It was not just human rights groups that were let down last week when Asean leaders invoked their principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs and skirted around the ongoing mass exodus of persecuted Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.
At their summit in Manila, the leaders set aside an issue that some humanitarian agencies have described as genocide and ethnic cleansing. Not only is this a huge disappointment to humanity, it also could give rise to further unrest.
The final chairman’s statement was a typically Asean masterpiece of meaninglessness: “They expressed support to the Myanmar Government in its efforts to bring peace, stability, rule of law and to promote harmony and reconciliation between the various communities,” it said.
When entire families are burned to death in their homes, mothers, wives and daughters raped and killed, it is human instinct to fight back. Since the Myanmar army crackdown began in August following a militant attack that killed nine police officers, the Rohingya have been driven out in worse fashion than cattle. The resulting humanitarian emergency is on full view in the squalid refugee camps that are home to 600,000 people at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.
Asean must keep in mind that such camps are often a prime breeding ground for extremists, as we have seen many countries that are experiencing political, religious and ethnic strife.
Not a lot is known about the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which claimed responsibility for the August attacks. There have been reports of Pakistani training and support, but actual links to any Islamist groups have not been proved. Though the militants are no match for the mighty Tatmadaw today, there is no telling what tomorrow will bring if people in power continue to look the other way.
This is why I believe Asean leaders can no longer put this mater on the back burner by saying it is Myanmar’s internal problem. The huge scale of the exodus has made it the region’s problem, and the faster our leaders realise that, the better for peace.
I base this assumption on what a reliable Rohingya source told me about the possibility of more people joining extremist groups if the world continues to ignore their plight.
“We are broken people,” he began. “For decades we have been residing in a climate of trepidation. When the systematic killings of my people started, we saw our loved ones mercilessly murdered in front of us in cold blood.
“Rohingya people do not know how to fight back because we have lived in fear of the Tatmadaw all our lives. So if we have outsiders come and tell us that they will help us to stand up to our aggressors, in other words, take up arms, I feel a sense of liberation. … As a father, I will do anything to see my child has food to eat. Yes, even if it means to take up arms.”
Reflecting on the need for Myanmar’s neighbours to be the voice of the voiceless, he said: “If you see a fire in the house of your neighbour, wouldn’t you feel it your responsibility to help put it out? If you decide not to, it will be at the risk of getting your own house burned down.”
Asean leaders have to look beyond business gains and political ties, because addressing this humanitarian emergency definitely has an upside. Besides averting possible extremism in the region, they are standing up for what is deemed right and increasing their stature in the world.
Asean and its allies have to come together and deliver a united ultimatum to the Myanmar government to expeditiously cease all atrocities in Rakhine state. They must send Nay Pyi Daw a clear message that diplomacy has its limits, and when it comes to human life there is no compromise. Skirting issues that involve the lives of an entire race is a no-no.
Myanmar is opening for business, and everyone wants in. In an ethical climate where greasing palms is the shabby norm, it is time for leaders to show today’s generation how cool it is to do business according to the books.
Asean leaders also should keep in mind that they have sworn to uphold three pillars of regional stability: political and security, economic, and socio-cultural. The Rohingya crisis potentially threatens all three.
They may have ignored this duty in Manila, but it is not too late for them to change.