Appalling treatment of Rohingya and boat people is Asean’s shame

For too long, we have ignored the human trafficking going on in this region. Now the issue has exploded in the news with the boatloads of Rohingya arriving and many others having their boats heartlessly turned away.

May 21, 2015

Anil Netto

By Anil Netto
For too long, we have ignored the human trafficking going on in this region. Now the issue has exploded in the news with the boatloads of Rohingya arriving and many others having their boats heartlessly turned away.

It is heart-rending to see the images of children, women and men crammed tighter than sardines on rickety boats, with precious little water, food and sanitation on board.

The plight of boat people has also hit the headlines in other parts of the world. Traffickers have been preying on migrants trying to flee to Europe from troubled hotspots in the Middle East. And more than 1600 have perished in shipwrecks and mass drownings along the way.

Last month, the Bishop of Rome, in the presence of Italy’s president, said, “I express my gratitude for the commitment that Italy is making to welcome the many migrants who, risking their lives, ask to be taken in. It’s evident that the proportions of the phenomenon require much broader involvement. We must never tire of appealing for a more extensive commitment on the European and international level.”

Similarly, Malaysia, in keeping with humanitarian principles, should allow the Rohingya boat people to be given a safe haven until a solution can be found. To its credit, it has allowed some to remain — until they can be deported. But where to? Which nation will welcome them?

The situation demands broader involvement. But what has happened to human solidarity, to Asean solidarity?

It is shameful that certain Asean governments seem to be washing their hands off the problem, even turning away these crammed boats back to perilous waters, as if it has nothing to do with them.

And yet, Asean cannot escape responsibility after welcoming Myanmar into the fold of the regional grouping and giving the ruling military leaders the legitimacy they craved.

After all, the source of the problem lies within Myanmar and within the Asean regional community.

How is it that ruthless traffickers and extortioners have operated with impunity within Asean? If ever there is evil in this world, then the traffickers are the embodiment of such evil.

This is the time for us to live up to the principles of human solidarity, especially now that the Asean Community is supposed to become a reality by the end of 2015.

What kind of community is this which allows a nation in the grouping to disenfranchise a segment of its people and render them stateless? What kind of grouping is this which allows human traffickers free rein to capitalise and profit from human misery?

In January this year, Aliran president Dr Francis Loh wrote a prescient article The Rohingya: Who are they? Why are they in Malaysia? published by Aliran.

In his piece, he described the circumstances that prompted droves of Rohingya to flee from Rakhine state in Myanmar. In fact, there have been four earlier rounds of exodus from northern Rakhine state, beginning from the Japanese occupation in 1942.

Later rounds were sparked by the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya following citizen law amendments, the use of Rohingya as forced labour, and more recently, ethnic violence against the Rohingya after the introduction of political reforms.

Northern Rakhine state also happens to be one of the poorest regions in Myanmar. Many of the Rohingya fled to camps in Bangladesh and then some fell prey to traffickers who assured them of safe passage to other Southeast Asian nations.

Their misery did not end upon their arrival in these promised lands. Some became victims of extortion, others were held until their families paid ransoms that were demanded. Mass graves have reportedly been found in south Thailand and near the border with Malaysia.

Still others report of being sold as virtual slaves to Thai fishing trawlers, on board where the harsh conditions are akin to a living hell.

The case of the Rohingya is different from other refugee exoduses, wrote Francis Loh. The crux of their problem is not that they have been in a war against the majority Burmese who run an ethnocratic state and have repressed them politically, economically and culturally, he said.

“Rather, the Rohingya have been declared as aliens, perhaps given ‘alien residence’ or ‘permanent residence’, but ultimately denied citizenship.”

A state has primary obligations towards its own citizens, “but the Rohingya have been turned ‘stateless’. Consequently, the stateless Rohingya end up completely disenfranchised ‘from the national order of things.’”

For Francis and others, the solution to the Rohingya crisis is actually simple: conferment of citizenship on the Rohingya, which can only be done by nation states.

Pressure should be imposed on Myanmar by Asean, regional civil society groups and the international community to resolve the Rohingya crisis once and for all.

Myanmar should not be allowed to carry on within Asean as if nothing has happened, as if it is business as usual.

Meanwhile, Asean has a role to play in providing a safe haven for these boat people until a permanent solution is found. Otherwise, the Asean Community that is supposed to be ushered in this year will not be worth the paper on which all those grand visions are written.

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