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The Rohingya problem is an Asean problem

Rohingya children gather at the Dar Paing camp for Muslim refugees, north of Sittwe in western Rakhine state. Asean must help in halting the violence against the Rohingya.

By Dr Paridah Abd Samad
December 14, 2016

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s strong rebuke of Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi that “enough is enough” was a landmark moment for Asean. For the first time in a long time, an Asean country leader condemned another Asean country. 

Najib’s reprimand implied that he is acting on a “universal duty of response”, and holding Suu Kyi to the global ideals that are seen to underwrite her status as a Nobel Peace Prize winner. His position concurs with the Asean charter that Asean must uphold human rights. He added that “this is not an intervention”, that displaces the Asean tenet of “non-interference in domestic matters”. 

Suu Kyi had been praised in the past for her support of human rights, but she is losing her shine as an international beacon of democracy as she is being increasingly condemned for refusing to speak out to condemn the current Buddhist violence against the Rohingya. 

When forced, she has commented that the military is operating according to the “rule of law”. The military and police had “engaged in collective punishment of the Rohingya minority” after the murder of nine border guards on Oct 9, which some politicians blamed on a Rohingya militant group. 

Under international pressure, Suu Kyi has formed a special committee to investigate the violence. The committee, however, is headed by an army general from the very same army that is committing the violence, undermining the committee’s credibility to conduct a just and impartial investigation. 

Buddhist monks in Myanmar, from the Nationalist Monk Association, led a protest of about 150 people in Yangon, holding banners and chanting against the Malaysian prime minister. They called attention to the Asean principle of non-interference and accused Najib of stoking religious extremism in order to score political points in Malaysia. Tension continues to escalate as Myanmar decided to stop sending workers to Malaysia. 

Therefore, Myanmar and the monks’ protest cannot justify the fate of one million “stateless” Muslim Rohingya as an “internal problem”. Especially when the consequences include transnational migration into Asean countries making such circumstances less tenable for this as just a “traditional and intrinsic state affair”. 

The current situation also provides fertile ground for the spread of radical Islam. Neighbouring Bangladesh has suffered a number of attacks linked to the Islamic State (IS), and Southeast Asia has proven a successful source of recruits. This is an Asean and international issue. 

Surin Pitsuwan, a former secretary-general of Asean and a former foreign minister of Thailand, argued that “jihadists become radicalised by the Rohingya slaughter. Being denied their basic human rights has left them stateless and suffering and prone to radicalisation”. 

Neglecting their plight would entrench the segregation of Rakhine state along ethnic and religious lines, breed conflict, and potentially radicalise them. An outflow of these desperate refugees would implicate the security concern of the entire region. 

Thus, Asean needs to respond by providing humanitarian assistance to the displaced and alleviate the suffering of the Rohingya. Liberating the Rohingya is only the first fortification against radicalisation by giving them equal opportunity and building trust. The whole of Rakhine state should be integrated into Myanmar’s ambitious development plans, and also into the Asean Economic Community. 

Meanwhile, in Malaysia, hundreds of people from the hardline Islamist group Hizbut Tahrir, marched to the Defence Ministry, and demanded that Malaysia’s army conduct a jihad against Myanmar. 

The Rohingya crisis has become a rallying cry for jihad. Some social media users in Indonesia have gone to the extent of declaring their readiness to be suicide bombers for the sake of the Rohingya. Online extremists in Indonesia have expressed a desire to mount jihad on behalf of the Rohingya, with some supporters hoping that the mujahidin will be able to smuggle themselves into Myanmar. Last weekend, Indonesian authorities arrested two militants who were allegedly planning to attack the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta. 

The Rohingya rally in Malaysia was not just thumbing our nose at our Southeast Asian neighbour. Accepting the additional influx of our Muslim brothers into Malaysia is not a viable, long-term solution to the crisis, especially when Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Therefore, the Rohingya problem is a Malaysian problem, too. 

Putting aside maps drawn among Asean countries, the Rohingya people are, after all, part of Southeast Asia. And Asean should live up to a people-centric Asean community. 

Dr Paridah Abd Samad is a former lecturer of UiTM (Shah Alam) and IIUM (Gombak), a Fulbright scholar and Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA) fellow

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