Full transcript of CENTHRA Chief Executive Azril Mohd Amin’s speech at the One-Day Open Research Conference, South Asian Research Cluster, Wolfson College, Oxford University, 11 May 2016
MYANMAR’S DEMOCRATIC TRANSITION: WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR THE PERSECUTED ROHINGYA?
Ladies and gentlemen, fellow panelists, members of the audience,
Assalamualaikum and good afternoon to all. I am Azril Mohd Amin, Chief Executive of the Centre for Human Rights Research and Advocacy (CENTHRA), a human rights NGO based in Malaysia and I am here before you all today to talk about the recent democratic transition we see happening in Myanmar and what it means for the Rohingya. Being from a country that, like Myanmar, or Burma as it was formerly known, is a member of ASEAN, and a Muslim majority one at that, I am glad to be given the opportunity to share my views on the situation. Human rights and democracy are values that we in CENTHRA hold dear to our hearts, and the plight and suffering of the Rohingya people and the lack of respect for their rights by the Burmese state is nothing short of a damning indictment on Myanmar’s supposed recent transition from an authoritarian, military junta-run state to a democracy.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I had argued previously in another forum that mere democracy without human rights means nothing for a nation’s inhabitants, in particular racial and religious minorities, as this would result in tyranny of the majority. This is surely not the kind of society that anyone in this world, particularly those who claim to champion liberal values, such as Myanmar’s democratic icon and Nobel Prize Winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, would seem to want if their claims are to believe as genuine. The only kind of democracy that is acceptable for everyone who lives in the here and now, in this 21st century, is the variant that accommodates differences, and that means due accord and respect for fundamental liberties, especially for ethnic minorities with limitations only insofar as they are necessitated to keep the peace and secure national interests from internal as well as external threats.
Sadly, Myanmar, despite its recent transition, has utterly failed in this regard, and before I proceed to explain why exactly that is so, I shall first provide a short background of the nation we all know today as Myanmar and then that of the Rohingya people, followed by a description of their current situation living in the Burmese state before touching briefly on Malaysia’s views on the Burmese state’s treatment of Rohingyas, followed by ASEAN’s views on the same. I shall also provide CENTHRA’s perspective on Malaysia and ASEAN policies on such treatments, in particular, whether it is apt to regard it as a simple problem of human trafficking instead of, as I shall argue, a slow genocide.
MYANMAR’S DEMOCRATIC TRANSITION: GENUINE OR A FARCE?
Before proceeding to touch on the Rohingyas and their plight, it is appropriate to first give the contextual background to their suffering. And this would necessarily entail a short discussion on the history of the Burmese state. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was an independent kingdom ruled by the Taungoo dynasty until it was colonised by Britain in the 19th century. Ruled by the British Raj as part of India from 1 January 1886 till 1 April 1937, Burma achieved independence on 4 January 1948 and was administered as a republic with democratically elected governments until an army coup in 1962. Thereafter it was ruled by successive military juntas until a 1988 uprising that led to the first democratic elections in decades in 1990 which was won by the National League for Democracy, headed by the daughter of Burma’s independence hero, Aung San Suu Kyi, a result that was annulled by what was then known as Myanmar’s military junta. Aung San Suu Kyi, then an icon of most of her people, spent most of her next 20 years or so under house arrest. In 2008, the military junta published what it called a “Road Map” to democracy, and this was initially dismissed as a sham by the West. But sure enough, a new Constitution for Myanmar was promulgated in 2010 and elections were held the same year. A civilian government then took power in 2011 and enacted democratic reforms and freed political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, thus surprising the world. But it is not until recently, in 2015, did Myanmar finally emerge as a true democracy when Aung San’s National League for Democracy was returned in the elections held that year, and was recently allowed to take power for the first time. Aung San Suu Kyi, despite being barred by the Constitution from taking office as President, has appointed her close aid, Htin Kyaw, to that post and has been conferred the role of State Counsellor, which has been said by many to be a role akin to Prime Minister. There has even been established a National Human Rights Commission to cater for the protection and safeguard of human rights, at least nominally.
While all this is to be welcomed, sadly, Burma continues to grapple with one of the most serious problems of discrimination and systematic denial of human rights in current times with regard to one of its noted minorities, the Rohingya. The Rohingya people have a presence in the Burmese state, in particular within the Rakhine region, that dates back millennia, but have not been recognised as a people native to Myanmar, instead falsely being labelled as being immigrants from Bangladesh. This is most intolerable indeed and is compounded by the fact that the Burmese state has even gone as far as to strip them of their citizenship in 1982 and they are recognised by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I make the same argument again as I have made before, namely that democracy without protection of the human rights of minorities in itself cannot ensure a prosperous and free society, for democracy always translates as rule of the majority. So while Myanmar has made a seemingly legitimate transition from authoritarian rule to one with democratic mandate, the refusal of Aung San Suu Kyi in particular and its other leaders in general to condemn and mitigate the sufferings of their Rohingya community is inexcusable. Myanmar must make amends and move immediately to secure the rights of the Rohingya by restoring their citizenship, and guarantee their right to keep their Islamic faith and to live within Myanmar as a dignified people free from want or persecution by its Burmese majority. Until then, its transition to democracy cannot be deemed genuine, and must thus be dismissed for the farce it really is.
THE REAL STATE OF THE ROHINGYA
Ladies and gentlemen,
Reports of what happen to the Rohingya community in Myanmar scarcely scratch the surface when it comes to the grim everyday realities they face. Effectively rendered stateless by the stripping of their citizenship by the state, they frequently are found migrating abroad in search for relief from all the pain and suffering they face, and even then for those who are lucky enough to escape the clutches of the Burmese regime. For those who are not quite as fortunate, they are forced to live in ghettos and refugee camps as internally displaced persons. In 2012, riots took place in Rakhine state, where most of them live by Rakhine Buddhists, due to a false rumour that Muslims raped and murdered an ethnic Rakhine woman. As a result, thousands of Rohingya were forced to flee their homes and businesses, and much damage occurred to their persons as well as their property. They were even labelled terrorists. And while all this was occurring, it did not once occur to the so-called beacon of democratic reform in Myanmar and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, to speak against violence committed against them.
In 2015, many Rohingya fled Myanmar to go to nations all over South East Asia as refugees. Among the countries of choice were ASEAN Members Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and I am proud to say, my country, Malaysia. We gladly received some of them on our shores and gave them the refuge they deserved. But they should not have had to flee Burma in the first place if only the Burmese Government will stop its pretence and acknowledge their plight. But far from this, there is evidence that the Government of Myanmar is engaging in ghettoisation, sporadic massacres, and restrictions on movement against the Rohingya community. Researchers from the International State Crime Initiative at the Queen Mary University of London have confirmed this, and called upon the international community to do what it can to put a stop to it. But will the international community act?
MALAYSIA’S POSITION ON THE ROHINGYA
Ladies and gentlemen,
Malaysia has always been a responsible member of the United Nations and has always played a role of a peaceful mediator when it comes to world conflict. We opposed and denounced the Apartheid regime in South Africa right up to its collapse in 1994, and our soldiers have been active in UN peacekeeping missions in the former Yugoslavia, as well as in various nations throughout Africa. Our mediators have also had extensive experience brokering talks between national liberation movements and national governments in the southern Philippines, resulting in significant concessions for minorities living under the rule of such governments. The former UN Secretary-General Special Envoy to Myanmar, Tan Sri Razali Ismail, is himself from Malaysia. Thus Malaysia is well placed to put fourth views and recommendations on this matter, and so it has done for the consideration of the international community.
According to Amitav Acharya in his book, Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia: ASEAN and the Problem of Regional Order, Malaysia’s position on the plight of the Myanmar people has always been one of solidarity with their cause and grievances against the Burmese state. Malaysia had initially resisted Myanmar’s entry into ASEAN in the 1990s due to their persecution of the Rohingya, and only relented when Singapore, also a member of ASEAN then, insisted that the internal affairs of Myanmar were not relevant to its application for membership of ASEAN. Thereafter, Malaysia consistently pushed for greater protection for the Rohingya, as can be gleaned from its various statements on the issue from the 1990s until this very day. For example, Malaysia together with Indonesia took in as many as 7,000 Rohingya boat people during the 2015 refugee crisis, and together with ASEAN and Western governments, demanded that Myanmar account for its discriminatory actions. Syed Hamid Albar, a former Malaysian Defence as well as Foreign Minister, writing in the LA Times on 18 April 2016 on his appointment as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Special Envoy to Myanmar, stated that it was time for the Burmese regime to stop mistreating Rohingya Muslims and that the overlook by Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese government of the atrocities is simply unacceptable. He postulated that trade between Myanmar and Muslim nations of the world, particularly those in ASEAN were blossoming and that this should not be jeopardised on account of what is going on with respect to Muslims in Myanmar and additionally warned that political, economic and national security benefits that would otherwise be available would not be if Myanmar continues its policy of systematic discrimination and even genocide against the Rohingya Muslims.
ASEAN’S POSITION ON THE ROHINGYA
Ladies and gentlemen,
ASEAN’s position on Myanmar and its treatment of Rohingya is more complex and according to an article by Aung Zaw titled ASEAN-Burma relations, fragmented, with multiple positions held by individual members of ASEAN. While Indonesia, like Malaysia, has been supportive of the plight of the Rohingya, the Singaporean Government for example has always demonstrated no interest whatsoever in the nature of Myanmar’s political system, whether it be democratic or otherwise, nor how it treats its own minorities, despite proclaiming itself a model multi-racial republic. As written by Aung Zaw:-
“Singapore had little interest in human rights issues and no real objections to the Burmese regime’s treatment of its political opponents, but was concerned about its handling of the country’s economy and particularly its policies towards foreign investment. Through their support of the Burmese regime’s interest in ASEAN, Singapore hoped to gain influence over the economic thinking of Burmese military leaders and gain greater access to the country’s natural resources and huge market for weapons. Singapore has long been a major supplier of arms to Burma,”
Indeed this was demonstrated when Singapore assisted in the supply of arms to the military junta in the late 1980s following the 1988 uprising. In November 1997, Singapore refused to back a UN resolution critical of widespread human rights abuses in Myanmar and calling on the then military junta to recognise the results of the 1990 general elections. Bilahari Kausikan, the Singaporean representative, told the UN General Assembly that his government could not support the resolution because “Our position is different. We have concrete and immediate stakes.” Indeed, Singapore has always prioritised economic interests above all else and this is no different with Myanmar, and this was clearly indicated when Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, the then powerful first secretary of the ruling junta, instructed a coordinating board for the Myanmar–Singapore Joint Ministerial Working Committee to “give priority to projects arranged by Singapore”.
However since the 1990s, ASEAN has managed to agree to a joint position termed “constructive engagement”. According to this theory, originating with Thai former Foreign Minister Arsa Sirasin, one must “change battlefields to marketplaces” by engaging with dialogue, and not isolating the Burmese regime. In other words, to engage and create ties with Burma rather than to ignore and isolate it. However, the goals of the policy have never been as obvious as the rationale; the policy has been utilized as a vehicle through which varied economic, security and political interests of ASEAN members have been pursued. Politically, at the ASEAN level, its most salient feature has been non-interference in Burmese domestic political affairs, leaving the then junta to take care of its own affairs. This fanciful theory resulted in Myanmar joining ASEAN in 1997 without making significant changes to its governmental system nor, in particular, its treatment of Rohingya. The regime stepped up its campaign of repression against the democratic opposition and ethnic groups, evidently believing that admission into ASEAN was a sign of approval for its previous policies.
Fortunately, when we fast forward to the present, the situation has changed somewhat, and there is now much more sympathy for the plight and suffering of the Rohingyas. A delegation from the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights visited the region of Mandalay in Myanmar in April 2015 and as a result has issued a document detailing the situation faced by them in Burma, titled The Rohingya Crisis and the Risk of Atrocities in Myanmar, and their findings make for grim reading. According to them, the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya at the hands of national and regional government authorities in Myanmar has resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, in particular since the 2012 ethnic riots. This has in turn led to the highest outflow of refugees by sea since the US war in Vietnam during the 1970s and human rights violations against Rohingya have resulted in a regional human trafficking epidemic. Further, the government of Myanmar imposes severe restrictions on Rohingya, including restriction of movement, marriage, childbirth and other aspects of everyday life. Most troubling of all, say these group of parliamentarians, is the denial of Rohingya identity, which is a factor that clearly effectively denies their existence. Most unfortunately, this continues to be absent from the agenda of ASEAN summits.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The term genocide was first proposed in 1944 by a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) who sought to describe Nazi policies of systematic murder, including the destruction of the European Jews. He formed the word “genocide” by combining geno-, from the Greek word for race or tribe, with -cide, derived from the Latin word for killing. In proposing this new term, Lemkin had in mind “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” The next year, the International Military Tribunal held at Nuremberg, Germany, charged former high ranking officials within the German Nazi regime with “crimes against humanity.” The word “genocide” was included in the indictment, but as a descriptive, not legal, term.
Eventually on December 9, 1948, in the shadow of the Holocaust and in no small part due to the tireless efforts of Lemkin himself, the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, otherwise known as the Geneva Convention. This convention establishes “genocide” as an international crime, which signatory nations “undertake to prevent and punish.” It defines genocide as:
“[G]enocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Clearly all of the above are committed by the ethnic Burmese majority against the Rohingya Muslim minority on an almost daily basis, assisted by non-other than their Government, and have intensified during the periods of riots in 2012 and 2015. This amounts to a slow genocide, as researchers from the International State Crime Initiative at the Queen Mary University of London have confirmed.
But, in our view, Malaysia’s recent position and response to this has so far been feeble at best. It has condemned the daily massacres, but short of making periodic statements of condemnation and solidarity, does next to nothing to stop them. Malaysia, along with Indonesia and Singapore, are responsible for the admittance of Myanmar into ASEAN in spite of the situation of the Rohingya and Malaysia has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, nor accepted its fair share of Rohingya refugees despite itself being a Muslim majority nation and one that is supposedly committed to human rights. ASEAN’s collective official lackadaisical attitude towards the Rohingya is no different, and as a result, the Rohingya continue to bear the brunt of the Burmese regime’s discriminatory policies towards them, policies that have not been changed at all even with the election of a new democratic government at the helm. Aung San Suu Kyi continues to turn a hypocritical blind eye and maintains a position of indifference to the daily massacres of Rohingya by what is now effectively her government, and for this, in our view, she deserves only the strongest condemnation.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Just a quick conclusion before I leave the floor. Basically the recent democratic transition in Myanmar has done nothing to improve the lives of the Rohingyas, who continue to suffer, as they always have, at the hands of genocidal policies of the Myanmar Government. Only while earlier, the Government did not pretend that it was a friendly, accommodative partner to the world on the issue of human rights, it now wears the mask of democratic governance. But if the regime in Naypyidaw headed by Aung San Suu Kyi believes that it can fool the world, it is mistaken. I am gratified to note that many members of the international community are pressuring the Myanmar Government to end their genocidal and discriminatory policies, and restore the sense of identity and citizenship to the Rohingya natives of Myanmar. Sadly, Malaysia and ASEAN, while counting themselves among these, are not doing enough. But it is such a situation that we cannot tolerate and we must demand absolute equality and acceptance of Rohingya by the Burmese state and no less, if its transition is to have any semblance of legitimacy as well as credibility. Thank you for your time, ladies and gentlemen.
AZRIL MOHD AMIN │ Oxford │ 11 May 2016