Community-building calls for humanitarian action

23 May, 2015
As appeared in

IT is surreal, is it not, that here we are talking about an Asean community, and yet are unable to address in concert the wave of Rohingya refugees arriving in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand from the Arakan coast of Myanmar, or are being turned back into the Andaman Sea to suffer an uncertain fate.

That changed a little when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak gave the humane instruction to the navy and maritime agency to not push them back and to in fact pick up those bobbing about in the sea.

(The last time Malaysia faced this kind of boat people crisis – involving the Vietnamese in the 1980s – then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad – threatened to shoot them; Foreign Minister King Ghaz attempted to explain this away by saying his prime minister said “shoo them” – but nobody was fooled).

Anyway, back to the present crisis. While there is some progress from the meeting in Putrajaya last Wednesday among the foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, it is as nothing against the enormity of the humanitarian calamity and depth of the problem. Even then, Thailand was not able to agree NOT to push back to sea the refugees arriving in rickety boats, despite a cap on the numbers based on an estimation of those out at sea, and the caveat that those accepted onshore will be housed until resettlement in third countries within one year.

The elephant NOT in the room, of course, is Myanmar, from where most if not all of these refugees originate. The Malaysian foreign minister flew there on Thursday to engage Naypyidaw. Interestingly Myanmar which has been adamant about not attending any meeting to discuss the crisis originating from its shores, has relented a bit, largely because of international pressure to do so.

Hopefully some basic mechanism to stem the problem can be found. The deeper issue of the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state – in which everyone has been complicit, businessmen looking for opportunity since Myanmar’s opening up in 2011, right up to Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi – is however a long way from being addressed.

There are also the cruel and callous human traffickers taking advantage of people trying to escape persecution and poverty. They need to be tracked down in the countries from which they operate. There is finger pointing between Malaysia and Thailand on this, but let us not forget Bangladesh is also in the equation.

The problem is thus not an easy one to resolve. Even in high standard-setting Europe, there is an inability to handle the refugees arriving in Italy from North Africa. Navies are turning them back. There is no agreement on quotas among European Union (EU) member states for resettlement. There is therefore no cause for a European holier-than-thou attitude when inveighing against what is happening in South-East Asia.

However, there are some significant differences which make South-East Asia look bad in comparison. At least the EU members are talking to one another. Here in Asean, not only does Myanmar deny any responsibility for the Rohingya refugee problem, the rest of the member states are reluctant to tell it squarely and openly: look here mate that is absolute nonsense and let us get rid of this fiction.

What is it about Myanmar that Asean falls over itself to shield that recalcitrant state? Asean molly-coddled it when most of the rest of the world isolated the country. Indeed the regional grouping welcomed the country as a member state in 1997, saying contact not isolation will make the country’s leaders change. When change came in 2011, Asean celebrated with “I told you so”.

Last year Myanmar was awarded grand recognition when it became the chair of Asean. What has Myanmar given Asean in return? Isn’t it about time it did so?

That question should be the sub-theme of a regional conference that must be held soon to discuss the Rohingya sea people problem. It is not about reprimanding Myanmar, but about its taking responsibility to resolve the regional problem it has mainly caused – without even going into the R2P (responsibility to protect) obligation in respect of the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which must ultimately be resolved.

Less than a month ago, on 27th April, Asean issued the Kuala Lumpur declaration on a people-centric Asean at the end of its summit. How good is the declaration – and Asean – when even before the ink has dried there is this violation of people for all the world to see?

Asean is diminished. At precisely the time it is about to pronounce establishment of a community at the end of the year, its credibility is undermined. Can Asean peoples have a sense of belief in what their leaders grandly commemorate when lives so wretched are so openly lost without effective regional attention?

In this crisis, Thailand calls for a meeting, Myanmar refuses to attend, Malaysia calls for a meeting but only among states at the receiving end – no Myanmar – and Thailand is missing from the podium and flag at the press conference at the end of it. The Thai foreign minister goes off after telling his counterparts his country cannot commit to accepting the sea people even temporarily because of “domestic laws” but does not meet the press to say so. Then his Prime Minister says Thailand will not accept the refugees.

Next the Malaysian foreign minister flies to Myanmar (the mountain coming to Mohamad). Then Myanmar relents a bit, largely because of international pressure. There is effort, but at sixes and sevens.

In this crisis so far, only the decisions of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib and Indonesian President Jokowi can be recognised as positive (not to forget also that of the Turks, from almost the other side of the world, who have quietly sent a ship to our regional – Asean – waters, to do the humanitarian task of picking up those who are dying at sea).

If Asean wants to be called a community – and an allegedly people-oriented one at that – it should at least have a clear structure of meeting and decision-making when there is a crisis and lives are at stake. It has many somnambulistic bodies and contradiction-in-terms task forces which never swing into action in a timely manner because clear decisions are never made.

It is not clear where the decision-making lies. It is the Asean way to leave it vague. That does not work in a crisis. As Asean chair, Malaysia should have the leaders address this issue of acting in a crisis, instead of just acting in well-choreographed events and summits.

Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.

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