Crocodile Tears for Rohingya

Crocodile Tears for RohingyaCrocodile Tears for Rohingya

Just seven weeks before Bali Nine drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumara were executed, a senior Indonesian minister warned that more than 10,000 asylum seekers could be let loose if Australians continued to test his patience over their pending deaths.

“If Canberra keeps doing things that displease Indonesia, Jakarta will surely let the illegal immigrants go to Australia,” coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno said. “There are more than 10,000 in Indonesia today. If they are let go to Australia, it will be like a human tsunami.”

As the plight of the ethnic Rohingya grabbed the attention of headline writers, a spokesman at Indonesia’s foreign ministry, Arrmantha Nasir, again typecast refugees as a convenient political football by arguing Australia was obliged to take them, Luke Hunt wrote for The Diplomat.

Given their proximity to the safe harbors of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, and the overarching influence of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), with a combined GDP of $2.4 trillion, the argument was nonsense from a logistical, economic, and political standpoint.

In Australia debate on this issue has been reduced to ill-informed celebrities chasing television ratings in sound bites – polarized by those who argue that Australia should be a shining example to the rest of the world on how to say “yes” to those content with the current intake of about 20,000 refugees a year, which also bars entry to asylum seekers arriving by boat.

The Refugee Council of Australia has previously noted that Australia is not the world’s most generous country in its response to refugees – but is just inside the top 25.

 All at Sea

Amid mounting international pressure, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand were forced to back down on policies that for years have turned the boats back out to sea, often towards Australia. Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur also announced they would provide temporary shelter while Naypyidaw did an about face and declared it would attend a conference on the crisis in Thailand.

Behind the inward turn were the testimonies of those on board, which spilled online and onto the pages of the international press and into the living rooms of television viewers already mindful of Jakarta’s harsh stand on the death penalty and ASEAN’s inability to curb human trafficking.

Brad Adams, Asia director at the Human Rights Watch, said interviews with officials and others made it clear that trafficking networks were profiting with the complicity of government officials in Burma, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia. “Survivors describe how they flee persecution in Burma only to fall into the hands of traffickers and extortionists, in many cases witnessing deaths and suffering abuse and hunger,” he said.

He added that Thailand, Malaysia, and Burma must agree to never again engage in the pushback of people stuck at sea, find any remaining boats, bring those on board to safe ports, and ensure that their rights were respected.

 Roots of the Crisis

Catherine Morris of Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada said the root causes of the crisis include failure by several ASEAN states to abide by their international human rights obligations and a lack of integrity among law enforcement officials and legal systems. She said “a lack of consistent and firm insistence on implementation of human rights by states trading in Southeast Asia” had also contributed to the tragedy.

“For years, persecution and privation of Rohingya in Rakhine State has left families considering that they have no choice but to attempt to migrate to other countries including Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. “Human traffickers have been allowed to operate with impunity in Myanmar. Traffickers have even reportedly tricked or kidnapped Rohingya children as young as 13 years of age, later extorting ransoms from family members.”

 Burmese Days

While international pressure played its part in bringing Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand into negotiations over the Rohingya crisis, it has rarely succeeded where the problem starts, in Myanmar.

George Orwell could have been referring to the current leadership in Naypyidaw and its attitudes to the Muslim Rohingya when he wrote in Burmese Days, “Like the crocodile, he strikes always at the weakest spot.”

Reforms by President Thein Sein have not gone beyond opening his country up to outside investment, to the benefit of military controlled companies, and the release of political prisoners who should never have been locked up in the first place.

Unprecedented elections later this year will be a test of his authority, his ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and the opposition National League for Democracy and its leader, the pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Chi, who has had little to say on the Rohingya.

The Rohingya sit at the bottom of Myanmar’s social and political heap, making up just 735,000 to one million of Myanmar’s 53 million people. They are close to powerless inside the mainly Buddhist country, where long running civil conflicts with a myriad of ethnic groups like the Karen, Wa and Kachin continue.

Repeated calls for help have fallen on deaf ears. Even the Dalai Lama has urged Suu Kyi, a fellow Nobel Peace Laureate, to do more to help the Rohingya, but political ambitions on both sides of politics appear to outweigh their horrendous plight.

Morris said a report last year by the UN special reporter on systematic human rights violations in Rakhine State may constitute crimes against humanity as defined under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Her sentiments were backed by Adams. “There will be no long-term solution unless Burma ends its rights-abusing and discriminatory policies toward the Rohingya and joins other countries in taking action against smugglers and traffickers who abuse and prey on them,” he said.

For the rest of ASEAN much is at stake, and this is particularly true of Indonesia. Its recent ability to ostracize itself by ignoring the concerns of those living next door, whether Australians or Malaysians, does matter.

There are much bigger fights brewing in Southeast Asia and Jakarta’s stand against Beijing’s expansionist policies in the South China Sea will require as much diplomatic tact and military might as it can muster. Having neighbors on side would help.