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The news coming out of Myanmar’s Rakhine state is grim. Genocide is once again rearing its ugly head, this time in our own region. Mass killings and rape are being carried out with staggering impunity. Whole villages are being wiped out and its inhabitants forced to flee. It is human suffering on a horrific scale being played out in full view. It is an outrage, a crime against humanity, racism and intolerance at its worst.

This is a crisis that has been more than a decade in the making.

Considered interlopers and aliens by the Myanmar government, the Rohingya have long suffered discrimination, harassment and violence. They have been crying out for succour for years, but their pleas have fallen on the deaf ears of an international community too busy celebrating Myanmar’s return to democracy to notice the mayhem in the north.

Waves of fleeing Rohingya boat people in 2012 did nothing as well to evoke the kind of serious and concerted effort required to stem the ethnic cleansing. At the time, many ASEAN countries, including Malaysia, turned away Rohingya boat people. And let’s not forget the multiple mass graves, thought to be of Rohingya refugees killed by traffickers, that were uncovered last year in Thailand and Malaysia.

It can well be argued that the failure of ASEAN and the international community over the years to address the Rohingya issue paved the way for the current genocide. Perhaps emboldened by ASEAN’s disinterest, Myanmar’s military now appears to have launched its final solution to its Rohingya problem.

Tragically, even now, instead of urgent action to stop the genocide, the Rohingya are getting mostly hype and hypocrisy. It’s a shocking commentary on our approach to human rights and human tragedy.

Ramping up the rhetoric 

After some cajoling from the opposition, and sensing an opportunity to burnish its Islamic credentials and distract attention from other pressing issues, the government seems to be finally ramping up its criticism of Myanmar.

Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak was reported to have told his cabinet that the cardinal ASEAN principle of non-interference should not take precedence over genocide.

Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamid warned that “Malaysia will not sit still and watch while thousands of innocent Rohingya are murdered in state-sponsored ethnic cleansing.”

UMNO Youth chief and Minister of Youth and Sports, after apparently failing to get Cabinet approval for Malaysia to boycott the Suzuki Cup (which Myanmar was co-hosting), is now calling for ASEAN to review Myanmar’s membership.

The Foreign Ministry meanwhile summoned the Myanmar ambassador to protest his country’s treatment of the Rohingya. It also issued the rather bizarre call to “all parties involved to refrain from actions that could aggravate the situation.”

While such rhetoric will, no doubt, go down well politically, it is not going to be enough to stop the genocide. What is needed, and what is lacking thus far, is leadership and a plan of action.

A comprehensive campaign to stop the genocide

Malaysia as a member of both ASEAN and OIC is uniquely placed to lead a multipronged international and regional effort to stop the genocide and must do so immediately.

With this in mind, Malaysia should immediately offer to host an international conference on the Rohingya to bring global pressure to bear on Myanmar. Myanmar must be made to understand that it will pay a very high price for a very long time if it does not stop this madness against the Rohingya immediately.

All options including sanctions, suspension of international economic assistance, and diplomatic isolation, should be explored. As well, a global effort to save the Rohingya who are fleeing should be launched together with a pledging conference to raise badly needed funding for aid agencies assisting the Rohingya.

In the ASEAN context, UMNO ministers shouldn’t just call for a review of Myanmar’s membership in ASEAN; they should take concrete action to effect it. UMNO, after all is the government, and it should immediately call for an urgent ASEAN meeting to discuss Myanmar’s future in the regional grouping. Anything less is mere posturing.

ASEAN, for its part, must make clear that there is no place in ASEAN for countries which commit genocide and ethnic cleansing. ASEAN stood by as a mute witness to the Cambodian genocide; it must not repeat this shameful episode in its history.

ASEAN must also step up to the plate by offering resettlement and/or temporary asylum to Rohingya refugees. Malaysia and Indonesia are already host to more than 150,000 Rohingya refugees and are fast reaching capacity.

It is also time for Malaysia to put that much talked about special relationship with China to the test by demanding that China use its influence with Myanmar to put a stop to the genocide. Regional leadership, after all, comes with obligations; it’s time for China to walk the talk.

At the national level, Malaysia’s plan to allow Rohingya refugees currently in Malaysia to work is an excellent one.

For too long we have denied the thousands of refugees who are already here an opportunity to work while bringing in hundreds of thousands of contract workers to meet local labour needs. It makes no sense other than providing cronies with an opportunity to profit from imported labour.

A religious or human rights issue?

It is unhelpful, as well, that in Malaysia everything tends to be viewed through the lens of religion.

The Rohingya issue, for example, is made out to be a Muslim issue rather than a human rights issue. It is presented principally in terms of protecting Muslims rather than a besieged minority community.

Little effort has been made, therefore to reach out to non-Muslim civil society and religious groups who have always been engaged in refugee issues, including the Rohingya issue, long before it gained political traction.

When it is cast as a Muslim issue, non-Muslims tend to feel they have no role to play; when it is cast as a humanitarian crisis, it evokes a much wider response as it should.

As well, many of these same politicians who are now outraged at the treatment of the Rohingya were largely silent when other Myanmar minorities – the Chin, the Karen, the Kachin – suffered appalling abuse at the hands of the same military forces. Their villages were destroyed; their women were raped; their men pressed into forced labour gangs or killed.

Where was the outrage then? Did their lives not matter because they were of a different faith?

Many of them sought refuge in Malaysia only to be treated as outcasts to be whipped, incarcerated, deported, trafficked or abused. Why was no consideration given to allowing the thousands of these refugees to work as there is now for the Rohingya? Did the fact that they were non-Muslim disqualify them from compassionate treatment?

It ought not to be that way.

All refugees, irrespective of their ethnicity or religious background deserve to be treated with respect, compassion and consideration. We cannot complain that Europe is not doing enough for Muslim refugees fleeing war in the Middle East while we ourselves treat refugees selectively based on their religious affiliation.

The best hope we have of preventing genocide is for all countries to treat genocide and ethnic cleansing as crimes against humanity irrespective of the ethnic or religious background of the victims. Genocide against any community anywhere in the world must be considered a grievous offense against us all no matter our nationality, ethnicity or religion.

ASEAN’s hollow human rights commitment

The genocide in Rakhine state has also exposed the utter uselessness of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Committee on Human Rights (AICHR) and calls into question ASEAN’s very commitment to human rights.

Former Malaysian foreign minister Rais Yatim, for example, decried the “lackadaisical attitude” of the committee to the unfolding genocide against the Rohyinga. He shouldn’t be surprised given that AICHR was never designed to be anything more than an empty gesture to appease human rights activists.

It is sheer hypocrisy to tut-tut about it now when ASEAN leaders have always insisted that the non-interference principle be the central pillar of ASEAN relationships precisely because they all wanted to avoid close scrutiny of their own domestic human rights record.

If ASEAN is to learn anything from the Rohingya genocide, it is that ASEAN must give greater priority to human rights. Unless ASEAN is able to develop a genuine culture of respect for human rights and diversity, genocide, ethnic cleansing and human rights abuses will continue to be a blight upon the Southeast Asian landscape.

ASEAN must now decide whether it wishes to remain a club of tyrannies shielding each other from human rights criticism or evolve into a community of nations committed to democracy, freedom and respect for diversity.

Malaysia, if it is genuinely concerned about the plight of the Rohingya, can take the lead in promoting such a culture of respect for human rights and diversity. And it can start at home.

Leadership or just hype?

It is time to recognize that the genocide against the Rohingya is part of a bigger problem – ASEAN’s (collectively and individually) utter lack of respect for human rights.

While our immediate focus must necessarily be to stop the slaughter of the Rohingya by any means possible, thought must be given to developing a culture and a framework that makes genocide and the abuse of human rights less likely to occur.

Malaysia, for its part, can engage in hype and hypocrisy or take the lead as a nation founded on diversity to make genocide and ethnic-cleansing part of Southeast Asia’s past rather than its present.

Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | December 1st 2016