Dr. Armand Aspan

The biggest elephant in the room at ASEAN today is the treatment of the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority refugees from Buddhist dominated Burma. While the public debate rages and bordering on xenophobia, ASEAN’s treatment of these refugees is exceedingly inconsistent with rectitude. It seems the lives of these refugees are nothing more than a game of maritime ding dongs and pushbacks into the high seas.

Aun San Syu KiWhat is absolutely gut wrenching is that these boatload of refugees are being asked to forcibly turn back, when many are in extremely poor state of health, starving and being forced to drink their own urine without fresh water supplies. At sea, they are often beaten or threatened by the Boat Captain aka Snakehead to be thrown overboard or shot if they asked for food.

Now why are these Rohingya refugees fleeing Burma in such large numbers ? For decades they have faced discrimination in obtaining citizenship, unable to move around freely or have access to education and healthcare. Now if that is not bad enough, many experience physical beatings. torture and rape in the hands of the military junta and extremist monks.

I am not going to twist the words, they are not economic migrants. For generations they were deprived of legitimised existence, a persona non grata in Burma where the Burmese government had looked the other way when rabid mobs burned their mosques and homes.

Now what is with the iron cast resolve of these ASEAN countries not to entertain these refugees? In a nutshell, they are just bloody afraid to start a precedent, a floodgate situation that would spike up the rate of new arrivals. I suppose it is a game to see who is more crueler, the persecuting Burmese regime or the various National Border patrols in order to send the underlying message to the refugees to weigh the odds before embarking in the perilous journey.

Many ASEAN countries seem to be hiding behind the sovereignty argument and are concerned about being bullied by the West into accepting these refugees. ASEAN is just fire fighting the issue with law enforcement without addressing the problem of this forced migration with a long term solution.

Now what can we do to solve the problem?

1) Issue an ultimatum to Burma to recognise these people’s rights as a citizen. Failing which Burma should face trade sanctions just like Iran. The time has come for international community to pressure the Burmese regime with a two prong approach. A military solution might always make a few generals excited but it would destabilize the region.A lot of angry birds would love to say nuke Burma for treating the Rohingya with such unimaginable cruelty and make Rakhine an independent separate state. Perhaps it is time to get some billionaires in the Middle East to fund another round of Pentagon’s Shock and Awe shows this time around live in Rangoon. Whatever it takes to knock some sense into these people.

2) Time to get all ASEAN countries to sign the Refugees Convention and the Statelessness Convention. At the very least establish a common ground on Asylum related protocol compatible with the diverse national legal framework of the ASEAN states. Without these laws often than not refugees are being branded criminals or illegal immigrants.

3) Improvise and adopt the Pacific Solution for the ASEAN region, designed primarily to save these refuges from risking their lives at sea. One of the island in the archipelago could be designated as the arrival centre as in the system of ‘warehousing refugees’ where they can arrive safely, without being stranded at the high seas and processed for asylum.

4) People traffickers and Human smugglers need to be dealt with harshly. If in doubt, please redirect them for a dose of harsh hospitality under the discretion of Indonesian President Jokowi Widodo in Nusakambangan prison rifle range.

Lastly, I must add that I am concerned at Aung San Suu Kyi’s glaring silence on this matter and it is grounds for criticism. Unless she having some health issues or a delayed manifestation of the Stockholm Syndrome, the world awaits her voice on the subject and pronto. It would be a travesty if she is silent for fear it might jeopardise her Presidential electoral campaign chances. If this is the case of political expediency on her part, may I suggest that this Icon of Human Rights, bin her Nobel Peace prize award and start a new career by charging tourists a fee for a selfie opp.

After all, isn’t every drop of human blood, regardless of religion, caste and creed equally important?

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