Malaysia’s Human Trafficking Problem: Corruption hinders Decisive Action against Traffickers


May 26, 2017

Malaysia’s Human Trafficking Problem: Corruption hinders Decisive Action

by Rebecca Schectman

http://www.newmandala.org/malaysia-must-wake-human-trafficking-problem/

 

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This is pure and unadulterated bullshit, coming from Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Laureate.  The Rohingyas are powerless and stateless. But push them in a corner, they will fight back in order to survive. Malaysia is equally to blame for lacking the political will to deal with human trafficking. Our Police Force is incorrigibly corrupt.

On Sunday, 21 May, Rohingya community members, local leaders, and NGOs working on human trafficking gathered at a Rohingya graveyard near Alor Setar, Kedah to commemorate the second anniversary of the discovery of mass graves and trafficking camps at Wang Kelian. I attended the event representing Tenaganita, an organisation that has worked on migrant rights and human trafficking issues in Malaysia since 1991.

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 Some 300 Rohingya gathered at Kampung Kepala Bendang near here today(May 21, 2017)  to pay tribute to the discovery of several mass graves in Perlis, thought to contain bodies of fellow migrants.

Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign and Tenaganita have called on Malaysian authorities to address the corruption that allows Malaysia to be a trafficking hub in the region. At the Wang Kelian memorial, Mohd Azmi Abdul Hamid of MAPIM, the Malaysian Consul­tative Council of Islamic Organisation, stated that authorities should work with trafficking survivors to identify the ‘big fish’, the leaders of trafficking syndicates and the corrupt Malaysian officials who allow them to operate. Tenaganita recognises that the camps and bodies found at Wang Kelian are just the tip of the iceberg—currently, the Global Slavery Index estimates 128,800 individuals are trapped in modern day slavery in Malaysia. That’s about 0.4% of Malaysia’s total population, putting Malaysia among some of the least responsive countries to combat human trafficking.

While the trafficking camps and mass graves found two years ago are potent reminders of the deadliness of trafficking, it is also important to note that there are multiple trafficking schemes seen in Malaysia. Beyond forced labour and sex trafficking, Tenaganita has uncovered cases of marriage trafficking, the sale of babies, organ harvesting, child prostitution, and child marriage. Not all trafficking happens across the Malaysia-Thai border. Traffickers often use budget flights to bring men, women, and children into Malaysia for exploitation. Many of Tenaganita’s cases involve women trafficked to Malaysia for forced labour as domestic workers, which counters the stereotype of trafficked women only being victims of sex trafficking. Like refugees and migrant workers, domestic workers are not adequately protected under Malaysian law. Traffickers know this and often exploit people who are eager to come to Malaysia, such as asylum seekers fleeing their countries or women desperate to support their families.

Corruption, inadequate training of enforcement officers, and limited awareness of trafficking dynamics all contribute to the lack of enforcement of Malaysia’s Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants Act (ATIPSOM). Only a fraction of all prosecutions for trafficking crimes result in convictions according to the 2016 US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report, which states, ‘accountability for traffickers remained disproportionately low compared to the scale of the human trafficking problem in the country’.

Trafficking prevention has not been adequately addressed at the national or regional level. For example, there are no mechanisms for safe repatriation, or the protection of trafficking survivors upon return to their country of origin to ensure they are not re-trafficked. Traffickers nimbly operate across borders—governments and enforcement agencies must also work closely together when prosecuting traffickers, protecting survivors, and preventing trafficking crimes. The newly ratified ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (ACTIP) takes steps in the right direction, but does not incorporate cooperation by civil society organisations like Tenaganita who have been fighting human trafficking for decades.

 

At the graveside memorial, I saw that the lives lost at Wang Kelian had not been forgotten, at least by the Rohingya community and organisations working on the issue. But despite some efforts to enact legislation, the Malaysian government still lacks the political will to address issues that mostly affect non-Malaysian workers, migrants, and refugees, all of whom are acutely vulnerable to trafficking, forced labour, and debt bondage. It is now time for Malaysia to get serious about enforcing existing legislation and especially going after the collusion between authorities at all levels and trafficking syndicates. The horrors of Wang Kelian must not be allowed to continue, whether through the trafficking of refugees across the Thai border or the trafficking of young women into domestic servitude within Malaysian homes. Unless there is a concerted effort to tackle the human trafficking business in the country, Malaysia will continue to be a trafficking destination.

Rebecca Schectman has worked with UNHCR and Tenaganita in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia as a 2016-17 Luce Scholar. She graduated from the College of William and Mary in 2016 with a degree in International Relations and Latin American Studies. She has worked on issues ranging from preserving memory of human rights abuses in Argentina to studying citizen feedback platforms in Uganda. Her research interests include migration, forced displacement, development, and human rights.

 

The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide


May 21, 2017

Book Review:

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Newborn babies crushed under the weight of a soldier’s heavy boot. Children having their throats slit as they try to protect their mothers from rape by security forces. Women and girls facing rape or sexual assault and humiliation. The elderly and infirm burnt alive in their homes. 1,000 killed and another 75,000 displaced to Bangladesh. These atrocities were documented in a disturbing February 2017 United Nations report which concluded that they are ‘very likely to amount to crimes against humanity. More recently, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Yanghee Lee has named them ‘definite crimes against humanity’.

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The most recent reports have not emerged in a vacuum. In 2015, the Yale Law School found ‘strong evidence of genocide against the Rohingya’. The same year, the International State Crime Initiative from the School of Law at Queen Mary University of London concluded that genocide was taking place in Myanmar. In 2013, Human Rights Watch identified crimes against the Rohingya which it argued amounted to ethnic cleansing.

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Sheer  hypocrisy of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto Foreign Minister: ASEAN’s Non-Intervention Policy VS Responsibility to Protect(R2P)

National League for Democracy chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi, right, and central committee member Win Htein, center. (Photo: Tin Htet Paing / The Irrawaddy)

The government of Myanmar has denied this charge. U Win Htein, a senior member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s now more than one year old National League for Democracy (NLD) government, rejects claims of crimes against humanity, and says this is an internal affair that has been exaggerated. This rhetoric is eerily close to that of the previous governments that the NLD vowed departure from.

Certainly, this is not a popular concern domestically. The Rohingya are not recognised in Myanmar, and are instead called Bengali. Their history in Rakhine State and rights to citizenship are heated issues of contention. While the NLD has appointed several commissions to investigate the situation in Rakhine State, they are lacking either the mandate or capacity to deal with the situation that has arisen since October 2016.

Given this, there is a need for an accessible publication which brings together the complex history and discussion of the increasingly brutal persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar today. Unfortunately, Azeem Ibrahim’s The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide is not that book. Instead it is hastily written and poorly considered, offering an inaccurate rehashing of history, no new arguments and a failure to engage with current debates.

A large section of the book summarises convenient arguments from the contentious debate over the origins of the Muslim community in Rakhine State and the Rohingya ethnic label, despite recognising that the discussion is peripheral. There are numerous factual errors throughout not just this section but the whole book, such as the claim that most rulers of the Arakanese Mrauk U dynasty were Muslim (p. 24). There are other claims which would be significant if any evidence was provided. Rather, unreferenced passages assert that the 1784 Burmese invasion of Arakan was ‘in part as there were so many Muslims in Arakan’ (p. 65); and that the British never used the term ‘Rohingya’ in their records because the administration was in the habit of categorising the population by religion, not ethnicity (p. 31) — the latter simply an untenable statement. Errors such as these are surprising, given the author’s extensive academic qualifications.

Image result for James T Davies is a PhD candidate researching Myanmar at UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

There is little discussion of genocide before the reader arrives at the chapter devoted to the topic. Here, we find that the book is not actually arguing that there is genocide underway, but that the Rohingya are ‘on the brink of genocide’ (p. 99).

While invoking the term genocide is sure to attract interest, the discussion is lacking in depth. The 2015 Yale Law School report noted, significantly, that it was difficult to establish intent for genocide on the part of the Myanmar state. However, this book does not engage with this report or the question of intent, despite it being crucial to any allegation of genocide. Instead, outcome appears to be equated with intent. The overwhelming focus on the crime of genocide could perhaps have been substituted with a discussion of other crimes against humanity in relation to the Rohingya, as noted by the UN and others.

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One of the most striking flaws of the book is its failure to consider Rakhine perspectives. This is reflected not only in the considerable confusion and misinformation about contemporary Rakhine political parties (p. 121). The author appears to have spent very little time in either Rakhine State or Yangon, and not to have consulted the Rakhine communities who have long lived alongside the Rohingya. In a chapter devoted to solutions there is little mention of the Rakhine, despite the fact that any resolution must include both communities. Instead, solutions offered refer primarily to international pressure, reflecting the publication’s target audience.

In this respect, the book makes an important point about the failure of the international community to address this issue. Western governments’ vision of what is occurring in Myanmar has been blurred by their ‘indulgence’ of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, the book argues (p. 133). There is a reluctance to pressure her government, which was hailed in the US as a foreign policy success of the Obama administration. Ibrahim pushes back both against the argument that Aung San Suu Kyi is doing her best as well as claims that the plight of the Rohingya is a hiccup to be expected during a difficult transition from military rule to democracy. The book rightly notes that such a perspective flies in the face of evidence that Aung San Suu Kyi has proved herself unwilling to show leadership and to prioritise the Rohingya issue — and that ultimately she must hold responsibility.

Therefore, the book argues, international pressure is going to be crucial for the Rohingya. We are told via a ‘Media Pack’ on Ibrahim’s website that he has an address book to rival a Prime Minister’s. If the book serves to bring attention to this desperate situation, then it may redeem itself somewhat.

Image result for James T Davies is a PhD candidate researching Myanmar at UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

James T Davies (pic above) is a PhD candidate researching Myanmar at UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy. He should write a book on the Rohingyas since he is very critical of Azeem’s attempt to expose the plight of the people of the Rakhine State.–Din Merican

Also READ:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/azeem-ibrahim/who-is-instigating-the-vi_b_7810972.html

Myanmar, ASEAN and the Rohingya Issue


March 30, 2017

Myanmar, ASEAN and the Rohingya Issue

by Mathew Davies

ASEAN here is not the problem; ASEAN is being used by Malaysia as a justification for solving the issue. Regional understandings about the value of ASEAN here are evolving — ASEAN is not becoming an actor that enforces its standards, but is becoming a tool for others to do that enforcing.– Davies

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/03/28/rohingya-a-threat-to-asean-stability/

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The democratisation of Myanmar, culminating in the National League for Democracy’s assumption of power in early 2016, was meant to mark a step forward for the Rohingya. The hopes of the international community, Myanmar’s partners in ASEAN and the Rohingya themselves have been bitterly disappointed.

The March 2017 Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar notes that the Muslims of Rakhine state had not benefited from ‘any improvements’ over the last year. October 2016 had seen a serious crackdown on the Rohingya following an attack on members of Myanmar’s police force. In her report, Yanghee Lee states that 150,000 people saw the humanitarian aid that supported them interrupted during the crackdown, 3000 Rohingya were displaced from their homes and 69,000 fled across the border to Bangladesh between the start of the crackdown and February 2017.

We should not expect any swift response from ASEAN itself. December 2016 saw an informal foreign ministers retreat organised in Yangon which resulted in nothing but platitudes about the need for long term solutions. ASEAN knows this does not work. The crisis that unfolded after October 2016 was just the latest in a series of crises over the last decade which have seen ASEAN powerless to respond — the most recent coming in 2015 where thousands of Rohingya found themselves trapped at sea after the traditional land routes through Thailand were closed. Each crisis has been accompanied by ASEAN inactivity, even as scholars and activists call on it to live up to its commitments to human rights and ‘people-centred’ regionalism.

What is new, however, is the extent to which the disquiet of Myanmar’s fellow ASEAN members is being expressed both openly and stridently.

In the vanguard of this new dissatisfaction has been Malaysia. Prime Minister Najib Razak in December 2016 stood in front of a banner that decried the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Rohingya and declared ‘I don’t care’ about ASEAN’s policy of non-intervention, ‘do you expect me … to close my eyes? To stay silent? I will not’.

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Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Dato’ Seri Anifah Aman

In March 2017, talking at the International Conference on Rohingya hosted in Putrajaya, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman called on Myanmar to address the Rohingya issue and noted both the regional consequences of the crisis and the role of ASEAN as a potential solution to it. At the same conference, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi called the situation ‘disappointing and unacceptable’.<

What does this newfound voice on the Rohingya mean for ASEAN? ASEAN’s policy of non-intervention, in the sense of the regional organisation itself taking action, is not changing any time soon. It is unlikely ASEAN will release a substantive statement on the Rohingya and it is unimaginable that they will take actions to punish Myanmar.

But we are seeing a willingness from certain member states to talk openly and critically about the domestic situation within other member-states. Here ASEAN’s policy of non-intervention has always been more an ideal than a rigid practice. But we are now seeing an escalation in the intensity of language that ASEAN has not experienced before.

Image result for Myanmar, ASEAN and the Rohingya IssueMyanmar’s Foreign Minister, Aung San Suu Kyi

The image of Najib standing publicly in front of a poster about ethnic cleansing is outside of established practice when it comes to the usually staid practices of regional diplomacy. Zahid openly stating that Myanmar is ‘committing genocide through its ethnic cleansing’ is even more inflammatory. This shift in rhetoric changes a precedent for the norms that outline legitimate practice among ASEAN members. A more open, robust and even critical engagement between members could well have consequences for their willingness to work together on other issues, and in doing so effect ASEAN’s ability to dampen down regional tensions through its veneer of decorum.

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Lost in the public argument, however, is something both more subtle but also more telling about how Malaysia views ASEAN. The ‘disregard’ for practices of non-intervention just discussed is not a disregard of ASEAN itself so much as it is a desire to use ASEAN to promote action. This is a dangerous precedent.

In the run-up to the December 2016 informal Foreign Ministers retreat, the Malaysian Foreign Minister noted that he believed ‘that the ASEAN Member States are bound by international principles on the promotion and protection of human rights, which are also enshrined in the ASEAN Charter and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration’.

ASEAN here is not the problem; ASEAN is being used by Malaysia as a justification for solving the issue. Regional understandings about the value of ASEAN here are evolving — ASEAN is not becoming an actor that enforces its standards, but is becoming a tool for others to do that enforcing.

This is very significant for the future of ASEAN. Non-intervention, through blunting the potential for regional tension, allowed ASEAN to be viewed as a way to enhance the security and freedoms of its members. In the Rohingya case, Malaysia is using ASEAN to promote regional tensions. What this means for how other members view and use ASEAN over time is going to be something to keep a close eye on. A greater willingness to politicise ASEAN to chastise members will strike at key tenets of regional diplomacy and in turn at the sources of stability of ASEAN itself.

Myanmar has long valued ASEAN for the protection it provides not only from the wider international community but also its fellow members. But the unwillingness of Myanmar to resolve the Rohingya issue has pushed ASEAN members towards new forms of protest. This failure is already a tragedy, but for ASEAN it might become a disaster.

Mathew Davies is Head of the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at The Australian National University. You can follow him on Twitter at @drmattdavies.

ASEAN, Aung San Suu Kyi and the Fate of the Rohingnyas


March 5, 2017

ASEAN, Aung San Suu Kyi and the Fate of the Rohingnyas

by Fiona Macgregor

http://www.newmandala.org/suu-kyis-state-denial/

Silence from Nobel Laureate and de facto leader of Myanmar on Rohingya issue is hard to justify. It’s also dangerous, writes Fiona MacGregor.

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What about Liberty for the Rohingyas, Madam? Your Silence makes a mockery of you  as a Nobel Laureate

The brutality recounted in a recent UN report on those fleeing Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state into Bangladesh shocked even those who have closely followed rights abuses against the Rohingya Muslim minority in recent years.

The descriptions of babies’ being killed with knives, multiple gang rapes, elderly people being burned alive, torture and killings that the UN said likely amounted to crimes against humanity by Myanmar’s security forces were profoundly distressing to read and provoked international outrage. Hundreds of people are thought to have been killed according to the 3 February report by UN OHCHR, which was based mainly on the testimonies of over 200 of the estimated 70,000 people who fled over the border into Bangladesh in the previous four months.

Yet Myanmar’s Nobel laureate and de facto leader of the government Aung San Suu Kyi has yet to make a public statement on the shocking findings, not only raising question about her relationship with the military and commitment to human rights, but what kind of future she is creating for the country.

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The atrocities are alleged to have taken part during “clearance operations” as the military hunted those responsible for fatal attacks on border police groups in northern Rakhine on October 9 2016 claimed by a new insurgent group Harakah al-Yakin which said it stands for Rohingya rights. The incident is being treated in Myanmar as a “terrorist attack”. Despite international calls for her direct intervention, Myanmar’s Nobel laureate and de facto leader of the civilian government has no mandate to stop the country’s powerful military carrying out operations in the way it wants.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad told Reuters that when he spoke to state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi shortly after she read the UN OHCHR report, she “seemed to be genuinely moved”. But, the UN report was hardly the first account of such abuses to emerge.

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The Rohingya Boat People can no longer be ignored

Not only had Aung San Suu Kyi refused to publically raise concerns over earlier allegations, but she allowed her own representatives to actively deny them and seek to discredit those, including this writer, other media and rights campaigners, who reported on them. Those denials have been widely accepted by a Myanmar public long conditioned to despise the mainly stateless Muslim Rohingya minority.

In apparently choosing to believe military sources over the international community and in helping to disseminate the generals’ message among the Myanmar public, Aung San Suu Kyi further damaged the already fragile trust in Myanmar regarding foreign involvement in anything to do with Rakhine and the Rohingya issue. Although she has not personally spoken out publically about the report’s contents, Aung San Suu Kyi’s spokesman described the allegations as “extremely disturbing” and vowed they would be investigated.

However it is unlikely that the Myanmar government’s own investigation – led by the military-backed Vice President Myint Swe– will be considered impartial by significant international voices accusing the security forces of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. It can be expected we will see a limited number of “show cases” — small scale action against relatively low-level security personnel as has happened in a small number of more high-profile incidents involving rights abuses by the military since reforms began. But constitutionally enshrined impunity for the military means that is likely to be as far as “justice” goes if Myanmar is left to deal with this on its own.

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On 21 February following the announcement the government investigation had been completed, the commission’s secretary, Zaw Mying Pe was reported by Radio Free Asia to have said the group’s findings differed from those described in the UN  report. How to negotiate a way out of the considerable disparity in findings between the international and national investigations will be the most high profile challenge of Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership so far.

Those who seek to discredit the UN and other international rights reports point to a number of false or exaggerated claims on social media about Rohingya rights atrocities in an attempt to imply all allegations of abuse are “fake”. Meanwhile those seeking to verify many of the accounts face a near impossible task. Northern Rakhine has been cut off to almost all outside observers by the military since operations began.

It has become a case of ‘her word versus his’. The UN and other rights organisations cite the testimonies of alleged victims and witnesses who have reached the relative safety of Bangladesh. Though medical evidence gathered there also supports at least some claims violations have occurred. In return, Myanmar’s authorities use denials of atrocities made by people interviewed by powerful and high-ranking government figures in their home villages where security personnel are still active to suggest alleged victims have lied.

Both Aung San Suu Kyi’s advisors and those leading the international push for an independent investigation have an immensely sensitive task on their hands in dealing with this situation. That should not be allowed to distract from the fact that there are tens of thousands of people suffering right now, who need proper aid and assistance, their human rights and dignity respected, and access to justice.

Unfortunately, there is a high risk that is exactly what will happen. As the stalemate between the accusers and deniers continues, the victims are very unlikely get the help they need so urgently. That is tragic. It is also dangerous. The longer people are left to suffer and their voices ignored in Myanmar, the more vulnerable they will be to those who encourage them to believe violent insurgency is the best way out of their predicament.

If Aung San Suu Kyi’s interest in human rights is limited, as some have suggest, she should also consider finding a way to resolve things expedient in terms of her wider national goals. If Harakah al-Yaqin become’s a more powerful threat, it will play directly into the hands of those who for various reasons might wish to destabilise the country and undermine her authority.

However, she is not without options if she is willing to choose them. Relying on the idea that development alone will somehow sort it all out in Rakhine is unrealistic. If Aung San Suu Kyi is serious about finding long-term solutions, she needs to look at immediate and direct action to address the fear and hatred that has been allowed to germinate throughout the country.

Her silence is hard to justify. Myanmar needs a strong leader who guides people with meaningful words and actions – not just symbolism and slogans.

Even if there is little by way of demand from the Myanmar public for her to stand up for human rights in relation to the Rohingya, she is letting all the people down as democratic citizens by allowing them to be misled about what has been occurring in Rakhine. It will be very difficult for her, culturally and politically, to acknowledge her government may have got things drastically wrong in its denials of abuses. But she still has room to change the atmosphere going forward.

It is a common trope that Aung San Suu Kyi cannot speak out on the Rohingya issue because to do so will lost her too much popularity in Myanmar and/or risk the wrath of the military and or nationalist hardliners. But this view ignores the immense sway her word has over the vast majority of people in the Bamar heartlands.

The power of those feared hardliners, particularly in the form of the notorious monk-led Ma Ba Tha, dramatically dissipated after the election when authorities chose to clamp down on them showing the group did not have the influence it claimed. Aung San Suu Kyi, however, possesses an influence so powerful it almost appears divine – if she chooses to use it.

Ashin Wirathu
[Ashin Wirathu, who once called himself “the Burmese bin Laden” said the agreement with Sri Lanka’s Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or “Buddhist Power Force”, was the first step in a broad alliance against conversions by Muslims in the region.]

It is lamentable that she did not do so before now, but it is not too late for her to assume the role of “Mother Suu” and guide her people in the principles of compassion, tolerance and Metta that are now so desperately needed in Myanmar. To do so she will also have to start engaging more with the press – nationally, and internationally.

She has embroiled the national media in disseminating a message of blanket denials that increasingly appears to be inaccurate. In addition, the ever-present threat of the telecommunications act means that anyone who does dare to criticize the military or civilian government online faces the risk of criminal proceedings and imprisonment: Hardly a sign of democratic progress. It is either disingenuous or shows a deep misunderstanding of effective media relations to accuse foreign media of painting a one-sided view of Myanmar that stirs up resentment in-country, while having no formal working mechanism in place that allows journalists to reliably access key figures for timely responses.

Resolving the fact that her relationship with the international media is at an all-time low is not merely a matter of meeting the demands of entitled foreign journalists – it is a case of protecting her own power and the rights of her people. Her ability to act as a respected figurehead for Myanmar on the international stage is one of her trump cards with the generals. She may need to keep cordial relations with the military, but they in turn still need her to play her role as they seek to secure Myanmar’s place on the international stage. If she loses her good reputation abroad — something that is already beginning to happen — her political capital with the military, and her power, will be significantly diminished.

But, there is an even greater risk. She was complicit in a creating a situation in which those, particularly foreigners, who raised the issue of alleged rights abuses were depicted as anti-Myanmar.

If she allows that misconception to continue and does not find a way to reverse the burgeoning mistrust of the international community and media, while supporting a free press internally, she risks setting Myanmar back on a path to isolation and ignorance in which its citizens are kept in the dark over the activities of its military and government: A country where gross rights abuses are perpetrated without challenge.

During all these years under house arrest, that was surely not what she imagined would be her legacy.

Fiona MacGregor is a journalist based in Myanmar for the last four years, and long-time observer of Myanmar and Southeast Asia.  

 

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

http://thediplomat.com/2016/12/will-najibs-vocal-defense-of-the-rohingya-backfire/

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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.

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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.

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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.

Tunku Abdul Rahman–Father of Malaysian Freedom


February 19, 2016

Tunku Abdul Rahman–Father of Malaysian Freedom

by Wan Saiful Wan Jan

http://www.thestar.com.my

EVERY February since 2010 we at Ideas hold an event to commemorate the birthday of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Alhaj. He was born on February 8, 1903 and he would have been 113 this year.

We will be holding a special dinner to mark his birthday on February 20. This will also be a celebration of the sixth anniversary of  IDEAS.

This year our celebration is a bit different. We are lucky to have been chosen as the host for this year’s Asia Liberty Forum (ALF), an annual gathering of the freedom movement from across Asia to discuss challenges facing the region and to learn from one another how to most effectively advance free-market reforms.

The ALF will take place at Renaissance Hotel Kuala Lumpur on Feb 19-20 and we will have the special dinner to celebrate Tunku’s birthday as the final session at this international conference. Tun Musa Hitam will be delivering the main speech.

I am proud that this year we are able to take the celebration of Tunku’s life and vision to this international platform. It is about time that those from outside Malaysia who share the desire to see more liberty and justice in this world get to hear about Tunku and his ideals for the country.

The Tunku’s championing of freedom is not restricted to our national borders. He had a vision for the region too, and that led him to push for the creation of the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA), which then morphed into ASEAN.

Writing in this newspaper on August 22 2007, the late Datuk Abdullah Ali, one of the pioneers of the Malaysian Foreign Service, said that the entire concept of ASA, as the precursor of ASEAN, “was founded, then developed to maturity, almost solely as a result of an idea that originated in the mind of Tunku.”

When ASA was mooted, this region was suffering from the communist insurgency. In Malaysia, the Tunku made it quite clear that his belief in liberty could not exist side by side with communism.

The world knew him as a consistent anti-communist leader, and this was recognised in the New York Times’ obituary for him published on December 7, 1990.

Today, perhaps not enough people appreciate why UMNO’s Second President was so strongly against communist authoritarianism. Malaysians of my generation did not get the chance to see what the communists did.

And those who visit Beijing or Shanghai today may very well come back thinking there’s nothing wrong with the leftist ideology.

Last weekend I visited Phnom Penh. Less than two hours away by flight from Kuala Lumpur, this is a city that felt the blunt force of an attempt to establish communist rule by the Khmer Rouge and their leader, Pol Pot.

I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Under the Khmer Rouge it was called the S-21, and functioned as the main prison and torture centre. This was a place that was once replete with suffering and deaths.

S-21 was a high school until the arrival of the Khmer Rouge. The communists changed the classrooms into torture chambers. The pictures displayed there now are very graphic.

People were detained and tortured to extract confessions, and many ended up giving false confessions in the hope that the torture would stop.

Pol Pot was a paranoid Prime Minister. He believed that it was better to act against an innocent person by mistake than to spare an enemy by mistake.

He took action against anyone who showed signs of wanting to challenge him. At Tuol Sleng, Pol Pot instructed the killing of his own Deputy Prime Minister Von Veth and Kuy Thuon, chief of a northern state.

At Choeung Ek Killing Fields-pictures taken by Dr. Kamsiah Haider-February 7, 2016

The suffering caused by Pol Pot and his communist comrades was even more apparent at another memorial site, the Choeung Ek Killing Field. It took about half an hour to get there from Phnom Penh. I will never forget what I saw.

The Cambodian government has built a stupa to commemorate the site, filled with more than 5,000 human skulls found within the compound. It is estimated that close to 20,000 people were bludgeoned to death there because bullets were expensive.

The bodies were piled in rows of mass graves. There was even a tree where communist soldiers smashed the heads of babies, before throwing their bodies into a hole.

All this was done because the communist Khmer Rouge did not believe in dissent. To them, human lives were expendable.

They used to say that “to remove you is no loss, to keep you is no gain.” Such was the belief that led to massive suffering under an authoritarian regime.

When the Tunku was Prime Minister, the communists were not yet ruling Cambodia. But he knew the dangers authoritarianism can bring to us and he pre-empted it by engraving the values of freedom, liberty and justice in our Proclamation of Independence.

As we celebrate the Tunku’s birthday this month, let us remember him as the freedom champion that he was.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.Ideas.org.my). The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.