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Understanding Policy: Collective Action and Myanmar’s Rohingya

Editor's Note: This brief series on Collective Action demonstrates how public policy can be analyzed through the lens of Mancur Olson's The Logic of Collective Action. Each piece looks at a specific humanitarian crisis and how the logic applies for that case. For a brief summary on the theory, see Understanding Policy: Collective Action

By Adam Moroff

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Myanmar is home to one of the world’s most persecuted peoples: the Rohingya Muslim population of Myanmar’s eastern Rakhine state. In addition to being stateless, the Rohingya have been the victims of mass arrests, torture, indentured servitude, killings, and internal displacement. Yet, in spite of numerous calls for global actors to intervene, very few substantive measures have been taken to improve their situation. This memo explores why global actors have failed to act. To accomplish this, I first examine the benefits that actors in the region might see if improvements in the situation in Rakhine led to a more stable Myanmar. Next, I explore why ASEAN is the most relevant party for intervention and what Olson’s framework predicts about its ability or inability to act. Before concluding, I briefly examine two limitations of Olson’s framework.

There are several international actors that would benefit from a stable Myanmar. China, which borders Myanmar to the north, and Thailand, to Myanmar’s east, both deal with negative externalities caused by instability. In both cases, refugee flows across borders cause financial strains. This is especially true for Thailand, which is currently the home of numerous refugee camps and nearly 650,000 displaced persons (UN Commissioner for Refugees, 2014). 

Ending violence between the Burmese and the Rohingya would also reduce the risk to infrastructure projects such as the pipelines from Myanmar to China and protect trade networks from damage. In addition to more individual incentives, improving Myanmar’s situation would create various pure public goods including stability in the “ASEAN neighborhood” and the protection of human rights. Stability and strengthened human rights are both non-excludable and non-rivalrous and would likely yield ancillary benefits to the region; outside powers, who have avoided deep economic and political ties due to past abuses, would have a new chance to become engaged in the region. For these reasons, I think the most relevant actors are the ASEAN nations as they have the most to gain and the lowest operational costs.

Why then, would the nations of ASEAN, being fully aware of the possible benefits, fail to act? In terms of size, ASEAN is relatively small, making it more likely to engage in collective action as small groups can more easily organize and plan than can larger groups. Olson also notes that groups with member of various sizes and various levels of interest in a collective good are the most likely to provide it. This is certainly true with ASEAN.  Countries closest in proximity to Myanmar have the largest interest from both an economic and political standpoint, and the countries of ASEAN range from relatively poor (Cambodia and Laos) to relatively rich (Singapore.) With regards to its institutional framework, ASEAN has characteristics that make it both more and less likely to be capable of collective action than a similar grouping of countries in other contexts. Membership in ASEAN means that lines of communication are already established and there is a smaller information gap regarding actor’s capabilities. This lowers the start up costs of negotiations and raises the likelihood of cooperative action. Conversely, the institutional design of ASEAN prevents intervention in two major ways. First, each nation’s contribution to an international effort can only be as large as that which the poorest country is able to pay. (Poole) This means that even if for example, a nation like Thailand was willing to carry a larger portion of the ASEAN burden, the current institutional framework prohibits it from doing so. Since costs to unilateral intervention, would also be much greater, we can reasonably rule out that possibility as well. Second, the ASEAN principles of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other members significantly raise the cost of intervention. Although it is hard to quantify, solidarity within a regional organization has some value, especially in the event that ASEAN must act to counter a greater power. Intervention on behalf of the Rohingya would erode ASEAN solidarity. For the aforementioned reasons, it seems that Olson’s work points correctly towards inaction. Although there is a small membership group, and they are of unequal size and stand to receive unequal benefits, the nations of ASEAN fail to act due to their institutions.

One of the largest limitations of Olson’s work is that it only seriously addresses methodology for coaxing latent groups to act. Todd Sandler provides a better roadmap to cooperation for a regional group, and argues that collective action within ASEAN would be more likely to occur if the members resolved uncertainty about costs and benefits, or if the largest contributor to the problem, Myanmar itself, could be convinced to facilitate actions to stabilize (Sandler, 2010) Due to uncertainty and distrust between Myanmar and the Rohingya, Myanmar may be unable to solve the problem unilaterally and would require assistance from ASEAN in providing the public goods. Sandler’s theory is supported by reality; Myanmar decided to democratize in 2011 and total violence against the Rohingya has fallen as a result. Another large limitation is that Olson doesn’t sufficiently address how his model rectifies situations in which actors have the same overall goal, but vastly different preferred strategies to achieve it.

Despite individual benefits and easily recognizable public goods that would be created from ASEAN intervention in Myanmar to protect the Rohingya, ASEAN has until recently failed to act to curb human rights abuses. Through the use of Mancur Olson’s work on collective action, we can see that ASEAN has several characteristics that should have made it more likely to act as well as several characteristics that should have made it more likely to avoid action. In the end, it was ASEANs institutions that prevented any substantive action. For the Rohingya, the Burmese government’s decision to democratize provided a real opportunity to avoid further persecution. In recognition of this, ASEAN should act decisively. Rather than in acting if Myanmar backslides and again becomes increasingly violent, it will be easier to bear the cost of intervention now.


Adam Moroff is a first year IR/PS student studying international politics, with particular focus on China and Japan. Before attending IR/PS, Adam spent two years working in Japan, first as an English teacher and then as an intern with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He graduated from Emory University in 2009 with a BA in Economics.

We at JIPS encourage open discourse and free expression but do not endorse any particular stance that may be reflected in the contributions on this website  The views expressed in the JIPS blog are solely those of the contributors.


Association of Southeast Nations. “Overview.” Based on the ASEAN Declaration.

Human Rights Watch. “The Government Could Have Stopped This: Sectarian Violence and Ensuing Abuses in Burma’s Arakan State.” August 2012.

Olson, Mancur. “The Logic of Collective Action.” Harvard University Press. 1965.

Poole, Avery. “The state versus the Secretariat: Capacity and the norm of equality in ASEAN.” The University of Melbourne.

Radio Free Asia. “Call to Put Rohingya in Refugee Camps.” United Nations High Comissioner for Refugees. Refugees Daily. 07 December 2012.

Sandler, Todd. “Overcoming Global and Regional Collective Action Impediments.” University of Texas at Dallas. 2010.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “2014 UNHCR country operations profile – Thailand."


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