Charles Santiago, Chair of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and Malaysian Member of Parliament, was one of the high profile speakers at a packed town hall between ASEAN MPs and civil society at the APF 2015 earlier this week. He shares his thoughts on the Rohingya and ASEAN:
It’s really nothing more than a group of powerful people who indulge in much backslapping and handshakes, sit at dinner tables pretending all is well and ignore raising crucial issues to ensure they themselves are not put in a tight spot.
How else could one describe ASEAN?
Last year, as meetings wrapped up at Naypidaw, heads of states would have been relieved that cutting political issues such as the ruthless crackdown on dissidents in Cambodia, Brunei’s introduction of the punitive Shariah law that allows for the chopping of limbs for theft and stoning for adultery or the huge borrowing that Laos had indulged itself in, and the disappearance of Loatian social activist Sombath Somphone were never discussed.
And as the ASEAN Chair, Myanmar had banned any talk about the ongoing persecution against the Rohingya Muslims. The generals and other cabinet members would have given themselves pats on the back for having successfully dodged questions about the minority community.
I mean if at all any member country bothered to demand answers from Myanmar, that is.
We cannot allow for the same script, expensive dinners and pretentious meetings next week, as the heads of states converge again for the ASEAN meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s federal capital.
If last year China’s territorial ambitions on the South China Sea was a crucial issue, this year the plight of the Rohingya deserves serious attention.
And as the Chair of ASEAN, Malaysia must ensure that this is brought to the discussion table. Furthermore, Malaysia has an added responsibility as it vouched for the inclusion of Myanmar in ASEAN.
The persecution and targeted killings of the Rohingya show no signs of ending. And as the country gears up for the next election in November this year, there is fear of another escalation of violence against the Rohingya and other Muslim communities in the country.
The reality for the Rohingya in Burma remains one that is shrouded in hopelessness and uncertainty. They live in overcrowded displaced peoples’ camps in Sittwe, which lack basic sanitation.
Lack of access to clean drinking water means waterborne diseases are high. Food is still scarce despite intervention from the World Food Program.
Recent travels by filmmakers and photographers to these camps reveal that women are forcefully taken away for sex by the military and boys and men often go missing or end up dead.
Therefore, ASEAN cannot hide under its non-interference policy anymore or shut a blind eye to the gross human rights violations and state-sponsored genocide against the Rohingya.
ASEAN member countries must pressure Burma and lobby for the Rohingya to be recognised as the country’s citizens once again.
While we welcome the Myanmar government’s efforts at a peace process, this must include the Rohingya as well.
ASEAN leaders must push for Burma to look into the Rohingya’s right of return to their homeland.
Over years, ASEAN has been ridiculed as the toothless tiger. If Kuala Lumpur winds up the annual meeting, glossing over the Rohingya issue, then ASEAN will certainly have to bear the shameful stigma of ridicule for many more years to come.
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) is a collective of lawmakers from Southeast Asia working to improve human rights responses and social justice in the region. www.aseanmp.org