By Aman Ullah
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality,” Desmond Tutu.
The 26th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit concluded on April 27 with the adoption of three declarations, including the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on a People-Oriented, People-Centered ASEAN, which aims to establish a regional community by the end of this year.
The summit, the association’s highest policy-making body, which carried the theme “Our People, Our Community, Our Vision,” was chaired by Malaysia. This year’s summit was held in Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi, Malaysia from April 26 to 28.
The annual summit, gathering the leaders from all ten members of the grouping, comes at an important time as Asean members are working hard to realize the establishment of the long dreamed Asean Community, which aims at deeper and wider regional integration.
The Asean Summit, first held in 1976 in Indonesia, will provide the Asean leaders an opportunity to take stock of and review efforts and challenges still need to be tackled, towards establishing a politically cohesive and an economically integrated and socially responsible Asean Community.
Formed on Aug 8, 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, Asean’s membership has expanded to include Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
Since the establishment of Asean in 1967, Malaysia is hosting the Asean Summit for the third time, after 1977 and 1997. Malaysia will also host the 27th Asean Summit in November.
At the summit, Malaysia was trying to discuss the Rohingya issue as a host of Rohingya immigrants have come to Malaysia during its chairmanship. But ahead of the Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting Foreign Minister of Myanmar Wunna Maung Lwin said there was no reason to discuss the issue of Rohingya/ Bengali Muslim population at the Asean Summit, despite pressure over the issue. He said, “This is an internal issue. We do not recognize the name Rohingya.”
Malaysian foreign minister Anifah Hj. Aman said: “The Rohingya issue has to be resolved within Asean. While we continue to respect the sovereignty of our member states, this issue should be addressed within Asean and through engagement”. He further said that since refugees had fled to Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, this issue could no longer be considered as Myanmar’s internal issue. He also said that President Thein Sein in his recent visit to Malaysia had assured Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak that the issue of Rohingya refugees would be looked into.
According to records, there are more than 140,000 asylum seekers and refugees from Myanmar living in Malaysia temporarily under United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have a serious problem in their backyard. Every day in Myanmar approximately 1 million Rohingya Muslims are denied their most basic human rights and face a risk of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
The treatment of the Rohingya is a test of the degree to which Asean member states take seriously their commitment to regional cooperation on protecting human rights and their global pledge to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a pact to protect populations from mass atrocity crimes.
So far, Asean states and the broader international community are failing in this commitment. For decades they have turned a blind eye to the persecution of the Rohingya, one of the world’s most vulnerable minorities. Rohingyas are denied by the government the right to citizenship, restricted from having more than two children, and many are forced to live in segregated, squalid ghettos that they can only leave with permission from authorities. Rohingyas have repeatedly been attacked and killed on the basis of their identity, receiving little to no physical protection from security forces.
Formerly the perennial international pariah, the Myanmar government has received praise for new political and economic reforms. Yet it has utterly failed to protect the Rohingya, for whom conditions have only worsened since the government began its transition to democracy in 2012.
Increasing hate speech by political, cultural and religious figures has served to dehumanize the Rohingya in the eyes of Myanmar’s public by demonizing them as unwanted “Bengali” foreigners.
Despite government assurances that it would allow ethnic self-identification in the first national census conducted since 1983, just days before data collection began the government announced that “Rohingya” would not be recognised.
The widespread culture of impunity for state and non-state actors who perpetrate or incite attacks against Rohingyas fuels a growing cycle of anti-Muslim violence within the country.
Meanwhile, neighboring states have made it abundantly clear that they will not open their borders nor offer protection to Rohingyas attempting desperately to flee persecution. Anti-Rohingya sentiment is not confined to Myanmar’s borders.
The world has seen this before. The Holocaust and Rwandan genocide have shown us what happens when a minority population is systematically dehumanized, deprived of their rights, forced to live in segregation, and denied asylum elsewhere.
In the wake of the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews and Tutsis, the world vowed to prevent these crimes from being repeated. Yet today in Myanmar, the Rohingya face institutionalized persecution.
According to Casey Karr and Naomi Kikoler (The Jakarta Post, August 23, 2014), “With little international attention and a failure to hold the Myanmar government accountable for the safety and protection of the Rohingya, their plight is all the more dire.”
“Faced with unfolding crimes against humanity on their doorstep, will Asean states continue to shirk their responsibility? Myanmar seems to expect this. At the last year’s first Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting on Jan. 16 2014, only days after another round of anti-Rohingya violence in Rakhine state left over 40 men, women and children dead, Myanmar rejected the inclusion of talks on “the Bengali issue”, arguing that it was an ‘internal affair’.”
“The global commitment to the Responsibility to Protect means that atrocities are not internal affairs. Every government, including all Asean member states, affirmed this in 2005 when they endorsed the Responsibility to Protect at the UN World Summit.”
“They committed to safeguard all populations, irrespective of their religion, ethnicity or citizenship, from crimes against humanity, genocide, ethnic cleansing and war crimes. Asean’s own Charter obliges its members ‘to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms’.”
To continue to stand by as the Rohingya suffer is to fail these obligations and condemn the Rohingya to a future of persecution.
Myanmar has demonstrated its unwillingness to protect them. Asean members must uphold their responsibility to protect and urge Myanmar’s government to take immediate action to halt the tide of hate speech, provide physical protection to vulnerable Rohingya communities, hold accountable all who incite or perpetrate crimes, and take concrete steps to foster a more inclusive society, foremost by granting Rohingya equal access to citizenship.
With atrocities unfolding, Asean members should provide a safe haven within their borders to Rohingyas seeking refuge.
With Rohingyas facing the risk of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, it is simply unacceptable for Asean states to appeal to regional preferences for “non-interference” as a justification for silence and indifference. Yet today in Myanmar, the Rohingya face institutionalized persecution.
That’s why Desmond Tutu remarked that, “Myanmar’s policy and practice towards the Rohingya – call them what they want, in the face of mountain of utterly irrefutable Burma’s official documentary evidence in support of Rohingyas’ claim to Rohingya ethnic identity – are named or framed as ‘crime against humanity’ ‘ethnic cleansing’ ‘atrocities’, or ‘genocide’.”
“Even if scholars and experts and all the rest debate over the name of the crime and go with ‘crime against humanity’ and not ‘genocide’ that is still an international crime, punishable under international law.”
“So what is this rubbish of ‘internal affair’ by an army-bred ex-Colonel Wunna Maung Lwin,now foreign minister?”
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”