Malaysia Dateline

Can Malaysia speak up on Rohingya issue in ASEAN? Yes it can!

Mapim telah memulakan bantuan kemanusiaan kepada mangsa yang telah sempat melarikan diri merentasi sungai Naf untuk masuk ke Bangladesh pada 14 hingga 18 Disember lalu


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is widely regarded as the second most successful regional associations after the European Union (EU).

While ASEAN was not modelled on EU, it was inspired by it. Thanat Khoman, one of the founding fathers, of ASEAN from Bangkok, Thailand, used to remark that while EU cannot be a one-to-one comparison with ASEAN, the latter demands the same regional dialogue and cooperation that will make a country stronger than the sum of its parts.

The founding of ASEAN on August 7 1967 also harnessed several myths, one of which is the belief that all member states of ASEAN cannot comment on the issues of another neighboring country. This is patently false.

The research of John Funston has shown that this is one of the worst mis-characterizations of ASEAN since no where is there in the founding document of ASEAN that forbids it.

If anything, ASEAN through customary practices is against two forms of non interventions only.

The first involves the active support of an opposition party, which is indeed forbidden. While the second dictates that ASEAN shall have nothing to say on the military alliances and bases of another member state, which too is banned. Thus Malaysia has never commented on the military bases of US in the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.

Beyond these two taboos, in ASEAN, the member states can——and have—–directly commented on the affairs of another state.

Constant comments on the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam in 1979—-often forming a background of negative press against Hanoi which eventually forced Vietnam to back out of Cambodia in 1989—- constituted one of the clearest examples of where the ambit and leeway of ASEAN lies. One shall not violate the territorial integrity of another. Since Vietnam invaded Cambodia, there was a price to pay in terms of negative press.

Another was the displeasure shown by Singapore and Malaysa on the environmental haze caused by Indonesia, where millions of acres of trees and peats were periodically burned down.

In either case, if not more, ASEAN is not as superfluous (or spineless) as some assume. When clear violations have occurred, the diplomatic members in ASEAN, both in Track One and Track Two, can, and do, speak up against the issues at play.

This leads us to the Rohingya Muslim Rakhine and Arakan. Research by United Nations and other human rights bodies have shown clear cut cases of genocide.

This is a word not used lightly, nor is it used in vain. Some 600,000 internally displaced Rohingya refugees alone, have fled from their homes over the last three years, often eking out a meager life in neighboring Bangladesh that does not want them. Millions more are forcefully displaced.

Many more have taken to fleeing by sea, often in boats that are not seaworthy at all, which makes them vulnerable to mid sea drowning, piracy and out right slaughter. Amidst them all, Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratic icon of Myanmar, has refused to acknowledge the size and the gravity of the problem—–to the degree of allowing the judiciary in Myanmar to send two Reuters journalists to prison for seven years yesterday. The news was widely reported on in CNN and BBC.

Malaysia, especially Tun Dr Mahathir, has spoken up on the persecution and plight of the Rohingya Muslims, many generations of whom have been denied the most basic decency of national citizenships.

Professor Lee Jones at Queen’s Mary College, one of the best experts on ASEAN, has warned that the issue is not as simple as Myanmarese chasing Rohingya Muslims out of Rakhine and Arakan where the latter predominate in larger numbers, albeit in pickets of various territories. In other words, this is not a case of sheer land grab, Jones warned.

Rather, something sinister is at works. The growth of Buddhist extremism from the 18th century, if not earlier, which is often entwined with rabid nationalist ideology, has weaponized the identity politics of some Myanmarese, especially the dominant Burmese who are under the sway of extremist Buddhist cults.

It is the pernicious mix of Buddhist extremism, fuelled by opportunistic excesses, coupled with the cavalier approach of the military junta, towards the issue of life, that the Myanmarese state has made things difficult for itself in the open press.

Malaysia and other governments of ASEAN must speak up at the United Nations’s general assembly this mid September 2018. If Malaysia and other member states of ASEAN do not stand up and be counted, the situation affecting Rohingya Muslims can only become from bad to worse. Let the world be warned, so that precious lives may be saved, no matter how few; as the current situation has reached desperate proportions.

Indeed, back in 1996, Anwar Ibrahim, then the deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, has spoken of the need of “flexible intervention,” in Newsweek. The idea, in fact of ASEAN opposition, was re-rendered by the late Ali Alatas of Indonesia, the esteemed foreign minister of Indonesia, as “enhanced interaction.”

Regardless of what it is called, both demand a vocal and vociferous voice to call a spade a spade. Myanmar is being badly misgoverned, as this is written.

ASEAN should single Myanmar out both in the United Nations and the ASEAN Summit and East Asian Summit at the end of the year in December 2018 in Singapore.

Aung San Suu Kyii may insist she is a democratic darling of the world. But the facts showed that even University of Oxford has removed any statues that pay homage to her human rights struggle.