By Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin. Published in The Malay Mail Online 2 December 2016
DECEMBER 2 — Crimes against humanity. Ethnic cleansing. Genocide.
These are some of the words used to describe the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya in the north of Rakhine state in Myanmar, repeated recently by officials from the UN refugee agency. As I write, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan (who is leading a special commission on mending the religious and ethnic divides between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines), is visiting the country.
In the meantime, the actions (or inaction) of the country’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning state counsellor and de facto leader confound human rights agencies. (Last week, I met members of a delegation from the Myanmar Human Rights Commission here on a study tour; I suggested they visit a detention centre and meet some of the Rohingya detainees.)
News organisations have plenty of human rights issues to choose from, and naturally highlight some more than others for a number of reasons: commercial, diplomatic, pragmatic.Of late, from Syria and Iraq we have read about the conditions of life under Islamic State and of course, the ongoing refugee crisis which has resulted from the war (though the death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi remains its most powerful image); from North Korea, satellite images show prison camps have moved away from the China border; and the death of Fidel Castro in Cuba has reminded us of his regime’s legacy of political executions and hard labour.
And of course, domestically, we too, have our own rights issues, from perceived curtailments of freedom of expression to human trafficking and, as revealed by a recent undercover documentary by Al-Jazeera, the sale of babies. Activists and political actors will argue as to the relative importance of these issues, but while it is impossible to be equally committed to solving all the world’s problems, many of the causes are linked.
In the case of the Rohingya, Malaysians take a special interest. One reason is geography and geopolitics. Indeed, it is one of two issues (the other being the haze) that I find excites young Malaysians pursuing politics and international relations, in terms of what Malaysia, Asean and the international community should do to intervene.
Denunciations, economic sanctions, expulsion from Asean and even war are usually suggested — followed by discussions about the pros and cons of such strategies in other cases. Last week, there was talk about Malaysia pulling out of the Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup hosted by Myanmar, but the ramifications of a boycott were deemed too delicate, so we participated (and lost).
Another reason is religious affiliation, and the upcoming rally on Sunday to express the concerns of Malaysians over the Rohingya organised by the government and to be attended by the prime minister and PAS president (with other party leaders being invited) explicitly refers to concern for fellow Muslims — though a commitment to the Asean principle of non-interference was also made.
A more interventionist statement was made by Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia and other civil society organisations “to pressure the Myanmar government to stop its military operations in Rakhine state.”
But also in the policy fray is the visibility of refugees and their perceived effect on our society and economy. Despite the humanitarian sympathy for their plight, there are Malaysians who will nonetheless condemn refugees and migrants for allegedly committing crimes and working illegally.
And the thought of refugee children attending the same schools as their own children frightens many Malaysian parents.
Last Saturday, as a trustee of Yayasan Chow Kit, I attended the Awards Day of its Homeschooling Literacy Programme, through which children who are unable to go to school receive education. The majority are Rohingya.
Over the years, I have seen how they have learnt far more than merely how to read, write and do sums, but also how to express themselves: Whether through speaking in public, singing and acting in their own musical productions or photography, as they did so exceptionally at Universiti Malaya in March.
From dark pasts and harrowing journeys, they are now looking forward to becoming productive members of society. While some will relocate permanently to third countries, many will not.
Out of this situation, it will not be easy to formulate a policy response which will satisfy most Malaysians, but as we go into apoplexy about the mistreatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar, let us remember the thousands who have escaped and found safety in our country. If we were being morally consistent, much more would be done in pursuit of their economic and political freedoms, too.
And perhaps we should consider how appropriate Asean’s principle of non-interference is when ethnic cleansing is taking place.