Category Archives: ASEAN

Rohingya boat people: Myanmar’s shame

May 24, 2015

Phnom Penh

Rohingya boat people

Myanmar’s shame

Poverity, politics and despair are forcing thousands of Rohingyas to flee Myanmar. The authorities remain woefully indifferent to their plight

Since 2012 all the Rohingya villages and camps have been totally cut off from predominantly Rakhine towns like Sittwe. This has made it almost impossible for inhabitants to make a decent living. Tall wire fences are now being erected, completing their isolation. One Rohingyan says he used to have a good taxi business in Sittwe. Now he uses his motorcycle to carry a few customers in a small village. He makes about one-third of the money he used to. Most Rohingyas are farmers or fishermen. The former cannot return to their fields; the latter have few boats left and are driven away from fishing grounds by Rakhines if they manage to get out to sea.

The local authorities insist that this forced isolation is for the Rohingyas’ own good, to protect them from further attacks. Rohingyas, however, see it as the culmination of a long-standing policy of apartheid, depriving them of the last benefits that they enjoyed living among Rakhines. No Rohingya student, for instance, has been allowed into the university at Sittwe during the last three years. They are not allowed into the township hospitals unless it is a life-and-death situation. “It’s really inhumane stuff,” says an aid worker.

Any hopes among Rohingyas that the country’s turn to quasi-civilian rule in 2011 after decades of military dictatorship might improve their lot have evaporated. While life is improving for many others in Myanmar, it is not for Rohingyas. They are unwitting victims of a deadly political game for control of what some Burmese proclaim to be the “New Myanmar”. Thus, for instance, while the rest of the country is preparing for a general election in November—the first democratic one in a quarter-century—a sleight of hand involving their voting documents has effectively deprived Rohingyas of the right to participate. Last year, during the first national census for years, Rohingyas were only allowed to register as “Bengalis”. In protest, most of them boycotted the count.

The government is pandering to a growing anti-Muslim hysteria in the country. Such sentiment has been encouraged by hardliners in the army and the ruling party who calculate that humiliating the millions of Muslims in Myanmar plays well with many Buddhist Burmese. It is often supported by the more chauvinist Buddhist monks as well. The hardliners have an election to win; they believe that playing to anti-Muslim feeling might give them an advantage over the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party.

Even Ms Suu Kyi, however, a Nobel peace-prize winner who campaigns relentlessly for human rights and the rule of law, has been loth to stand up for the human rights of Rohingyas. For some of her supporters, this has been extremely disappointing. Her low-key response has made it easier for the government virtually to ignore the boat-people crisis. By May 19th there had been no mention of it in the government-run Global New Light of Myanmar, an English-language newspaper. Rohingyas are not technically “citizens”, so the government feels that it can wash its hands of the problem.

Clearly ministers feel that they have no wider moral or humanitarian obligation to people whose families have lived and worked here for, in many cases, over a century. In the face of such callous indifference from all quarters in Myanmar, it is hardly surprising that so many thousands are taking to the sea. Unless the situation changes, the only guarantee is that even more will try to flee at the start of the next dry season, with the same appalling results.

LKY chose brains, not fawning followers

May 23, 2015

Phnom Penh

Why Singapore is ahead of Malaysia: LKY chose brains, not fawning followers

by James


Dr Afifuddin OmarOur leaders surrounded themselves with followers, LKY (Lee Kuan Yew) with intellectuals, says UMNO’s Cornell University (Ithaca) educated  Dr. Affifudin Omar.

Former Deputy Finance Minister Dato’ Wira Dr Affifudin, highlighting why Malaysia failed to emulate the success of Singapore, said one reason was that Lee Kuan Yew chose intellectuals, while Malaysian leaders were surrounded by supporters and followers.

Responding to a question posed by an audience member at a forum on new Malaysian leaders, Dr. Affifudin said that comparing Singapore and Malaysia was like comparing apples and oranges.

“Political, cultural and economic backgrounds are different. But since we are talking about leadership, when Singapore left Malaysia under Lee Kuan Yew’s PAP, he held on to Confucius’ principle of valuing knowledge. He surrounded himself with intellectuals, whereas Malaysian leaders surrounded themselves with people who supported them 120%,” he said.

Tun Razak and Zhou EnlaiTun Abdul Razak with China’s Mandarin, Zhou Enlai

Dr. Affifudin recalled that it was not always the case in Malaysia as Tun Abdul Razak Hussein also had a similar approach as Malaysia’s Second Prime Minister.

Dr.Affifudin recalled that Tun Razak needed experts in Asian development, and did not hesitate to hire two professors from Harvard and Cornell universities in the United States, while at the same time looking after his political stability.

“Lee Kuan Yew and Tun Abdul Razak were the same in that they surrounded themselves with the smartest and the brightest,” he said.

Singapore’s small size and the high level of education of the people has helped the republic to advance beyond Malaysia as every programme implemented would reach its public easily.

“Although Lee Kuan Yew exploited the democratic process in ensuring a majority in Parliament, the people accepted it because they knew Lee Kuan Yew was honest in what he was doing. He was a straight talker regarding the development of Singapore. That’s the leadership difference,” he said.

Lee and Dr. MahathirLKY chose Intellectuals, Dr. Mahathir recruited Fawning Followers

Dr.Affifuddin said Dr Mahathir Mohamad did not surround himself with intellectuals, unlike Tun Abdul Razak, and the downward trend had continued since.

“Tun Mahathir, I’m sorry to say it, was doing it all alone. When Pak Lah (Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) came in, he tried to do it (surround himself with intellectuals) and was beaten up (kena hentam) for it,” he said.

Dr. Afifuddin had earlier acknowledged that he is still a member of UMNO but had not attended the forum, organised by former Law Minister Zaid Ibrahim, to defend his party but to seek the truth, in the spirit of brotherhood.

“If my brother makes a mistake, I will question it and call it as it is. If he’s not guilty, I will defend him. I’m not going to defend UMNO. What I’m going to do is say what is wrong and what is right according to my own judgement,” Dr. Afifudin said.


BOOK Review: Hun Sen’s Cambodia

May 21, 2015

Phnom Penh

BOOK Review: Hun Sen’s Cambodia

Din MericanYI see H.E. Prime Minister Hun Sen differently. He has done a lot for Cambodia in terms of peace and reconciliation and economic development. He outwitted and defeated the Khmer Rouge and brought peace, political stability and international recognition to his country. No doubt he is tough and demanding and has the uncanny ability to spot and develop talent for his party, The Cambodian Peoples Party and his administration. A weak leader cannot survive here, especially during the period of international isolation in the 1980s. The author Sebastian Strangio, is seeing Cambodia with western liberal eyes.

obama_hun_sen_234_N2I lived in Cambodia from 1992-1997 and kept in touch with my colleagues in Phnom Penh for more than two decades.  I studied its history and culture and interacted with politicians, civil servants, civil society leaders, academics, foreign journalists, and students. I can see peace and progress upon returning to be with the University of Cambodia this month.

Hun Sen-The Strong ManTo know Hun Sen as Leader of his people, understand his political beliefs, foreign policy and development strategies and his vision for Cambodia, I recommend Strongman: From Pagoda Boy to Prime Minister of Cambodia by Harish C.Metha and Julie B.Metha (Revised and Updated, 2013, Marshall Cavendish) and General Nem Sowath’s, Civil War Termination and The Source of Total Peace in CAMBODIA (2012). In addition, I suggest Cambodia’s Economic Transformation edited by Caroline Hughes and Kheang Un (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2011).–Din Merican

by Joshua Kurlantzick

Although the Vietnam War, including the “sideshow” war in Cambodia, has been the subject of thousands of books, post-war Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos have gotten relatively little treatment from Western writers. This despite the fact that Cambodia suffered one of the worst genocides in history, Vietnam fought another war in 1979 against China and then remade itself into a strategic and economic power, and Laos remains one of the most authoritarian states in the world.

There have been a tiny handful of quality books on post-1975 Cambodia, such as Elizabeth Becker’s When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution, and David Chandler’s A History of Cambodia. Even fewer have analyzed Cambodia in the 2000s and 2010s. Other books, like Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land by former New York Times journalist Joel Brinkley, had some fine attributes but tended to succumb too easily to glib generalizations about Cambodians and about Cambodian political culture. Still other books on Cambodia were overly academic accounts of Cambodia in the present that were almost impossible for policymakers and the general public to understand.

Hun Sen's CambodiaNow, a new book by Cambodia-based journalist  Sebastian Strangio, Hun Sen’s Cambodia, has set the standard for compelling and accessible histories of modern-day Cambodia. In particular, the book is the first to offer an accessible but thorough biographical portrait of longtime Cambodian Prime Minister—and Strongman—Hun Sen. Strangio details in compelling form how Hun Sen rose from a skinny, totally uneducated and unworldly senior official in the Vietnam-installed post-Khmer Rouge regime into a smooth autocrat who has dominated the country for decades. Over time, Hun Sen also has become fabulously rich and has become an increasingly powerful player in Southeast Asia, due to Cambodia’s membership in ASEAN, Hun Sen’s longevity, and Hun Sen’s ability to play his patrons Vietnam and China off of each other.

Strangio delves into Hun Sen’s early life and his time serving the Khmer Rouge, before he defected and joined the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Strangio also clearly reveals how many of Hun Sen’s closest associates in the Cambodian government almost surely committed atrocities during their time in the Khmer Rouge, before they defected.

Most important, Strangio’s portrait of Cambodia reveals how Hun Sen has been able to dominate the country for so long. (Indeed, Hun Sen now is the longest-serving non-royal leader in East Asia and the seventh-longest-serving non-royal leader in the world.) By January 2015, Hun Sen will have been in power for thirty years, and will have been the only leader most Cambodians have known, since the country is extremely young, a result of the massacres of the late 1970s. Strangio lucidly shows how Cambodia’s other political leaders allowed themselves to be bought, controlled, or otherwise co-opted by Hun Sen, and how the devastated country never built the political institutions that could stop the strongman from gaining power. He reveals how, at least for a time, Hun Sen’s version of iron-fisted stability and growth—albeit growth with high inequality—also truly made the strongman popular with the public. Strangio shows how Hun Sen alone, among Cambodia’s major political figures, understood how to build a nationwide party organization and how to appeal to the rural population, in much the same way former King Sihanouk appealed to the Cambodian poor. Indeed, Sihanouk, in Strangio’s telling, wished that Hun Sen had actually been his son, since Hun Sen possessed the popular touch and political acumen that Sihanouk’s actual sons did not.

Strangio also offers a devastating indictment of the foreign donors who financed UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), the early 1990s UN-led aid and peacekeeping operation in Cambodia, following the end of Cambodia’s civil war. The same donors continue to pour money into the country today, even as Cambodia’s political culture remains corrupt, Hun Sen’s government is utterly destroying the country’s environment, and growth has enriched only a tiny coterie of elites, mostly in Phnom Penh. Yet even though foreign donors for years enjoyed great power over the Cambodian government, they rarely tried to use that power to really push Hun Sen’s government to change, and Hun Sen was savvy enough to allow a thin veneer of political freedom and civil society. This veneer was enough to allow donors to claim that the country was always becoming more open and more democratic, though this was always a falsehood. In reality, though Cambodia retains a degree of independent civil society, trade unionists, journalists, and activists of all sorts are routinely arrested, beaten, or summarily executed in Cambodia. What’s more, now that Hun Sen has cultivated China, which has become the biggest donor in Cambodia, the group of donors—mostly Western nations and Japan—who for years financed much of the Cambodian budget have less influence over Phnom Penh anyway.

Strangio’s book has some flaws. Unlike Brinkley’s book, which had both sizable strengths and deep weaknesses, Strangio does not get the chance to put the pressing questions about Hun Sen’s rule to Hun Sen’s inner circle itself, other than a few of Hun Sen’s business allies. He is not able to confront the most corrupt in Hun Sen’s circle with their graft, to ask the prime minister’s closest aides the hard questions about how Hun Sen has dominated Cambodian political culture and institutions. Brinkley somehow was able to get face-to-face with Hun Sen’s closest circle and put these questions to them, and often get surprising answers. Strangio instead mostly relies on his own analysis, on interviews with a few Hun Sen allies, on many field reporting trips that examine the impact of Hun Sen’s rapacious economic and political strategies, and on outside analysts to show the impact of Hun Sen’s rule. Overall, Strangio’s approach is far more nuanced and thorough; but, I would have liked to see some of Hun Sen’s senior-most aides—or the prime minister himself—squirm in front of the tough questions they never face from the Cambodian media.

Finally, though Strangio worked on the book for years, compiling what appear to be mountains of research, the book seems to have been finished before the shocking Cambodian national elections of 2013, in which the opposition almost defeated Hun Sen’s party despite state media showing only Hun Sen and Hun Sen’s party engaging in all sorts of pre-election intimidation of the opposition. According to many election observers, if not for widespread fraud by Hun Sen’s party during and immediately after election day, the opposition coalition would have won a majority in Parliament in 2013.

Even so, the 2013 election results showed that, after decades of Hun Sen’s dominance, Cambodia finally might be on the verge of change; Hun Sen’s control of the media had been undermined by the Internet and social media, while opposition politicians who once just squabbled with each other worked together this time and ran a successful campaign. Strangio inserts a kind of postscript on the 2013 elections and its aftermath, which included months of negotiation between the opposition and Hun Sen’s party about the election results and about control of Parliament. Still, the postscript is not enough to capture the 2013 elections thoroughly and to analyze what they might mean for Hun Sen’s long rule and for Cambodia’s future.Overall, this is the finest book on Hun Sen and modern-day Cambodia that has been released thus far.

Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.


This book, whether in its 1999 or 2013 edition, remains the only work in which Mr. Hun Sen talks of his life at length, and from his own perspective.

Rohingya: Foreign envoys Head to Myanmar

May 21, 2015

Phnom Penh

Rohingya: Foreign envoys Head to Myanmar

Foreign Ministers Anifah Aman of Malaysia and Retno Marsudi of Indonesia were to visit Naypyidaw a day after announcing their countries would end a much-condemned policy of turning away boatloads of starving migrants.
South-East-Asian-ministers-meet-in-Malaysia-over-boat-people-crisSIITWE: Myanmar was braced Thursday for its first talks with US and Southeast Asian envoys on the migrant exodus from its shores, as Malaysia ordered search and rescue missions for thousands of boatpeople stranded at sea.

Foreign ministers Anifah Aman of Malaysia and Retno Marsudi of Indonesia were to visit Naypyidaw a day after announcing their countries would end a much-condemned policy of turning away boatloads of starving migrants.

The policy about-turn was welcomed by the United States, whose Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was also to meet with Myanmar officials in the capital Naypyidaw, as his country said it stood ready to admit some of the migrants. Blinken said he would raise the Myanmar government’s treatment of its Rohingya minority in the western state of Rakhine, which is widely blamed for fuelling the crisis.

“We will be talking directly to the government of Myanmar about its own responsibilities to improve conditions in Rakhine state so that people don’t feel that their only choice is to put their lives at risk by leaving and taking to the sea,” Blinken said during a stop Wednesday in Jakarta.

But tensions with the former junta-run nation remained, and heading into Thursday’s talks, Myanmar’s government reiterated its refusal to recognise the stateless Rohingya as an ethnic group. It insists they are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

“If they are going to discuss about Rohingya, as we have said before, we do not accept that term here,” said Zaw Htay, Director of the Presidential office.

But he confirmed that Myanmar would attend a broader regional summit planned on the crisis in Bangkok on May 29, after the government this week softened its line by offering to provide humanitarian assistance.

Search and rescue

The talks come as Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak Thursday ordered the navy to carry out search and rescue missions — the first proactive official move aimed at saving the migrants.

“We have to prevent loss of life,” Najib said on his Facebook account, announcing the measure.

The Muslim Rohingyas flee by the thousands annually, an outflow that has surged in recent years following sectarian violence pitting them against Myanmar’s Buddhist majority. A major humanitarian crisis had loomed as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand refused to take in boats overloaded with exhausted and dying Rohingya, as well as economic migrants from Bangladesh.

But Malaysia and Indonesia relented, with Anifah and Marsudi announcing after talks in Malaysia’s capital that their nations would accept and care for boatpeople for one year, or until they can be resettled or repatriated with the help of international agencies.

Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn also took part in Wednesday’s talks but Thailand did not sign on fully to the offer.However, its foreign ministry later said it would no longer “push back migrants stranded in Thai waters”.

News of the diplomatic breakthrough was on Thursday yet to trickle down to the displaced Rohingya lodged in ramshackle camps around the Rakhine State capital of Sittwe. But with the people-smuggling route to Thailand currently blocked, some Rohingya communities were instead preoccupied with buying back their loved off boats floating at sea awaiting transit south.

“I do not want to go. I saw what happened to the people in the sea and it’s scary,” one displaced Rohingya man told AFP from the Anauk San Pya camp.

US, others offer to help

Nearly 3,000 migrants have swum to shore or been rescued off the coastlines of the three countries over the past 10 days after a Thai crackdown on human-trafficking threw the illicit trade into chaos.

Some traffickers are believed to have abandoned their human cargo at sea with scant food or water. Anifah said Malaysian intelligence estimated that about 7,000 people were still adrift in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.

The United States, Philippines and even Gambia in Africa have offered assistance or possible resettlement of Rohingya, evoking the coordinated response to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of boatpeople from Vietnam in the late 1970s.

“The US stands ready to help the countries of the region bear the burden and save lives today,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters in Washington.The United States would help the UN set up protection centres, and would consider requests to resettle some refugees, she said.

Hours before Malaysia and Indonesia changed tack, more than 400 starving migrants were rescued from their decrepit boat off Indonesia by local fishing vessels Wednesday.

The boat had bounced between Thailand and Malaysia in recent days, rejected by authorities, as images of its emaciated Rohingya passengers — captured by AFP and other media — shocked observers worldwide.


Prompt and Concrete Measures Needed, says Malaysian Bar

May 20, 2015

Phnom Penh

Rohingya and Bangladeshi Boat People Crisis: Call for Prompt Action


The Malaysian Bar is appalled by the ongoing saga of the fate be- falling boatloads of thousands of people heading for our shores. It is a humanitarian catastrophe. The tragedy of suffering and even loss of life — through drowning and fights for survival on board boats left to drift on the high seas — is heart-rending.

 Boat People 1Regardless of the identity and status of the people on board these many boats, the first order of priority must be to prevent further suffering and loss of human life, bearing in mind that there are pregnant women, women who are nursing infants, and children, on board the boats. This means the Malaysian Government must allow these boats to land, set up reception centres to receive the people on board, document them, and provide them with basic amenities. There is a precedent for doing this, in the way Malaysia treated the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s.

The Malaysian Bar acknowledges that some of the people on the boats may well be nationals of Bangladesh looking for better economic prospects than those available in their home country. They will have to be identified and, if necessary, repatriated. There are proper channels for dealing with the recruitment of foreign labour and other forms of legitimate migration from Bangladesh.

Be that as it may, there are also allegations that some of these nationals of Bangladesh on the boats have actually paid human traffickers to assist them to leave.This must be investigated and, if confirmed, the human traffickers must be apprehended and punished to the full extent of the law. Moreover, these victims of human trafficking should be accorded proper protection under our laws, including under the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act 2007. However, many amongst the people on the boats are from the Rohingya community, fleeing from Myanmar due to religious persecution.

While it may seem unneighbourly to accuse a fellow ASEAN Government of wrongful conduct, it cannot be disputed that the Rohingyas have not been granted citizenship in Myanmar, thereby rendering them stateless.  Further, they have been deprived of all political rights and systematically displaced from their traditional places of abode.

Regrettably, Malaysia has indirectly contributed to the exacerbation of this problem involving the Rohingyas, by repeatedly ignoring the matter for many years. The misguided and undue respect for the hallowed principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a fellow ASEAN member state has meant that Myanmar has been allowed to pursue a domestic policy of persecution of the Rohingyas, and even to dispute the historical evidence of their presence in areas in present-day Myanmar. Malaysia and other ASEAN nations have the responsibility to protect the Rohingyas so as not to compound the issue of ethnic cleansing that is being allegedly carried out by Myanmar.

The Malaysian Bar welcomes the fact that the Malaysian Government has scheduled a meeting tomorrow with the Governments of Indonesia and Thailand to discuss the situation.  However, the Malaysian Bar calls on the Malaysian Government to do more than just convene discussions, and to do it quickly. It is critical to address this issue head-on, and Malaysia as the Chair of ASEAN must take the lead and show the way forward.  The fact that Myanmar is reported as not being willing to attend tomorrow’s meeting with Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia means that the process already begins with a huge handicap, namely the refusal of the country of origin to participate in a process of finding a solution.

Boat People 2

Ironically, 2015 is the onset of the much-touted ASEAN Economic Community.  ASEAN cannot only be about the rich and well-off, the educated and the employed.  An ASEAN community that has no room for, and which says nothing about, the poor and the downtrodden is a sad shadow of a caring community.  The manner in which this crisis is dealt with will define ASEAN, and a failure to satisfactorily address the problem will jeopardise the very integrity of ASEAN.

Malaysians are, by nature, a generous people.  Blessed with relative peace and prosperity, we have reached out in the past and organised flotillas to assist the Palestinians, and have taken in Acehnese and Bosnian refugees fleeing persecution in their homeland. It is therefore somewhat perplexing that the same humanitarian spirit appears to be absent in the Malaysian Government’s response to the boatloads of Rohingyas coming to our shores.

The Malaysian Bar calls on the Malaysian Government to immediately engage with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees here in Kuala Lumpur to put into place a system of receiving and registering this latest wave of boat people, and to find a place of transition where they can land and their claims for refugee status documented and determined, followed by either repatriation or resettlement.

As Malaysia is a member of the UN Security Council, we also call upon the Malaysian Government to move a resolution for intervention in this crisis of alleged ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas from Myanmar.  In the past, the UN Security Council had passed specific resolutions for intervention regarding Mali, Sudan and South Sudan.  It is timely as well for the Malaysian Government to consider enacting legislation that will grant recognition for refugees in Malaysia and give them legally-mandated protection and provision in line with international standards.  Further, Malaysia should also accede to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.

The Malaysian Bar calls on the Myanmar Government to put an end to the stigma of “statelessness” and recognise the Rohingyas’ long-overdue right to citizenship.  This lies at the core of this crisis and unless it is addressed by Myanmar, the exodus of the Rohingyas is likely to continue unabated.

Finally, it is time for ASEAN to do away with the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of an ASEAN member state.  What this crisis clearly shows is that what happens in a neighbouring country can, and often does, have cross-border implications.  Whether it is about the haze or human rights, it is plain for all to see that ASEAN’s aim to “prosper thy neighbour” must include intervening in situations in neighbouring countries that have the potential of affecting, even destabilising, the region as a whole.  It is myopic to pursue economic progress in ASEAN without seriously considering social and political reforms.

The Malaysian Bar recognises that this humanitarian crisis requires prompt and concrete legal solutions. The pain, suffering and loss of life off our shores must end.  It is time to stop the pretense and the piecemeal measures in this catastrophe, and to put in place a comprehensive and lasting solution. The Malaysian Bar stands ready to provide advice and assistance.

 Steven Thiru
President, Malaysian Bar
19 May 2015   

Time for ASEAN and the United Nations to act

May 20, 2015

Phnom Penh


Merhrom :Time for ASEAN and the United Nations to act

by Zafar Ahmad Abdul

The Rohingya ExodusThe Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organisation Malaysia (Merhrom) is deeply sad over the recent tragedy of thousands of boat people involving ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladeshis.

This is proof that ethnic Rohingyas in Myanmar are facing continuous systematic prosecutions from the Myanmar government. We face gross human rights violations by the state, we have become victims of genocide for generations and are left to die in horrible makeshift camps in our own homeland without food, water and medical supplies from the government.

Boat People 1 Due to horrible situation we face in our homeland, we take risks to flee the country to seek refuge in other countries. We feel very sad to hear that thousands of boat people are turned back to sea as the neighbouring countries are refusing to give protection to new asylum seekers.

Currently, an estimated 8,000 boat people are abandoned in the ocean and have nowhere to go. How long they can survive with little food, water and medicine? What will happen to them in the uncertain ocean? Death is on their way. They have already been more than two months in the ocean. They are starving and dehydrated and sick. There are large numbers of women and children in the boats.

From January to March 2015, an estimated 25,000 ethnic Rohingya and Bangladeshi became boat people. Thousands more ethnic Rohingyas will flee the country if Myanmar does not stop the prosecution on ethnic Rohingyas and recognise Rohingyas as citizens by law.

If ASEAN and the United Nations fail to resolve the Rohingya plight with Myanmar, the world will continue to see Rohingya boat people who risk their lives to seek refuge in other countries. It will become a catastrophe that the world cannot forget.

Boat People 2 We are very frustrated with the UN Human Rights Commissioner (UNHCR) as they are keeping quiet at this very critical time. Human lives are at risk but UNHCR remains quiet. We are talking about asylum seekers who are persons of concerns to UNHCR but what are they doing?UNHCR must play a vital role in the whole issue of Rohingya. We cannot see the role of UNHCR except renewing the UNHCR cards held by refugees as they are no longer registering newly-arrived Rohingya asylum seekers.

Boat People 3 Don’t we have the feeling to make a search and rescue first and later decide on how to resolve the issue? Don’t we have the feeling that lives must be saved first before we decide on the rest? Do we feel these boat people lives are very cheap and valueless? Don’t we have the feeling to see babies, children, women and elderly suffers along their way to seek refuge in other place? Don’t we realise how dangerous the way that they had gone through for the sake of their lives?We thank very much the Kelab Putra Satu Malaysia who have come forward to help the newly-arrived Rohingya asylum seekers. We really appreciate what you have done to help us since the conflict in 2012 in our country. We continuously look for your love and support for us.

We heard some people suggesting that aid be sent to the boat people in the ocean. This is a temporary help to them, but we cannot be sending food and water to them every day, for how long? A solution must be found.

Do we wait to search for dead bodies?

We do not know if these boats still have petrol. If the petrol is finished we do not know where they will arrive and how far they can go. Can we just wait and see what will happen to them? Do we wait to search for their dead bodies after their boats have sunk in the ocean? We appeal to ASEAN and other countries such as Australia to initiate search and rescue mission.

Boat People 4 Some ASEAN countries including Malaysia have signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). These two conventions apply regardless of nationality and immigration status. Therefore we urge the Malaysia and other ASEAN countries to give immediate protection to asylum seekers, especially women and children, as they are vulnerable.

We urge the ASEAN governments to ensure that that the boat people are rescued and be given treatment first before they die. Meanwhile, the ASEAN governments and the United Nations must meet immediately to find solutions to the Rohingya plight. The United Nations and the UNHCR specifically must intervene urgently as this involves the lives of asylum seekers who require international protection.

We hope very much that the Malaysian government will play its role as much as possible as chair of ASEAN  and member of the UN Security Council to help us.

We urge the United States government and other countries to give urgent protection and immediate documentation and resettlement to these victims of human trafficking under the Trafficking in Persons Act.

We urge UNHCR to step in and have a meeting with Malaysian, Thai and Indonesian government for the documentation process by both UNHCR and the respective governments.

We urge the United Nations to play a vital role to stop genocide towards ethnic Rohingya in Myanmar. Economic and political sanctions must be made on Myanmar in order to compel Myanmar to stop the genocide towards ethnic Rohingya who are the most prosecuted ethnic group in the world.

We urge the Myanmar government to come forward and attend the meeting in Bangkok to address the whole longstanding Rohingya plight.

We urge the ASEAN governments to crack down on human trafficking networks. All Agencies in ASEAN must work in a comprehensive framework to stop human trafficking. Stern action must be taken on human traffickers and their networks. In lights of this new development, a comprehensive action plan needs to be developed to curb human trafficking starting from the host country, transit and destination countries.

All ASEAN countries must be involved

We urge Malaysia as the chair of ASEAN to seek a specific meeting to discuss the issue. The meeting must involve all ASEAN countries as Rohingya boat people will arrive not only in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia but also in other ASEAN countries in future. Previously Rohingyas had arrived in Cambodia and Singapore.

We urge ASEAN and the United Nations to continuously pressure the Myanmar government to stop continuous persecution on ethnic Rohingya and recognise Rohingya as citizens under the 1982 Citizenship Law.

The Besieged Malaysia EmperorIn this very critical situation, Merhrom urges the United Nations Security Council, US government, British government, European Union, world leaders, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), ASEAN and other international communities to help.

We hope very much the meeting in Bangkok will find immediate and long-term solutions to the Rohingya plight.

ZAFAR AHMAD ABDUL GHANI is president of the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organisation Malaysia (Merhrom).

It’s Humanitarian Intervention, not Interference

May 19, 2015

Phnom Penh

It is Humanitarian Intervention, Not Interference


In this commentary on Ms. Khoo’s article I take the view that ASEAN’s non-interference principle can be reviewed in the context of regional concerns about human rights, human trafficking and security.Times have have changed. There is no harm done to review its applicability in keeping with regional and international developments.

ASEAN_logo_1But  to my mind, there is no doubt about its continued relevance in intra-ASEAN relations and international relations. The principle is also embodied in the United Nations Charter. There are times like  the  present Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugee crisis that affect the littoral states of Thailand. Malaysia and Indonesia when quick collective action should be taken to  rescue those still at sea from certain death and  stamp out the flow of refugees. Both Myanmar and Bangladesh are responsible for precipitating this humanitarian crisis and they have a duty to deal with it. As they have not, regional and international intervention to tackle  serious human rights abuses is warranted.

The non-intervention principle can be suspended but that does not invalidate its value  as a guiding principle governing relations among nation states. But ASEAN must look at mechanisms for rapid action in times of human tragedy.

ASEAN holds dear to the principle of non-interference which is enshrined in the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (SEATAC). The purpose of the Treaty is to promote perpetual peace, everlasting amity and co-operation among the people of Southeast Asia which would contribute to their strength, solidarity, and closer relationship. In their relations with one another,  ASEAN leaders would  be guided by the following fundamental principles:

  • a. mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations,
  • b. the right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion,
  • c. non-interference in the internal affairs of one another,
  • d. settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means,
  • e. renunciation of the threat or use of force, and
  • f. effective co-operation among themselves.

SEATAC is also the document which countries like the United States, China and others are required to become signatories before they can be dialogue partners in the ASEAN Regional Forum.  ASEAN leaders thought (they were right) that this principle was fundamental to the preservation of peace and stability of Southeast Asia,  which was a victim of big power rivalry during the period of the Cold War, and US military intervention in Vietnam.

Human rights abuses as in Myanmar have raised questions about the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states.  As Khoo states, “[T] he non-interference principle is being increasingly questioned through its expanded influence, new challenges arising from globalisation processes, and most importantly, the increasing need to focus on human security.” Some have argued that ASEAN needs to rethink about this principle.

By all means do that since times have changed. But I am of the view that there is a strong case to ensure that non-interference continues to be the principle guiding relations between members, and with other states.

In the Rohingya case, ASEAN must create first create mechanisms to deal with the humanitarian crisis promptly so that lives are not lost.That includes the creation of a Rapid Deployment Force of Naval, Police and Immigration personnel to undertake search and rescue operation to save lives and deal with syndicates engaged in human trafficking.

At present, the problem is left in the hands of littoral states like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand while Myanmar, the perpetrator, is allowed to pursue  ethnic cleaning.  Surely, the military junta must be held to account for allowing Buddhist monks to commit wanton acts on violence against a minority community with a view to exterminating them. Second, in the spirit of ASEAN cooperation, Myanmar must stop the flow of refugees and provide food and shelter and a safe haven for those who remain and others who will be repatriated.

This will give time for  a lasting political solution to be found regarding the status of the Rohingyas in their homeland. Third, the United Nations and ASEAN diplomats led by Malaysia as the 2015 ASEAN chair, and others like China, India, the European Union and the US can nudge Myanmar along the process towards national reconciliation.

This is the time for urgent and decisive action. Forcing Myanmar out of ASEAN is not an option.  Instead, ASEAN needs to engage in a consultative dialogue with the military junta towards finding a lasting solution to the Rohingya issue.–Din Merican

*Din Merican is Associate Dean, Techo Sen (Hun Sen) School of Government and International Relations, University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. The views expressed in this commentary are his own and do  not in any way implicate his organisation

The Dilemma of Non-Interference in ASEAN

by Khoo Ying Hooi

Ying Hooi is attached with a local university. Her research interests cover the fields of civil society, social movements, protests, political participation, human rights and democratization.

Recently, the international community was shocked when boats filled with 2,000 ethnic Rohingya arrived in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. About 8,000 Rohingya are reportedly still adrift at sea following a crackdown on human trafficking syndicates.

The humanitarian crisis casts the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in a negative light. The incident has also revealed the core of many problems in Asean itself, that is the immense pressure on the regional bloc to rethink its principle of non-interference in internal affairs of neighbouring states.

The non-interference principle is being increasingly questioned through its expanded influence, new challenges arising from globalisation processes, and most importantly, the increasing need to focus on human security.

According to the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on a People-Oriented, People-Centred ASEAN adopted at the 26th ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur on April 27, ASEAN leaders agreed to “continue establishing a people-oriented, people-centred and rules-based ASEAN community where all people, stakeholders and sectors of society can contribute to and enjoy the benefits from a more integrated and connected community encompassing enhanced cooperation in the political-security, economic and socio-cultural pillars for sustainable, equitable and inclusive development”.

Under the sub-topic on socio-cultural, the declaration stated: “Promote and protect the rights of women, children, youth and elderly persons as well as those of migrant workers, indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, ethnic minority groups, people in vulnerable situations and marginalised groups, and promote their interests and welfare in Asean’s future agenda including through the ASEAN community’s post-2015 vision and its attendant documents”.

Less than a month after the adoption of the declaration, the plight of the Rohingya blew up.The Rohingya crisis is not a new problem in ASEAN. For decades, ASEAN has turned a blind eye to the fate of the Rohingya, one of the world’s most vulnerable minorities.

In my previous article entitled, “An ASEAN detached from its peoples” derived from my reflections after attending the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Assembly (ACSC/ APF), I said that what is seriously lacking in ASEAN is not declarations or statements, but fundamental issues such as people’s access to land and resources as well as minority rights for those such as the Rohingya.

Critics have long voiced doubts over ASEAN’s ambition for closer integration, known asASEAN EC the ASEAN Community, given the grouping’s sacred stance on sovereignty. The Rohingya crisis comes as a real test of the degree to which ASEAN member states take seriously their commitment to regional cooperation on protecting human rights as enshrined in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.

The reluctance of Myanmar to openly discuss the issue is a clear obstacle for ASEAN to further develop a joint position. However, on the other hand, it is a moral obligation of Asean member states to find ways for a sustainable solution to the long-standing Rohingya issue by ensuring it is on the agenda of ASEAN meetings.

The Rohingya crisis has raised the pragmatism of ASEAN’s non-interference principle. At this crucial year of 2015, the deadline for the three pillars under the ASEAN community, ASEAN is fully aware that the issue could imperil the group’s stability in the region.

Although Myanmar is primarily responsible for the influx of Rohingya refugees, ASEAN has no choice but to go beyond its non-interference principle in order to maintain peace and stability in the region. Otherwise, silence on the issue could undermine ASEAN’s goal of achieving peaceful economic development in the long-term.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.