Asean’s silence on Rohingya
The horrifying plight of the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar has been extensively documented in global news reports, but a new United Nations document, released last month by an international fact-finding mission established by the UN Human Rights Council, raises the stakes: Not only does it call the Rohingya’s ordeal “one of the world’s worst humanitarian and human rights crises,” it also calls for the prosecution of Myanmar’s military, known as Tatmadaw, for the “genocidal intent” of its actions toward the minority group.
Findings based on 875 in-depth interviews with victims and eyewitnesses, and supported by satellite imagery and authenticated documents including photos and videos, revealed targeted attacks that escalated in August last year and displaced at least 700,000 Rohingya.
Back in April, President Duterte stated that his administration was willing to open the Philippines’ doors to the refugees fleeing what he called a “genocide.” A week later, however, he backtracked, following harsh criticism from Myanmar. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), meanwhile, of which Myanmar is a member, has kept its distance from the issue, based on the group’s founding principle of “noninterference” in each other’s domestic affairs.
Despite efforts by Myanmar authorities to cover up the abuses, victims interviewed by the UN’s fact-finding mission invariably spoke of women being raped, children burned alive and countless others killed, as well as structures and whole villages razed to the ground to erase every trace of the Rohingya community and identity. These actions, said the UN report, “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law.”
“I want to share my story with the whole world because the world does not know what is happening in our place,” one victim told UN investigators. Another said: “The Tatmadaw soldiers don’t treat us like humans, they treat us like animals. They look at us like we shouldn’t even exist.”
The report recommended the prosecution of Tatmadaw’s six top officials, including commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing, before the International Criminal Court (ICC), for genocide, war against humanity and war crimes. It also criticized State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, specifically for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s failure to use her moral authority or position as de facto head of government “to stem or prevent the unfolding events, or seek alternative avenues to meet a responsibility to protect the civilian population.”
The UN report even took aim at social media, particularly Facebook, for serving as an instrument in spreading the regime’s hate rhetoric. In response, Facebook shut down the accounts of Min Aung Hlaing and other top military officials, accusing them of using the platform to spread “hate and misinformation.”
It is now up to the UN to refer the case to the ICC, but this would need the backing of the five permanent UN Security Council members—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. China, which has traditionally supported Myanmar, may be the stumbling block to such a move.
The UN may also opt to establish a special independent body, similar to what it did with Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, to conduct an investigation into the allegations of war crimes and genocide, or impose sanctions and an arms embargo on Myanmar.
Myanmar did not cooperate with the fact-finding mission and has rejected the report, accusing the international community of making false allegations. It has set up its own Independent Commission of Inquiry, headed by Filipino diplomat Rosario Manalo, who vowed that the investigation will be “independent, impartial and neutral.”
More international criticism came this week after Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison for breaking the Official Secrets Act. The two had been investigating the massacre of Rohingya Muslims.
Among the Asean members, only Malaysia and Indonesia have thrown their support behind the UN report. President Duterte, who previously apologized to his “friend” Suu Kyi for calling the crisis a genocide, is now mum on the issue.
It may be an impossible task for the Asean to take a united stance, but its continuing official silence is tantamount to being complicit in the horrors that have spilled out of Myanmar’s borders. When will it speak up and join the rest of the civilized world in condemning the atrocities in its very backyard?
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