7 December 2016
The plight of the Rohingya is the first big test for the Asean Charter and the Asean Human Rights Declaration.
LAST Sunday there was a big demonstration in Kuala Lumpur. Nothing too weird about that, since nowadays demos are becoming more common in Malaysia.
What was odd was it saw the leader of Umno and PAS sharing the stage and for all the world looking like new BFFs. They were united in expressing their displeasure to the Myanmar government for the horrible treatment of the Rohingya in their country.
Now a lot has been said about this event, on how it is ironic that the leader of a Government, which has on numerous times said that demonstrating is not part of Malaysian culture, would be involved in such a thing.
Another thing which has been said is how it is a politically motivated event. What can one say? It is organised by Muslim non-governmental organisations backed by politicians, so of course it is politically motivated.
However, all said and done, whatever the motivation of the organisers, however ironic the event may be, the fact remains that Rohingya people are suffering on a terrible scale. What can be done?
In the context of Asean we can see how the presence of a government head at a demo has got the Myanmar government apoplectic. This is because it is simply not done. In Asean, the Asean way of non-interference holds sway.
I think the challenging of the Asean way is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is not enough just to make a big show of opposition to a neighbour’s domestic practices. For real effect, there has to be action both at the regional level as well as the national level.
At the national level, if we are serious about helping the Rohingya, then it is time we sign and ratify the United Nations Convention on Refugees.
We have to include into our legal system the mechanisms necessary to recognise and give legal status to those who are running away from dire and dangerous situations. They must be allowed to work and their children be allowed to go to school.
The Government has the power to take action to recognise Rohingya refugees, even without signing and ratifying the Refugee convention, which may take a long time.
The situation is urgent and, by their action on Sunday, they want to project a sincere concern. That’s nice, but what would be nicer would be some solid action.
At the regional level, Asean has a lot to answer for. This situation did not rise overnight. It has been brewing for years, if not decades. Yet there has been no significant action taken that could have stopped this disaster before it happened.
Well, now it may be deemed too late, but that does not mean nothing needs to be done. At the very least, Asean has to demand free access for a fact-finding mission to determine the scale of the issue and then, following that, serious and concerted effort must be taken to stop any continuation of this humanitarian disaster.
The Asean Charter and the Asean Declaration of Human Rights both state that human rights and peace are aspirations of Asean. This shall be their first big test. Is the organisation willing to stand by their word or will they just act in their usual manner, which will mean such lofty declarations are merely empty promises?
Malaysia, now that our leader has shown such public passion, appears to be serious about doing something to alleviate the Rohingya situation. The proof is in the pudding: what will they do now at the Asean level and would they be willing to act alone, for example by recognising Myanmar refugees and taking firmer diplomatic action? Only time will tell.