Najib’s Vocal Defense of the Rohingya Backfire lacks credibility

December 6, 2016

Najib’s Vocal Defense of the Rohingya Backfire lacks credibility, given his domestic human rights record

Image result for Najib and The Rohingnya Protest

While Najib’s remarks at the Stadium Titiwangsa in Kuala Lumpur drew strong support from the Rohingya community in Malaysia, and marked the first time a Southeast Asian leader has condemned the Myanmar state’s actions in such strong terms, they should be treated with some caution.

A cynical reading of Najib’s address would see him reaching for the moral high ground at a time of immense domestic pressure. These, after all, have not been quiet months for Najib, who has battled corruption allegations over the 1MDB scandal since early 2015 – and has just emerged from a series of tense and highly visible protests led by BERSIH, a wide-reaching campaign for clean government. Despite winning a state election in Sarawak earlier this year, Najib’s ruling National Front has struggled to regain its former popularity, and was recently faced with allegations of human rights violations (from Laurent Meillan, acting representative of the UN Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia, no less) over the arrests of several activists at the Bersih rallies.

Image result for Asean and the Rohingya crisis

In this light, there is little doubt that Najib’s statements are at least partly designed to shore up his human rights record and regain much-needed political capital. State violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar has taken place since at least 2012, and it’s hard to overlook the particular timing of Najib’s unprecedented response. In a pointed statement ahead of the rally, the President’s Office in Myanmar called it a “calculated political decision to win the support of the Malaysian public.’”

But this was not simply the case of the wrong person saying the right thing at the wrong time. Najib’s statements reflect several political dilemmas that lie at the heart of the refugee question in Southeast Asia, and three elements of his speech deserve closer examination. First, it is worth noting that he chose to frame the issue with a moral vocabulary that other Southeast Asian leaders have, thus far, kept at arm’s length. He emphatically referred to the abuses as “genocide,” and called them, “by definition, ethnic cleansing.” With a characteristic rhetorical flourish, he asked the crowd: “Do they want me to close my eyes? Want me to be mute? […] What’s the point of a Nobel Peace Prize?”

Such statements, which not only imply that he is acting on a universal duty of response – and holding Suu Kyi to the global ideals that are seen to underwrite her Nobel Prize – are a deliberate departure from the position, long held among Southeast Asian policymakers, that regional and local values hold sway in Southeast Asian contexts. Building on the “Asian Values” discourse, Southeast Asian leaders  and diplomats have previously stressed the region’s “incommensurable differences from the West” as reasons to question the universality of human rights. Najib’s statements suggest a clear pivot away from the default Southeast Asian position, and besides voicing indirect criticism at his own region’s lackluster human rights record, they may also imply that the global community (and the support it can offer) seems somewhat closer to Najib at this point than his immediate neighbors.

Image result for Asean and the Rohingya crisis

The Rohingya Issue is an ASEAN and International Challenge

Second, Najib’s comments on the ASEAN Charter raise difficult questions about regional cooperation in a time of fraught relations. In response to the Myanmar government’s statement – which framed the planned protests as an external intervention in its internal affairs, and reminded Malaysia to adhere to ASEAN principles of noninterference –Najib said: “There is an article in the ASEAN charter that says ASEAN must uphold human rights. Are they blind? Don’t just interpret things as you choose.” In any case, he added, “this is not intervention. This is universal human values.”

These remarks come in the wake of palpable friction among ASEAN members over conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea, and both the United States’ and China’s increasing involvement in the region. Noninterference by regional and global powers alike has been a core tenet of ASEAN’s institutional stability since its inception, and has been credited for promoting peaceful relations in Southeast Asia especially since the end of the Cold War. However, Najib’s comments have flagged up the uncomfortable truth that this insistence on traditional state sovereignty may be less and less tenable in the present global context, and especially with regards to transnational migration. From Malaysia’s perspective, with more than 56,000 Rohingya refugees already registered by the UN refugee agency within its borders, the question of what constitutes “external interference” seems especially urgent. Najib may have a point: that ASEAN’s ability to effectively tackle regional issues is not necessarily helped by its members’ sensitivities to others’ incursions on their turf.

Finally, Najib’s focus on the “root cause” of refugee flight – Myanmar’s internal abuses against the Rohingya – successfully presents the crisis as a national issue, and sidesteps the glaring evidence that countless refugees are trafficked across the region in horrific conditions, and fall victim to the combined effects of patchy law enforcement, organized crime, and Southeast Asia’s insatiable appetite for cheap labor. Many end up in Malaysia and Thailand, or in refugee camps in Indonesia; because none of these countries are signatory to the Refugee Convention, few enjoy the legal right to work or corresponding protections against abusive employers. In late 2015, the discovery of the mass graves of human trafficking victims in Malaysia brought the regional scale of the issue to global attention.

Najib’s call for Myanmar to cease crackdowns against the Rohingya, while valuable in itself, swept this wider incrimination of Southeast Asian governments, including his own, under the carpet. More than a choice of political convenience, it was perhaps a deliberate decision to downplay transnational aspects of the refugee question, and – by drawing on regional and global perceptions of Myanmar as a pariah state in transition – place the responsibility for regional crisis within the already-tied hands of an unstable administration. While raising his human rights credentials vis-à-vis his neighbors, thus, Najib simultaneously exempted them from adopting a concerted response.

For those concerned – as we should all be – about the increasingly dire situation facing the Rohingya in Southeast Asia, Najib’s decision to take the stage with firm words against the events in Myanmar offer limited consolation. Beyond achieving domestic political motives, his remarks have sharpened the existing tensions between global and local values, ideas of regional integration and national sovereignty, and questions of transnational and national responsibility. At best, we can hope that Najib continues to place valuable political capital behind his rhetoric. At worst, the ideals he has promoted may well be eroded by a failure to follow up with policy. It would not be the first time.

Theophilus Kwek is currently reading for a MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford University. He has served as co-editor of the Journal of Politics and Constitutional Studies, publications director of OxPolicy, and vice president of the Oxford Students’ Oxfam Group.

9 thoughts on “Najib’s Vocal Defense of the Rohingya Backfire lacks credibility

  1. Aung San Suu Kyi reply should be she got Kofi Annan into Rakhine. Will the great Rosmah get the US DOJ into the Malaysian AG and MACC office?

    What is particularly insulting to Aung San Suu Kyi is that Najib knows exactly the she is trying very hard to fix a tragic situation with little power and control and yet this prodigal jerk deem it appropriate make the situation worst for her and everyone else, even the victims for his own domestic political capital.

    Frankly, it would not be appropriate for Aung San Suu Kyi to walk up to Rosmah and slap her silly..

  2. He, of all people, should be talking about discrimination when he and his party practice it to the hilt. There’s no bigger humbug than him.

  3. What if another South East Asian country leader publicly asks Najib to come clean on 1MDB and the USD700 million deposited into his personal bank account? Will Najib respond or keep quiet?

  4. What is going on in Myanmar is actually more of an ethnic conflict than a religious one. The term Rohingya is a very recent western invention. They were known as the Chitagonian Bengali-Muslims, who came from Bangladesh in large number to live illegally in the northern part of Rakhine State of Burma after WWII. Since then they and the local Arakanese have been fighting and killing each other. Two poor peoples in a very poor state fighting over very little resources. To complicate the problem, the Rohingyas were never given the Burmese citizenship.

    One must protest against genocide, if true, of any unprotected people. It is still under investigation by the United Nations. But Najib, who is not an ethical Muslim, is exploiting the situation clearly to deflect attention from his own mega-scandals, and playing the Muslim card to mobilize his last remaining ignorant rural supporters for the coming election. Cynical and immoral move, indeed.

  5. Unbecoming of a Head of Government to participate in street protest instead of pursuing through diplomatic channel. Trying to follow Trump and Dueterte poorah

  6. It a genocide whats happening in mynmar. Aung Sang Ku Ki should do more otherwise the nobel peace prize seems very shallow!

    Najib can be supported on this account, for the rest he is a pretty hollow person , so less said is better

  7. Here is the thing that bothers me, why did Najib risk antagonising Myanmar even its for his own political capital?? Petronas has big investments in Myanmar and Malaysia played a key role to bring them into ASEAN and we need AEC for our own economy. So why ticked her and them off? Either its poorly calculated or Najib is desperate with Hadi’s PAS.

    There is a game going on and Najib does not seem in control of it.

  8. Words fail me when i tried (several times) to say something substantive about KleptoKing’s FUBAR of monumental proportions. Many of the long time followers at Din’s know that far from being an ‘expert’ on Burma and the Burmese, i nevertheless have a fair insight of the ethnic, religious, social, business and political dynamics from Yangon, Naypyidaw to Mandalay.

    There are 2 things one must never intimate negatively about Burma – the Tatmadaw and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Especially when in-country. It is even beyond Lese-majeste’.

    KleptoKing and his minions have no idea what they have unleashed, for the Burmese have long memories and longer knives. My Burmese acquaintances including a few retired civil servants, ex-generals-colonels and businessmen are aghast at this idiot who claims to be a PM. Not only is it diplomatically reprehensible, but totally hypocritical. Just when Malusia is already beyond redemption, this narcissistic sociopath brandishes another Kemaluan Amat Besaq!

    No more legal foreign labor from Myanmar is one thing, but as bigjoe says, many GLCs and PLCs, including a substantial number of our tycoons have invested heavily in Burma – including banking, manufacturing, agricultural industries, health and education. So.., no more Blood Rubies or Jade bangles for KleptoQueen.

    The Rohingya Problem is ethnic-political and economic – not religious one. While smoldering for decades, it only became full blown after PRC developed the Sittwe-Kunming Oil and Gas pipeline in 2012. The Arakan (Rakhine) State has been the focus of Islamic insurgency and secessionist movements since Independence. No way the Tatmadaw and the other 135 tribes (majority Bamar) gonna let that continue.

    ** Btw, before i get slammed for using the word ‘Burma’ – kindly be informed that the Noble Laureate Lady Foreign Minister prefers it over Myanmar.

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