THE Universal Declaration for Human Rights and the Responsibility to Protect are two vital international agreements to protect human rights in any part of the world. Nevertheless, the international community, including the big powers, has completely failed to stop ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Arakan (Rakhine). Repeated atrocity, genocide and expulsion of this ethnic group for years from their own land reveal that the Rohingyas are the most persecuted and helpless ethnic minority in today’s world.
The facts and evidence of the crime against humanity compel to think if we are living in the 21st century or in the middle age. Why has the international community, the United Nations Security Council in particular, failed to take any strong measure, at least economic sanctions, against the so-called democratic government of Myanmar and its army responsible for the genocide? Is it because that these ill-fated people are Muslims? One may claim that if the Rohingyas were Christian, Buddhist or Hindu, the response from the international community or the big powers would be faster and more drastic to implement the international agreements to protect their human rights.
The UN Security Council failed to address the Rohingya issue in the past. However, because of the repeated appeal from the Bangladesh government, the UN General Assembly, and conscious world, and the Security Council have eventually condemned the Myanmar government for the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Rakhine. But it is not sure whether the Myanmar army really bothers about the deep concern of the UN Security Council. Myanmar always gets China, one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, to hinder any sanctions against it. For its narrow geo-political and strategic interests, China is ready to justify or back the Myanmar army’s crime against humanity in Arakan in the name of combating terrorism.
Merely criticism of the heinous acts of the Myanmar army would not bring any meaningful change to the fate of Rohingya people as the persecution continues. What would be the fate of almost one million Rohingyas, including the refugees living in the registered and makeshift camps in the south of Bangladesh for years, is a grave concern. Can these stateless people ever go back to their homeland? The government and people of Bangladesh are cordially trying to help these stateless people. Although almost half a million of the Rohingyas, including women and children, escaped death in Rakhine and got shelter in Bangladesh, for certain they have a measurable life here and it is reported that they are spreading across Bangladesh, which may affect socio-economy and security of Bangladesh in the long run.
The Asian powers have failed to save the Rohingyas from genocide. During his recent visit to Myanmar, in a joint statement, the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi supported the military operation in Rakhine to fight Rohingya extremists and terrorists. Nevertheless, his failure to address the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Rakhine surprised the democratic world because he is the legitimate leader of the largest democracy. So, expectations were much more from him to play a vital role for peace and security of this Indian Ocean region.
On the other hand, the role of China shocked the people of Bangladesh and the international community as it openly declared to side with Myanmar and, if necessary, it would use its veto power in the UN Security Council to block any sanctions against Myanmar. Concerning the ethnic cleansing, one can clearly distinguish the perspectives and actions of the western democracies and that of a rising China, which has a desire to lead the world through One Belt and One Road and the other initiatives.
Humanity is crying in Myanmar, the world observes. The stateless Rohingyas are the victim of geopolitics in the Indian Ocean. Just because of the growing international pressure on Myanmar to stop genocide, very recently, both India and China have slightly changed their position and declared to help Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and China had to agree in the UN Security Council to condemn Myanmar for its crime. However, their diplomatic stands make the people of Bangladesh think about the significance of geopolitical location of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is one of the littorals of the Indian Ocean. It is said that the water of the Indian Ocean will decide the fate of the nations in the 21st century. Is the location of Bangladesh geopolitically significant for China and India competing to increase their influence in the Indian Ocean region? It is an open secret that the proposed deep sea-port in Chittagong is vital for both China and India to access the Bay of Bengal of the Indian Ocean.
So, despite having an important geopolitical location, the largest trade relations with both China and India, a closer comprehensive partnership with China and an exceptionally warm relationship with India, Bangladesh has failed to get these countries on its side to press Myanmar to resolve the humanitarian crisis. Why? Whither foreign policy of Bangladesh? Although the Bangladesh government has been successful to internationalise the Rohingya issue, in particular, the visit of prime minister Sheikh Hasina to the Rohingya refugees faced horror in Myanmar, and her specific proposals in the UN General Assembly to bring a lasting solution to the humanitarian disaster has been appreciated locally and globally, the efficiency of the Bangladesh diplomacy dealing with India and China is under question.
The Rohingyas are the people of Rakhine. Rakhine’s natural resources belong to these people. Major powers, in particular India and China, should realise it when they plan to invest in mega projects in Rakhine. The Myanmar army’s genocide and expulsion policy will not bring any peaceful solution. It would, rather, cultivate seeds of hatred and conflict for ages that can make volatile not only Rakhine but the whole region. Rakhine will not be a safe zone for foreign direct investments. When people are mercilessly killed and forced to leave from their own land and no one comes to rescue them to get back their legitimate rights, what options remain for them? Ultimately, they can start freedom or separatist movement although it is not easy to gain a free land, or the atrocity can push them to join radical/extremist forces to spread terrorism. And sometimes, it is difficult to draw a clear line between terrorism and freedom movements, when the people are subjected to persecution and ethnic cleansing.
The international community, in particular the western democracies, Japan, the United Nations and the international human rights organisations, and local and international news agencies have gradually raised and sharpened their voice against the Burmese atrocity. But what is the response from ASEAN, a vital actor, in resolving the crisis? As Myanmar is one of the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the regional forum has a vital role to play in bringing stability in Rakhine and stop the crime against humanity. ASEAN is recognised as one of the most economically vibrant region in today’s world. Therefore, ASEAN is frequently referred to as a model for SAARC. In the absence of political understanding and trust, this outstanding economic cooperation has not been realised in ASEAN.
In 1967, some Southeast Asian nations, eg, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand established ASEAN. The forum has been embracing the principle of non-interference into internal affairs of its member states since its inception in 1967. The principle of non-interference has certainly contributed a great deal to the success and development of ASEAN people. However, this principle has also been the stumbling block to managing or resolving some regional issues, especially concerning the minority rights in some member countries. The Rohingya crisis has been a key dispute for the past three decades in ASEAN.
The Responsibility to Protect initiative is a global political commitment endorsed by the member states of the United Nations at the 2005 world summit to prevent genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Hence, the sovereignty of a country does not guarantee it from international intervention if it fails to secure the welfare of its citizens. Therefore, the conflict between the principle of the non-interference in ASEAN and the R2P in dealing with a government’s brutality and atrocity on its own citizens such as the ongoing genocide on Rohingya is a point of reference.
Apart from Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand, the two Southeast Asian countries, have been impacted directly by the Rohingya refugee issue. Malaysia has been forced to bear the burden of hosting Myanmar’s ethnic refugees. As of the end of August 2017, there were some 1,32,100 refugees from Myanmar, including some 61,000 Rohingyas registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia. On the other hand, it is estimated that Thailand is currently hosting about 1,50,000 refugees from Myanmar, which also include Rohingyas. However, Thailand is urged to help Rohingya refugees after the recent genocide and abandon its ‘push back’ policy.
The Rohingya issue first caught the attention of ASEAN in the early 1990s when some 2,50,000 Rohingya were forced to flee to Bangladesh because of atrocity of the Myanmar army. Regarding the Rohingya plight in March 1992, the then Malaysian foreign minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, issued a strong statement that the Rohingya issue ‘could no longer be regarded as Burma’s domestic problem because the action by Burmese troops has burdened neighbouring countries and may disrupt regional stability.’
However, after the 1992 incident, the Rohingya crisis not only vanished from the agenda of most Southeast Asian states, Myanmar was, in fact, even admitted into ASEAN in 1997 despite of its horrible human rights record. As for ASEAN, while some member states, eg Malaysia, have been critical of Myanmar’s brutal policy against minorities, the association as a whole has failed to play any significant role to resolve the issue. When the Rohingya boat people issue surfaced in January and February 2009 and on the eve of ASEAN’s annual summit, ASEAN was totally silent on the incident. Although initially Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand did agree to discuss the issue, the forum could, however, never include the Rohingya issue in its formal agenda.
When the whole world, including the UN Security Council, is shocked and recognises the horror, merciless killing and expulsion of the Rohingyas in Rakhine since August 2017, ASEAN set a bad example not to address the issue properly and failed to press Myanmar to stop genocide. No consensus was even reached by ASEAN members in this regard on issuing a statement. As a result, the Malaysian government showed its dissatisfaction and ‘disassociated itself’ from the state of the ASEAN chairman, the Philippines, on grounds that it misrepresented the reality of an exodus of 4,30,000 ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar. In the statement, ASEAN condemns the attacks on Myanmar’s security forces and ‘all acts of violence which resulted in loss of civilian lives, destruction of homes and displacement of large numbers of people.’ Nevertheless, the statement did not recognise the Rohingya as an ethnic minority and mention the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Rohingyas. The Malaysian foreign minister Anifah Aman urged that Myanmar must halt ‘atrocities which have unleashed a full-scale humanitarian crisis.’
Myanmar does not have the exclusive rights on its people when it fails take care of the basic human rights and needs of the people. By endorsing the R2P in the 2005 world summit, the nations of the word pledged to do their best to prevent their populations from any kind of atrocities that can be categorised as genocide, war crimes or ethnic cleansing. So, the Myanmar government has repeatedly breached the pledge. The Responsibility to Protect stipulated in the outcome document of the 2005 United Nations world summit that ‘the international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the charter of the United Nations.’ Therefore, R2P as a political instrument can be used as justification for any kind of intervention.
ASEAN has been a successful story as a whole and is growing stronger with its new initiative of the ASEAN Community 2015. The association aspires to become a significant force and acts as an umbrella to its entire people in this region. But humanity and living with dignity should be on its top priority for its people. ASEAN can and should intervene if such atrocity, which is happening to the Rohingyas, occurs and affects the countries in the region. ASEAN must have the courage to amend its principle of non-interference when it comes to genocidal acts by its member states. ASEAN must include the ethnic cleansing issue in its formal agenda. Champa Patel, the Southeast Asia and Pacific director of Amnesty International, rightly said, ‘ASEAN can only truly serve as a model when it overcomes its structural inertia, empowers its regional human rights body, and attaches as much value to human dignity as it does to economic growth.’
If the humanitarian crisis continues, it will hamper ASEAN regional stability and prosperity. ASEAN countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei and other nations can urge or strongly appeal to China, Japan and India, the key Asian players who have their respective stakes in the region, to pressure Myanmar to implement the Anan Commission report and resolve the issue through dialogues rather than brutal force. The Burmese people, the government and the ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks in Rakhine who are also responsible for the genocide should recollect what Lord Buddha said — ‘Be kind to all creatures, this is the true religion.’ And he also said, ‘Enmity can never end enmity.’
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