By Florangel Rosario Braid
Two outcomes of the recent ASEAN summit that we consider worrisome are first, the silence on the territorial conflict over the South China Sea, and second, ASEAN’s policy of non-intervention on the Rohingya crisis. Let me dwell on the latter as this humanitarian crisis that had caused unspeakable violence and atrocities, deaths, and flight of 600,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh to escape murder, rape, and destruction of their villages, require regional and worldwide intervention.
Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Roberto Romulo cited this policy as a barrier in what others see as “meddling in their neighbors’ affairs. This was why we extended our respect to Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, who once upon a time criticized ASEAN’s policy of not intervening in Myanmar’s military regime during the time when she was a political prisoner. For speaking out, she was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize which others believe should be returned. While we don’t agree with this move, as she was then a courageous icon, I would hope however that she would begin to see the bigger picture of how her government’s rigid stance could affect Myanmar’s status as a respected freedom fighter.
Two ASEAN countries with large Muslim populations – Malaysia and Indonesia, did dare to go against the majority response. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak led a rally in December, 2016 protesting what he described as Myanmar’s “genocide of the Rohingyas.” At a regional meeting, Minister of Foreign Affairs Arifah Aman, in a strongly worded disavowal, said that DFA Secretary Cayetano’s statement was not based on consensus. In the statement, the foreign ministers acknowledged that the situation in Rakhine State is a complex inter-communal issue with deep historical roots and strongly urged all the parties involved to avoid actions that will further worsen the situation on the ground. Indonesia had taken a more constructive approach as it offered to act as a bridge between Myanmar and ASEAN. President Joko Widodo discussed the crisis with Suu Kyi herself and said that the stability in Myanmar was important for the region.
And what was a big disappointment to human rights groups is that our country even voted against the UN resolution which among others, would ensure that ASEAN and the government of Myanmar would provide a safe, voluntary and sustained return of the refugees to Myanmar. In fact, the ASEAN statement condemned the attacks against the security forces and the acts of violence which resulted in loss of civilian lives, destruction of homes and displacement of thousands. It also expressed support for Myanmar’s government.
Our country’s envoy to the United Nations, Teddy Boy Locsin Jr. expressed regret that we voted against the UN resolution. That we should have abstained, which is the right stance, like what several ASEAN countries had done, he said. But he also thought that we can still change our vote before the UN plenary meets.
Why we can no longer ignore the Rohingya issue had been discussed by several scholars and writers.
Jera Lego, in her dissertation, portions of which were published in the Diplomat, provides a background to help us appreciate their current situation of oppression and deprivation of rights. Rohingya, she noted, has long been viewed by a majority of Myanmar citizens as Bengali intruders despite having lived in the Rakhine state for centuries. The government, through immigration crackdown, citizenship laws, and census measures have rendered them stateless and disenfranchised. She believes that ASEAN, as a regional group will be more reactive than proactive in dealing with Rohingya, more ad-hoc, rather than strategic in planning the future of the Rohingyas. It is therefore in every government’s interest to adopt a comprehensive framework in managing the subsequent movement of people. The ethical and humanitarian considerations in addressing the conflict would pose questions on the kind of community ASEAN wants to be – whether it seeks to be a tolerant and inclusive one, or one that is compliant in excluding and opposing minorities. There are risks – and they include the threat of a growing Muslim insurgency, Myanmar’s reversing its path to democratization, and undermining the peace and stability which are prerequisites to the growth and development in the region.
DB Subedi of the University of New England, writes about “Why ASEAN must intervene and notes that refugee management in ASEAN is contentious because refugees are seen as non-traditional security threats. Many countries lack effective refugee protection instruments. Only the Philippines, Timor Leste, and Cambodia have signed the Geneva Convention of Refugees. While there are only about 1.2million Rohingyas of a total of 51 million people in Myanmar, in northern Rakhine state, they are more numerous than the Buddhists, the country’s majority population.
What do we expect to see in the future? A change in perspective so that ASEAN member countries would begin to see critical national survival issues as regional problems.
The positive signs include the creation of groups to work on humanitarian issues, security protection, conflict prevention, and preventive diplomacy.
It is preventive diplomacy that would enable countries to prevent disputes, conflicts and violence. But because of non-intervention, they have taken a cautious approach.
Gaea Katreena Cinco had written in Philstar about how the Human Rights Watch Area Deputy Director had made a strong statement regarding the non-interference principle and of how a coalition of
270 civil society organizations and leaders worldwide slammed the regional bloc’s silence on such issues as the war against drugs and extrajudicial killings, the Rohingya crisis, crackdown on dissenters in Vietnam and Cambodia, and the junta rule in Thailand, in the ASEAN meetings.
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