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Ethnic Cleansing of the Rohingya: Obama’s Duty is ASEAN’s Shame

By Charles Santiago
November 12, 2014

KUALA LUMPUR — With Barack Obama gracing the halls of Naypyidaw this week, the world has quite rightly been calling loudly for the President of the United States of America to raise concerns regarding the backslide in human rights and democracy in Myanmar, not least of which being the institutionalized persecution and ethnic cleansing of the country’s Rohingya minority.

The New York Times Editorial Board on Monday 10 November wrote in no uncertain terms that President Obama had a duty to be clear about the message he was taking to President Thein Sein regarding the lifting of sanctions and other positive measures in support of Myanmar’s transition to democracy.

“Mr. Obama should firmly remind them that his administration still has tools to accelerate, or delay, that process,” The New York Times wrote. “Between now and next fall, when Myanmar is scheduled to hold a general election, there is time to press forcefully for meaningful democratic reforms and an end to the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims.”

At the same time, United to End Genocide launched the powerful “Just Say Their Name” campaign, seeking to ensure President Obama stands up for the Rohingya, and their basic human rights in a country where the government refuses to acknowledge their existence as a people, seeking to wipe out their historical and ethnic identity.

This week, we also saw a powerfully written and timely opinion piece by veteran Burmese human rights campaigner Khin Ohmar in The Irrawaddy. In it, she highlighted the many issues facing her country under the current military-led government, and the need for Obama to take a stand for human rights and democracy if his administration wishes to count its support for an opening Burma as a genuine “foreign policy success”.

“This is President Obama’s chance to acknowledge that the situation in Burma has regressed since his last visit and to tell the people of Burma that the US will stand with them for human rights and democracy with concrete actions that reflect the challenges facing Burma’s reform process,” Khin Ohmar wrote.

While this is indeed an important message, and Obama’s influence on the generals and former generals that continue to rule Myanmar is arguably greater than any other individual’s in the democratic world, it is our enduring shame as a region that there has been barely a whimper of a voice regarding ASEAN’s own responsibility to halt the tide of genocide rising within our borders. We have a responsibility under international law to protect all human beings from genocide – a responsibility each and every ASEAN leader is failing to live up to.

Why has there been no call for action from ASEAN leaders on the Rohingya? Perhaps that is because our “association” of nations is seen as ineffectual and centered around power and wealth only – void of any genuine ability or desire to progress human rights in our region.

It hasn’t been that long since we last saw people slaughtered in the hundreds of thousands in our region. Less than 40 years ago, just one generation back, at least 1.7 million people – nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population – were killed by execution, disease, starvation and overwork under the Khmer Rouge’s brutal rule from 1975 to 1979.

We must make sure something like this can never happens again. But a quote from a Thai police officer in a Reuters article this week sums up the failures of the ASEAN project and how far we have to go before we become anything close to a “community.” A Thai district police chief was quoted as saying that hundreds of boat people that had turned up in Thai waters after fleeing persecution in Myanmar were not Thailand’s responsibility. 

“They are Muslims from Myanmar … They are illegal migrants,” Police Colonel Sanya Prakobphol, head of Kapoe district police told Reuters.

“If they come in then we must push them back … once they have crossed the sea border into Myanmar then that’s considered pushing them back. What they do next is their problem.”

But they are Thailand’s responsibility, Thailand’s “problem”. Protecting their dignity and rights as human beings is the responsibility of all of us, under international human rights law, the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, and our own moral imperative.

The Rohingya are facing a situation of deep despair – persecuted and hounded from their homes in Myanmar where they are denied all basic rights, including to education, work, marriage and travel. Desperate, they flee into boats and the hands of unscrupulous human traffickers, to be traded as commodities – slaves.

Even if they reach Malaysia, they face a harsh existence, and difficulty in being recognised as the refugees and asylum seekers that they are.

For more than two years now ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights has been seeking to generate the political will for ASEAN leaders to step up and act as a community to protect the Rohingya from persecution and intolerable human rights violations – and prevent another genocide.

The failure of legislators, political leaders and of our citizens to make a demand on their leaders to take action to heal the pain of the Rohingya and avoid much, much more says a great deal about the expectations people have of their governments, and of ASEAN institutions. 

The concept of the ASEAN community remains nothing more than a convenient myth, used only by the powerful to further their own limited agendas. Certainly for the Rohingya there is no such community.

But if not us to step up and end this tragedy, who? It may be President Obama’s moral duty to make a stand, but it is our shame for having to rely on him to do so.


Charles Santiago is a Member of Parliament for Klang Constituency in Malaysia and President of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), an organization made up of legislators from across Southeast Asia working to promote justice and human rights in the region.

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