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Asean summit is needed to stop Rohingya crisis

(Photo: The Guardian)

By Fuadi Pitsuwan
May 27, 2015

MALAYSIA should use its prerogative as the Chair of Asean this year to call for an emergency summit-level meeting involving heads of state of Southeast Asian countries to come up with a workable strategy to address the region’s grave humanitarian crisis involving the Rohingyas from the Rakhine State of Myanmar and the Bangladeshi migrants.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak stands at a critical juncture to demonstrate to the world that Asean has the capacity to deal with its most pressing problem, or he risks the regional organisation becoming irrelevant in the eyes of the international community. At the end of this year he is to launch the much anticipated Asean Community.

Over the past couple of weeks, the plight of Rohingyas and the treatment of the asylum seekers from Myanmar and migrants from Bangladesh have captured the world’s attention at an unprecedented level, namely after the discovery of mass graves of the Rohingya asylum seekers and Bangladeshi migrants on Thailand’s border with Malaysia and the initial rejection of their dangerously flimsy boats by Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. 

As human trafficking crew onboard jumped ship upon hearing the news of the Thai government’s crackdown on this illicit network, thousands more asylum seekers and economic migrants are still stranded in the Andaman Sea.

Debates within Asean countries on how to deal with the Rohingyas are as tense as the internal political divides in each country. None of the Asean countries see the problem as theirs to tackle. This is truly the “Tragedy of the Commons.” Myanmar authorities prefer to point to the root cause of the problem as far back to the colonial era when the country was under the British Empire, neglecting any responsibility now. In other Asean countries, human traffickers colluded with corrupt officials who facilitate these movements of the Rohingyas.

With an expected silence from Myanmar leadership, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the rest of the Asean and international community must jointly act to provide aid, in the immediate and, protection in the long term, for the Rohingyas. Considered by the UN as “one of the most persecuted” minorities in the world, the Rohingyas are asking for the world to stand for the most basic of human rights — the right to exist. 

Recent reports that Malaysia and Indonesia are willing to provide temporary shelters to those stranded in the Andaman Sea at the present and Thailand’s proposal to organise a meeting on Friday (May 29) with representatives from 15 countries are good initial steps to address the influx since the outbreak of the most recent round of crisis, but these will not be enough. The importance of this issue to the future of the Asean Community requires the summit-level attention with representatives from other stakeholders attending, including Bangladesh, another crucial player in this tragedy.

Unlike the South China Sea issue, where an external actor is engaged in a game of divide and conquer, the fate of the Rohingyas is about a people’s basic right to live. It is a problem that affects the entire Asean community and should be addressed as such. Asean has come a long way from its steadfast adherence to the principle of non-interference. Internal issues that affect other countries in the region have been brought up at various Asean meetings in the recent past. But Asean must push further to demonstrate to the international community that it can solve its most pressing regional problem in order for its future to hold any promise.

Solutions to the problem will not come easy and will require the leaders of Asean to act in concert and share responsibility. Malaysian, Indonesian and Thai leaders must admit their own negligence in regards to successfully combatting human trafficking, while Myanmar must admit that their treatment of the Rohingyas is a problem that is affecting the rest of Asean. They must stop playing what the Human Rights Watch has dubbed as a deadly game of “human ping pong.” Together, the leaders of Asean must work with other relevant states, particularly Bangladesh to locate potential countries of final settlement and to seek and secure financial and technical aid from international organisations. The leaders of Asean need to agree and present a common strategy on this issue.

It will take hard decisions on the part of the leaders. This may mean punishing and firing the officials in their countries who colluded with human trafficking gangs to send a strong message that human trafficking will not be tolerated. Impunity for state officials involved is absolutely unacceptable. Some relaxation of immigration rules to avoid life loss may be required. (Malaysia and Indonesia have announced that they would provide temporary shelters). It must involve holding national discussions on immigration laws and the rights of migrant workers.

Or further, it may mean coercing Myanmar (and Bangladesh) through diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions, collectively, particularly if the Thein Sein government refuses to play their part. And there are signs that the Myanmar leadership might cave in. Perhaps, it would take an Asean mandate to invoke Responsibility To Protect (R2P) to stop the persecution of the Rohingyas. 

The leaders have the capacity to come up with a creative collaboration like they did in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 where Asean, the UN and the Myanmar government collaborated on the three-year long relief effort.

Whatever solutions may be required in the short and long term, the issue must be raised at the summit-level meeting and with utmost urgency to signify Asean’s willingness to take responsibility for what many international observers have already termed a genocide.

Malaysia, as Chair of Asean this year, has a choice to prove that the 48-year-old organisation — that is due to become an integrated market and set to become one of the largest economies in the world — commits to protecting humanity’s most basic right, the right to exist. If not, it risks making Asean a hobbled regional entity indifferent to systematic genocide in its own midst. 

The writer is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Oxford

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