Asean Summit a success, but…
I wanted to concede that the 2017 Asean Summit was successful. In fact, if past summits were to be the benchmark, it succeeded in addressing many aspects of regional concerns. The Philippines as chair and host did a good job and could have trumpeted such an achievement but for one thorny issue which the summit failed to address squarely: the Rohingya crisis, the fly in the ointment in an otherwise fruitful confab.
Filipino Moros waited with bated breath for the release of the Chairman’s Statement, which is the sum total of the results of the gruelling discussions (not by the leaders themselves but by their proxies who are experts in negotiations and semantics). It is the most important document that comes out of the summit because it assembles and synthesizes the ideas of member-states that went through the discussion mill. The Moros were morally obligated to be concerned not only because of their shared experience of historical injustice but also because of the concept of “Ummah Islamiyyah,” in which Muslims are compared to one human body: If one part is hurt, the whole body is in pain. They were hopeful that given the magnitude of the Rohingya crisis, the summit could not just sweep it under the rug and would come out with a blueprint to stop the violence and relieve the suffering of the stateless Rohingya Muslims, if not allow them back into their abode.
The Rohingya Muslims are often described as “the world’s most persecuted minority,” and radicals have accused the Myanmar government of waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Pomp, glamour and pageantry cannot camouflage such flagrant persecution on an unprecedented scale.
But for all its pontifications about protecting the rights of minorities in the region, the Asean Summit did not address the issue frontally. In the Chairman’s Statement the word “Rohingya” was never mentioned. It was buried in diplomatese, betraying the intention to keep it away from discussion so as not to embarrass an icon, Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi (who has no control over the governing military junta), or open the floodgates to questions on the host country’s human rights violations in its campaign against illegal drugs.
The Chairman’s Statement, inter alia, expressed support for Myanmar’s humanitarian relief program, as well as “the commitment by Myanmar authorities to ensure the safety of civilians, take immediate steps to end the violence in Rakhine … and address the refugee problem through verification process” (but the verification process is the source of the problem). That’s it. There was nothing about the violence against and the persecution of the Rohingya. Far from condemning Myanmar, it even tacitly commended it for its humanitarian relief program. What were the Muslim member-states of Asean doing? Have they forfeited their kinship with a tribe of persecuted Muslims in their neighborhood?
We saw this coming. Recall that in the Asian Foreign Ministers Meeting in September at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the Philippines’ foreign secretary, Alan Peter Cayetano, instead of condemning the ruin of the Rohingya communities who were forced to flee, denounced the attacks on Myanmar security forces by the Rohingya Muslims. To our embarrassment in the world forum, the statement was disputed by the Malaysian foreign minister as the official position of Asean.
In the light of the prevailing circumstances in our country, we can only surmise that strong words of condemnation regarding the Rohingya crisis were absent in the 28-page Chairman’s Statement because it involved human rights issues, something about which our government is very sensitive. If there had been due focus on the Rohingya crisis, our government would have had no logical excuse to avoid discussion of the human rights issues involved in the war on drugs.
Asean is, after all, an “old boys club.”
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Macabangkit B. Lanto (firstname.lastname@example.org), UP Law 1967, was a Fulbright fellow in New York University for his postgraduate studies. He has served the government as congressman, ambassador, and undersecretary, among other positions.
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