As wars rage on in Ukraine, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Yemen and Palestine, we in Southeast Asia have witnessed our own horrific civil war in Myanmar since the 1 February 2021 military coup.
This military junta has killed some 3,000 civilians and detained thousands of others, followed by the executions of at least four prominent activists. To date, the Myanmar crisis has seen some 183,000 refugees and asylum seekers spilling into Malaysia.
Even before the 2021 coup, Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, caused the displacement or expulsion of at least one million refugees into Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar camp. Reportedly, 25,000 Rohingyas were also killed, and the ethnic community has suffered a fate that reflects our sick times – ethnic cleansing.
What is happening in Myanmar today is unconscionable, nothing less than genocide. Gambia, with the endorsement of 57 states, has filed a case on Myanmar’s genocide of the Rohingyas at the International Court of Justice.
Reams of printed and possibly unprintable text on this tragedy have materialised as books, articles, reports, op-eds, films and media documents.
My task here is not to rehash the horrific accounts of the genocide but to share some thoughts on how the Myanmar human disaster has affected not just its own people but Malaysia as well, as the recipient of the largest number of Rohingya refugees in the Asean region.
Malaysia is far from blameless in the callous and cruel treatment of internationally displaced persons. Today some 80% of registered refugees in Malaysia are Rohingyas and we are Asean’s largest host of these people: asylum seekers from Myanmar now number some 183,000.
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Their plight has been well documented by the global media and many have spoken up for them, including Malaysian activist Charles Santiago, who was chair of the Asean Parliamentarians on Human Rights. Read more: “Malaysia has become less friendly to Myanmar refugees. What hope for them now?“
Not signatory to the 1951 Convention
Malaysia is a non-signatory to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol; thus it does not officially accept asylum seekers nor does it subscribe to the principle of non-refoulement,which guarantees the protection of refugees.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) considers the principle of non-refoulement as the cornerstone of asylum and of international refugee law, as set forth in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This principle holds that all persons have the right to life, to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and to liberty and security.
Malaysia officially does not recognise this but has cooperated with the UNHCR to firefight the problem of asylum seekers landing on its shores – so far. Asylum seekers in Malaysia are currently issued a UNHCR card, which is a temporary document for those seeking repatriation to third countries.
Former foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah intimated to me in a recent interview that Malaysia had been aiming to provide refugees with a Malaysian identity card. He felt a Malaysian-issued identity card would not just ensure proper monitoring but also provide refugees with casual work for their sustenance.
Saifuddin felt the matter should be handled by the Ministry of Home Affairs rather than the National Security Council under its directive number 23, which apparently involves working with the Ministry of Defence.
However, the NSC’s plan seems to be to take over the monitoring and handling of all asylum seekers altogether without the help of the UNHCR. In September 2022, its director general, Rodzi Md Saad, called for the shutting down of the UNHCR office in Malaysia.
Needless to say, asylum seekers from Myanmar should not just be considered as just a Malaysian problem. Next in line is Thailand, which hosts some 95,000 Myanmar refugees.
Asean should take full responsibility since Myanmar is an Asean member. Only two Asean states (the Philippines and Cambodia) are parties to either the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol.
Asean, in its five-point consensus of constructive engagement with the military junta in Myanmar, has failed miserably in putting in place a cessation of violence, initiating a dialogue with all groups while facilitating all of this through the Asean special envoy, appointed by the Asean chair.
The Tatmadaw has just simply thumbed its nose at all these efforts, including that of the UN special envoy, Noeleen Heyzer, from Singapore.
Former Thai foreign minister has said that the Asean special envoy rotation approach has failed and that a full-time and permanent special envoy should be appointed – someone who can work closely with Asean foreign ministers and senior officials.
The Asean special envoy should be tasked with engaging both the military regime and opposition groups in Myanmar.
Read more: Kasit Piromya’s “Reflections on Asean special envoys’ efforts in Myanmar” in Fulcrum
No domestic policy on asylum seekers
Returning to the Malaysian situation, I recently interviewed the director of Kuala Lumpur-based Geutanyoë Foundation, Lilianne Fan.
Lilianne told me that Malaysia still has no real domestic policy on the Rohingyas and asylum seekers, and random deportations have been common. She noted that the global landscape for the repatriation of refugees has changed as acceptance rates decline in the West and therein, lies a major problem for Malaysia.
Nonetheless, Malaysia’s NSC directive 23 on asylum seekers is a good step but it is still a far from being implemented or even resolving fundamental issues.
Malaysian civil society groups and advocates have been pointing to the indiscriminate deportation of Rohingyas, who tend to be lumped together with other undocumented migrants in expulsion operations carried out by the authorities. For asylum seekers, deportation to Myanmar could be a fate worse than death.
Fortunately, beyond the ineffectual efforts of the government in dealing with the Rohingya crisis, many Malaysian humanitarian groups are working with the community. This is narrated and documented poignantly by Teo Ang Siang in his book No Way Home (Gerakbudaya, 2021).
These civil society groups include Allama Fazullah Foundation (AFF), Medical Relief Society Malaysia (Mercy Malaysia), Myanmar Red Cross Society (MRCS), MyCARE Centre for Rohingya Education (or MyC4RE), Rohingya Women Development Network (RWDK), South East Asia Humanitarian Communities (SEAHC), Tahfiz Al-Quran Al-Amin, MyCARE Malaysia, Tenaganita, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation Malaysia and the Tzu Chi refugee clinic.
Anwar Ibrahim had previously suggested, when he was Deputy PM in 1997, that Asean should have a policy of “constructive intervention” in Myanmar. As prime minister now, he should surely set his eyes on the looming crisis of asylum seekers in Malaysia, and with Foreign Minister Zambry Abdul Kadir, must prioritise a proper domestic and foreign policy on this.
Malaysia had managed the crisis of the “boat people” in the late 1970s reasonably well. It must now work with other Asean nations to come up with a genuine and effective policy on asylum seekers to the region.
The first order of business should be to haul the Tatmadaw onto the Asean carpet. Shouldn’t Myanmar’s rulers face losing membership in Asean for failing to follow even a single step of the regional body’s demands?
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
12 February 2023
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