The Rohingya crisis: Asean, don’t look away
Recently, we had the opportunity to visit the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. The experience left us profoundly moved, not just because of the sight of so many tarpaulin-and-bamboo houses or the men, women and children who dwell in them — two families per house — but also because of the palpable desolation that only statelessness can bring out.
Deprived of Myanmar citizenship and forced out of the country in violent circumstances, they find themselves at the mercy of a country that at best tolerates their presence. Officially forbidden to work or even hold money, they rely on UN agencies for food. Officially forbidden to go to school, children play football in makeshift fields, uncertain about what the future holds for them. Essentially, to use Hannah Arendt’s words, the Rohingya have been stripped of the “very right to have rights.”
What makes the situation all the more appalling is the fact that it is happening within our geopolitical neighborhood. Just a few kilometers from the camps, where over a million refugees now take shelter, lies the border with Myanmar—a country that, until the 1970s, recognized the Rohingya as citizens and even allowed them to hold parliamentary seats. The current government, de facto led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has invited some Rohingya to return, but understandably, there are no takers, given the rape, arson and deaths that they and their family members had to endure, and the lack of explicit guarantees of safety, citizenship or freedom of movement upon return.
To its credit, the Bangladesh government has welcomed the refugees, but its patience is running thin, the refugees increasingly perceived and portrayed as a burden and societal threat. As for the international community, UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are very active in aiding the refugees, but governments have largely turned a blind eye to the problem and its root causes. Disappointingly, the Philippine government even rejected a recent United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees resolution that called on Myanmar to protect the human rights of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities. Some Asean countries like Malaysia have taken a stronger stand, but even their calls are tempered, in keeping with the region’s long-standing policy of “noninterference.”
Given the profound human toll of this ongoing crisis, we cannot sugarcoat the facts and solution. The government of Myanmar clearly has the power to end this crisis effectively, first by revising its exclusionary policies that have initiated the discrimination and facilitated the persecution of the Rohingya community. Second, it needs to create the necessary conditions for peaceful coexistence in the Rakhine state, and the safe return of refugees while guaranteeing all their rights. Obviously, this cannot be done without bringing the alleged perpetrators of violence to justice through a fair and transparent process.
Likewise, the Asean governments and leaders have a big role to play. They need to be first and foremost united, and persistently engage with Myanmar in order to expedite the cessation of violence and facilitate dialogue to ensure the protection and safe repatriation of Rohingya refugees. These are no easy tasks, but it is time that Asean leaders put their commitment to human rights and social justice before political interests.
Professionals, NGOs, activists, academics, community leaders and youths in Asean, on the other hand, can form a strategic alliance to pressure and push their governments in this direction. Journalists and media outfits in the region can also contribute by continuing to report on and critically analyze developments affecting the refugees, and by insisting that their predicament should remain in the public consciousness.
As long as we in Asean turn a blind eye to the plight of the Rohingya, we are complicit in an ongoing crime against humanity. We, and most especially our governments, must act urgently and decisively. The Rohingya crisis is no longer something we in Asean can look away from.
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Raudah Yunus is a researcher, writer and social activist based in Kuala Lumpur. Gideon Lasco is a physician, anthropologist and Inquirer columnist based in Manila.
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