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.  

 

Back in Time –Pol Pot’s Cambodia


December 12, 2016

Back in Time –Pol Pot’s Cambodia

HE RAN the country for less than four years, yet between April 1975 and January 1979 Pol Pot killed up to a fifth—some think a quarter—of the Cambodian people to whom he said he was bringing a new and better life. In its way, it was the worst of the 20th century’s totalitarian horrors, unless the eventual unlocking of North Korea’s doors reveals something even grimmer. Hitler murdered about 6 million Jews and others in his concentration camps; Stalin’s “anti-party” toll was close to 20 million; Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward starved over 20 million to death, before moving on to the Cultural Revolution. But Pol Pot’s victims were a much bigger proportion of little Cambodia’s 7 million people, and few of them could even vaguely be called “enemies of the regime”. His killing fields were the most mind-boggling of them all.

Philip Short, who wrote a good book about Mao’s China, has now done a spectacularly efficient job of describing what happened, and how. He has spent four years in Cambodia, talking to survivors of the killing-fields, and perpetrators. He has dug up piles of revealing documents. Some of the brightest illumination comes from the handful of westerners who watched what was going on, not least the diaries of Laurence Picq, an honest young Frenchwoman who went to Cambodia thinking she could help a good cause.

The result is a chillingly clear portrait of Saloth Sar, the man who became Pol Pot (and also Grand Uncle, First Brother and sundry other pseudonyms). From a comfortable background—his sister was one of the king’s concubines—he went to a smart lycée in still French-run Phnom Penh, and then won a scholarship to study in Paris. There he fell in love with Marxism-Leninism in its especially intellectual French form, and from France he went back to the emerging guerrilla war in Cambodia, to bring communism to his countrymen. Calmly and firmly, he worked his way to the top of the party; and in April 1975 his men marched into Phnom Penh.

It then became pure Orwell. Pol Pot at once ordered the total evacuation of all towns and cities—not just the middle class, but labourers, mechanics, street-cleaners, war refugees, everybody. All Cambodians were to become workers on the land. There were to be no wages. Meals were to be provided by collective kitchens (“unity of feeding”). Each Cambodian had to refer to himself or herself as “we”, forbidden to use the first person singular. When one region found it did not have enough food, supplies were not sent from better-off places; rather, the hungry were marched off to look for them.

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Of course, it did not work. Up to 1 million people died of starvation. Protests began, including among party members. The leadership of the party denounced such “microbes”. The protesters were put into camps, including Camp S-21 at Tuol Sleng, the sole task of which was to extract confessions. Many “confessions” turned out to be pure invention, yet all confessors were executed. At least another 100,000 people, maybe 250,000, died at this stage of the proceedings. As Pol Pot’s central committee put it, it was necessary “to avoid a solution of peaceful evolution”, which could “corrode” the revolution.

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Why was Pol Pot’s Cambodia even worse than Mao’s China, Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany? Here Mr Short, so good at finding out what happened, is less good at explaining why it did.

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Samdech Techo Hun Sen–Making a  huge Difference for Cambodians

He suggests that Pol Pot, like many other Cambodians, was driven by resentment over his country’s loss of glory since the great days of the Angkor empire. But that was 600 years earlier. Lots of other countries have had far more recent puncturings of national pride without being pushed into anything quite as horrible.

Mr Short then wonders whether Buddhism, Cambodia’s main religion, lay near the root cause, because it believes in “the demolition of the individual”. This is nonsense. Buddhism, a gentle faith, believes that individual human beings eventually dissolve into nirvana when in successive lives they have earned it. This is not the explanation of Pol Pot’s slaughters.

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No, it was the bug he picked up in Paris that poisoned Pol Pot. An ideology which believes, as communism did, that a small group of self-selected possessors of the truth will get everything right is bound to produce disaster. Perhaps things were made worse by Pol Pot’s desire to outshine the communists in Vietnam; and maybe also by some still unexamined twist in his psyche. All the same, it was the pseudoscientific certainty of Marxism-Leninism, that malformed child of the Enlightenment, which was chiefly to blame.