Advancing Human Rights after the AAC and the ASEAN Summit

POSTED : 10 May 2015 | CATEGORY : Gagasan | TAGS: , , , ,

Published on The Jakarta Post, May 07, 2015.

As organizers, Indonesia and Malaysia have just successfully held the Asian-African Conference and the 26th ASEAN Summit, respectively.

At the two meetings, ASEAN countries largely discussed economic issues and engaged in almost no conversation about human rights. This is typical for ASEAN — member states historically have not welcomed the idea of enforcing human rights in other member states.

But there is new hope. As a result of the escalating crisis situation for the Rohingya in Myanmar and around the region, at the ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur leaders discussed the possibility of reviewing ASEAN’s commitment to the principle of non-interference in internal affairs.

The discussion was first raised by Malaysian Foreign Minister Dato’ Sri Anifah Aman. He said in a press conference that, since thousands of Rohingya refugees had been fleeing from Myanmar to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, this crisis could no longer be considered an internal issue for Myanmar alone. Therefore, he argued, ASEAN should address the crisis through engagement.

In early April, I visited Myanmar on a fact-finding mission with ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).

As a member of APHR, I strongly believe that regional engagement is necessary to address the human trafficking crisis created by the large number of refugees fleeing Myanmar — the highest outflow of asylum seekers by sea in the Southeast Asian region since the Vietnam War.

On the APHR mission, I witnessed first-hand the troubling indicators of potential future atrocity crimes against the Rohingya and other minority communities.

The Rohingya have been described by international aid agencies as one of the world’s “least wanted” and “most persecuted” minorities.

They have suffered from human rights violations under the Myanmar junta since 1978 and have been denied Myanmar citizenship since 1982.

As a result, more than 100,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh and a number of ASEAN countries. But their misery does not end once they leave Myanmar.

They have experienced human rights abuses in Bangladeshi refugee camps for years and, in 2009, it was reported that the Thai army towed a boatload of 190 Rohingya refugees out to sea after beating them.

The dire situation facing the Rohingya is not the only human rights issue demanding urgent regional engagement, however.

In Indonesia and region-wide we also face the disturbing problem of modern-day slavery in the fishing industry.

An AP report brought the issue to light, revealing a case in which fishing company Pusaka Benjina Resources in Maluku used forced labor and physically abused hundreds of foreign workers, mainly from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

They were forced to work almost nonstop without clean water or proper food. Some of them were also whipped and even held in cages.

It was also widely reported that Indonesians have been enslaved as well, working against their will on foreign fishing boats operating in the ASEAN region.

These and other human rights issues require regional cooperation. While ASEAN leaders remain steadfast in their rhetorical dedication to non-interference, it should be noted that their commitment to the principle in practice has not been (nor should it be) absolute.

In some cases, ASEAN members have intervened in the internal affairs of others.

For example, Indonesia provided aircraft to the Philippines for anti-insurgency operations in 1986. ASEAN also issued responses to Myanmar calling for the release of political prisoners in 2005 and ASEAN urged the military junta in Yangon to hold a dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi in 2007.

Moreover, at the international level, individual ASEAN member states have displayed a greater openness to acceding to human rights conventions and have participated in debates on human rights organized by the United Nations, but these moves represent only the first steps.

The Rohingya and slavery issues must be addressed seriously if we want to establish a strong ASEAN Community by the end of 2015.

If we cannot discuss and then act on these urgent problems, how can we achieve an ASEAN Community that promotes regional peace and security and enhances the association’s role as a global player?