Friday, 22 May 2015

We Must Help the Boat People

Sin Chew Jit Poh
20 May 2015


We have to help the Rohingya refugees who are at the time of writing hanging on precariously to life in the ocean. To do anything less will be cruel and inhuman.


I don’t buy any of the excuses made for not helping them. The one mainly used by the government is that they are a security threat. Just how they are a security threat is a mystery to me. That has not been properly explained at all. Perhaps there is a fear of floodgates opening and that if we show compassion for this lot, then others will come swarming in.


That is a flawed argument because it works on the premise that people come to Malaysia because our country is so great that they can’t help but want to come here. It does not take into consideration that people only leave their homes in a manner which risks all their belongings and even their lives, because they are forced to.


If anyone were to investigate even slightly into the conditions of life for the Rohingya in Myanmar; the lack of legal recognition by their own government; the physical attacks by the majority community; the terrible camps into which they are forced to live; then it becomes obvious that when they leave it is out of desperation and not a simple matter of seeking greener pastures.


Many other criticisms also don’t hold water. The idea that immigrants cause crime does not match the statistics which show that there is in no way a proportionately high number of crimes being committed by foreign nationals. And the fear that they bring disease is just a prejudice based on their general poverty. The H1NI flu that attacked this region did not come from refugees but moneyed travellers who came by aeroplane. We don’t see that stopping us from accepting international flights into our country.


Much has already been said about the obligations Malaysia has under international customary law (we have a responsibility to give basic aid to refugees) and also the need to just show a bit of common decency to people who are literally dying off our shores. So what I wish to discuss here is why we came to this situation in the first place. The Rohingya situation came about because the Myanmar government has treated them appallingly. That is the bottom line. The bulk of the responsibility of course rests there.


However Myanmar is part of ASEAN and what is ASEAN’s responsibility here? What has ASEAN done to stop the situation from reaching this level? I would argue very little or nothing.


ASEAN’s much protected principle of non-interference is said to have kept the peace in the region for decades. But taken too far, it could create terrible situations; like the one we have now. By simply allowing the Myanmar regime to continue their policies with the Rohingyas, and not intervening in any way so as to uphold the principle of non-interference, ASEAN has allowed a national issue become an international problem.


ASEAN has been (mostly) highly reluctant to truly take on board the ideals of human rights. Many of the nations have no wish to practice it and even less to try to get it respected in their neighbours’ jurisdictions. The result is the crisis we are facing now. By not respecting the human rights of the Rohingyas and by not insisting that the Myanmar government does the same in the first place, ASEAN has inadvertently created a humanitarian crisis.


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