ASEAN urged to decisively act on Rohingya plight

“If ASEAN is sincere to give life to its vision of establishing a “people oriented, people centered” region, it must do so by paying greater attention to peoples’ issues such as the dire plight of Rohingyas in Burma, currently one of the world’s most persecuted communities. Now that ASEAN is turning 50, it must take its golden celebration also as a golden opportunity to address issues that concretely matter to the ASEAN peoples.”

Thus said Gus Miclat, Executive Director of the Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID), a regional advocacy and policy NGO based in the Philippines and Regional Initiator of Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict in Southeast Asia (GPPAC-SEA).

The Rohingyas are a Muslim minority group residing in Rakhine state, also known as Arakan inside Burma (Myanmar). The Rohingya people are considered “stateless entities” by the government and majority Buddhist population and have been victims of sectarian violence, as the Myanmar government refuses to recognize them as an ethnic group in the country.

The Philippines has taken over as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on its 50th founding anniversary this year with the theme ‘Partnering for Change, Engaging the World’. Philippine President Rodrigo Roa Duterte has already identified six thematic priorities for the ASEAN which includes: people oriented, people centered ASEAN; peace and stability; maritime security and cooperation; inclusive, innovation-led growth; resilient ASEAN; and ASEAN as a model of regionalism, a global player.

Miclat added, “While we welcome the ASEAN celebration of its 50th year, the bloc, under the leadership of the Philippines can concretize its peace and stability theme, by moving towards a collective and more decisive conflict prevention and mitigation approach in dealing with conflicts happening on a regular basis in the region. These are particularly stark in countries like Burma (Myanmar), Mindanao and even South Thailand. Institutionalizing mechanisms where ASEAN can partner with civil society and other peoples organizations to address regional conflicts at its roots could be a pioneering start.”

He stressed, “Slogans and visions are void without them being felt by the most vulnerable, conflict-affected sectors in the region. For us in civil society, the challenge for the ASEAN is not to devise or rehash a new slogan but to consistently make these refrains breathe with sincere compassion to the people they profess to serve and champion.”
In the case of the Rohingya, Miclat explained, ”With utmost urgency, we urge ASEAN member-statesto collectively find durable solutions to address the continuous human rights violations on the Rohingya in Myanmar before it spirals out of control. A dialogue between ASEAN members and Myanmar on this issue must be in order.”
Global think tanks and conflict monitoring groups have identified the Rohingya issue as a topmost possible conflict that can lead to massive crimes against humanity and even genocide.

IID and GPPAC-SEA suggested that ASEAN must lobby Myanmar to take urgent steps to halt the continuous persecution of the Rohingya by repealing the 1982 Citizenship Act and other discriminatory laws and practices to ensure that all persons have rights and equal access to citizenship and are not discriminated on grounds of ethnicity and religious beliefs.

Miclat emphasized, “If ASEAN plans to transform itself from an organization to a community, it must adapt to newer realities. It must be open to rebrand its constructive engagement policy as a necessary big step towards achieving a genuinely inclusive and people-centered ASEAN.