs. Professor Ciorciari recently sat down with MJPA editors Jennie Chasseur and Will Sims to discuss current issues in Southeast Asia. He provides crucial insights for better understanding recent events as well as their implications for the international community.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Jennie Chasseur and Will Sims: How do you think the Rohingya crisis, where Myanmar’s army violently attacked Rohingya Muslims in an act of ethnic cleansing which forced them to seek refuge in Bangladesh, will unfold in the short-term and in the long-term?

John Ciorciari: Sadly, I don’t see a near-term, quick fix in the cards. The political dynamics around that conflict make it very unlikely that there will be a major breakthrough in terms of the international community’s engagement on the issue.

I think that several factors conspire against the wellbeing of the Rohingya people. One is that the Rohingya population is not one that is densely networked in major world capitals—there is no big diasporic community that can put pressure on governments in London and New York and elsewhere to take more decisive action. In that way, the Rohingya community is less empowered than some other downtrodden groups to draw attention to what’s happening and seek allies and support.

Another thing that conspires against the Rohingya is domestic politics within Myanmar. The government is still very fragile, with Aung San Suu Kyi being the de-facto head of the government and sharing power in a tenuous relationship between the elected civilian leaders and the military. I think there are genuine and valid concerns about the sustainability of even a quasi-democratic state in Myanmar. That has induced caution on the part of Myanmar’s foreign partners to deal more assertively with this problem. I also think that it helps us explain why Suu Kyi, a former human rights icon, has looked the other way while abuse has happened. Even well-intentioned civilian officials in Myanmar are very concerned that if they were to turn on the military and be highly critical of military operations in and around Rakhine state, they could easily find themselves prey to a military countermove—whether that takes the form of a coup or a slow-grinding retrenchment of military power.

Regionally, the Southeast Asian countries around Myanmar have not taken identical policy approaches to the Rohingya crisis, but they have hewed to a common principle of noninterference because the options that they have to rectify the problem are reasonably limited. They could conceivably ostracize Myanmar by participating in Western-led sanctions on Myanmar—even in the most extreme and highly unlikely case, expel Myanmar from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN]. They fear that Myanmar’s leaders would go running to Beijing, confident they would get support, and so those leaders would remain in power but be less friendly to their neighbors. Neighbors would then lose investment opportunities in an area where Myanmar is selling off a lot of concessions for natural resources.

Other Asian governments are also afraid of any principles that could come back to haunt them; if they allow international intervention, maybe they’ll be next in line. Furthermore, they are concerned about the implications for refugees in their own states. In places like Malaysia and Indonesia, the ASEAN states have been keen to say that they are sympathetic to the Rohingya, which resonates well with their Muslim majority domestic populations. But if you look at their actions, they’ve been very restrictive in terms of granting protection to Rohingya refugees. I think that reflects the typical ‘not in my backyard’ kind of dynamics of refugee policy: it sounds great for somebody else to protect refugees.

At the global level, we see a US government that has been ambivalent in general about rights protection and is clearly concerned that if it shuns Myanmar, then that will accrue to China’s strategic benefit. There are similar attitudes in India, and European states are turning inward and dealing with their own convulsions over refugee issues. The UN Security Council can’t do anything too forceful to Myanmar because of a Chinese veto or the threat of one.

For all these reasons you have concentric circles, from domestic out to global, that make an unfavorable terrain for dealing with the Rohingya. What’s left is NGOs, civil society organizations, and other UN agencies that can help dress the wounds of the problem but do not necessarily have the leverage to offer much of a cure.

Thinking about the regional history, particularly in regard to your work with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, are there any lessons to be learned by the delivery of humanitarian aid that NGOs could possibly implement for the Rohingya?

In the period after the Khmer Rouge lost power lots of folks left Cambodia and fled to giant camps in Thailand that are like the 1980s equivalent of Cox’s Bazar District, the world’s largest refugee settlement, in Bangladesh now. At that time, the US government and others were actually quite generous in offering access to refugee protections. The UN refugee agency was centrally involved, as it is in Bangladesh, but it had more willing takers for refugees in the 1980s in Thailand than seems to be the case now in today’s political climate.

In the case of Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, there were efforts quite early on after the fall of the Pol Pot Regime to document the abuses that had happened. This doesn’t of course reverse the harms perpetrated against people that led them to leave their home countries, but it set the stage for an accountability process—not just the formal courtroom process and the UN-backed tribunal, but also scholarly and NGO work, village workshops, books, plays, movies, and so forth. There were brave people who made it their business in the early 1980s to start documenting. That process has to go on in Myanmar now, because a lot of the evidence for what’s going on is going to dissipate. I think that’s a big lesson from Cambodia that applies to this moment in Myanmar.

I benefited tremendously from people who had been out in villages collecting forensic and documentary evidence 15 or 20 years before I got involved. As somebody who arrived in Cambodia as an international lawyer thinking about what information we would need to have a credible judicial process, we inherited from these folks a lot of information that could then be deployed and lead to convictions. Even in cases where there are not trials or convictions, it’s about the historical record. A lot of survivors are not so much fixated on the question of a judicial remedy in the form of a guilty verdict but are primarily interested in some acknowledgement of their importance, their worth, their dignity, as reflected by somebody investing the effort to tell the story of what happened. This is the kind of role that civil society can have: to help people within that community be empowered to preserve their own memory, their own social identity, and their history. That in a way is sort of the ultimate triumph against ethnic cleansing or genocidal abuses—to be able to persevere and to survive and to maintain and pass on one’s sense of identity.

It’s not going to be easy; the people that do it are taking a big risk. If someone from the government discovered that they are looking around for information and trying to preserve it or get it out of the country for the purposes of some future use—whether it’s by the international criminal court or by a museum—those truth-seekers are going to be highly vulnerable.

Regarding the South China Sea, the U.S. has recently taken a more assertive position on this, although it’s an issue that goes back a long time. What are the indicators that we should be watching?

The South China Sea is one of the toughest areas in the world for U.S.-China relations. It’s not entirely zero-sum, but there’s a large zero-sum element to the dispute insofar as both the Chinese and U.S. governments want to have strategic preponderance in that area. We can look at tangible things like the scale and the pace of reclamation of islands in the South China Sea, the frequency of freedom of navigation patrols carried out by the United States, and military exercises with partners like Japan and the Philippines. But I think the more important political bellwether will be the statements coming out of Southeast Asian capitals—especially capitals that have been resistant to China’s assertion of sovereignty and primacy in the South China Sea.

In the Philippines, [President] Duterte already has had a change in tune. Vietnam softened a bit. Indonesia hasn’t been as directly implicated for geographic reasons but does have a stake in the Tuna gas fields and so is interested. Ditto for Malaysia and Singapore having interests in those sea lanes. Seeing how these countries talk about the South China Sea, or don’t talk about it at all, will give an indication of whether the countries that have the most direct interests at stake in that area regard this as something where they can still try to find some kind of middle ground.

When the U.S. was initiating freedom of navigation patrols in the last year or so of the Obama Administration, there was a sense in the region that more negotiation may be possible. Trump came to office and made it clear that we take this seriously and will be involved in preventing domination by any party in this dispute. That seems to have encouraged some in Southeast Asia to think ‘OK, maybe this is not something we merely need to accept, maybe we can actually negotiate a bit.’ There’s no way ASEAN countries will fight against China in the South China Sea militarily anymore. It used to be possible for the Vietnamese to think about defending territory in the naval arena, but at this point the Chinese navy and the Chinese state are much too powerful. They would want to negotiate a deal over the non-introduction of certain kinds of weapons, or certain kinds of ships, or not to conduct certain military exercises in the South China Sea.

The way I see this playing out is that China will in fact have that area of the South China Sea in which it exerts more influence and capacity to control. The good outcome is not a reversal of the status quo, which seems very unlikely. A good outcome would be enough external coordination and US engagement to negotiate a set of rules or practices that would actually be sustainable.

If the U.S. had remained involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—a slightly different geographic region—do you think that that would have changed politics in this area?

It would have given all of the countries in East Asia that rely to some extent on America’s presence to be more confident in America’s staying power. There are doubts about the U.S. commitment to economic and strategic engagement in the Far East in the region. They look at American politics and they think ‘Are they going to turn inward? Are they going to withdraw forces?’ That’s a longstanding problem for the U.S. in Asia, and the TPP was a way to try to deal with some of those concerns. In my view, the value of the TPP was more about politics than trade, and it was a missed opportunity.

Photo of Rohingya refugees in the Cox’s Bazar refugee settlement by KM Asad for the European Union on Flickr