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ASEAN must ensure dignity and human rights for the Rohingya

South East Asian waters have seen an influx of an approximate 8000 Rohingyas – Myanmar's ethnic Muslim minority who face persecution and denied citizenship in their homes forcing a mass exodus of them to flee their land. They now face exclusion at sea as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have denied them access into their borders due to the fear of opening the floodgates to rising costs and difficulties to accommodate thousands of these refugees leaving them floating in cramped boats out in the open sea for weeks now. 

In addition, the shocking discovery of mass graves in Thailand and Malaysia show how such a serious problem has been neglected thus far. This on-going persecution of Rohingya’s is an ASEAN human rights crisis, which is no longer one country's responsibility, but a crisis that requires collective effort and response of all ASEAN nations, urgently. Malaysia, as the 2015 host of ASEAN should take the lead in facilitating meaningful short and long term resolutions to this decade-long humanitarian crisis in its commitment to establish a peaceful and prosperous people-centric ASEAN. 

Unfamiliarity in addressing this issue is not an excuse, as best practices and lessons learnt in relation conflict management from other regions coupled with the expertise by UNHCR and civil society groups is suffice for ASEAN to respond immediately to this crisis. Non-interference in this instance, runs counter to the charter calls for respect of international humanitarian and human rights norms. No government should hold thousands of lives ransom by invoking/citing non-interference. 

We battle against widespread human trafficking activities and atrocities causing abuse, rape, murder and violence amongst the Rohingyas in their attempt to find hope and freedom. As a people-centred ASEAN, the leaders of all ASEAN nations must come together as one ASEAN community to face this test in its ability to handle this most daunting task with resolve, using international humanitarian and human rights norms to abolish these crimes against humanity. It is without a doubt a tough situation but ASEAN is damned instead if silent with no action, and blame game being the order of the day. Leaderships of Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia should set the tone even at the peril of being ‘damned’ by Myanmar. If it demands some hard relooking at how governments engage with each other in ASEAN, then, the time has finally arrived for this, if not the blood of the lives of thousands will be a stain upon ASEAN

The ASEAN people are encouraged by the stance of Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines to accept the Rohingyas in their countries and to provide rights-based protection and humanitarian assistance, including  food, shelter and aid, while finding a solution to the issue. APF also calls on the ASEAN governments and authorities to assist in preparing for documentation and resettlement of these refugees and to ensure non refoulement or the forcible return of the Rohingyas to their country where they faced extreme oppression and persecution.

The APF believes that human rights and humanitarian based civil society seem to be united on the need to respond to root cause solution while respecting them as people with dignity and according them refugee protection in the meanwhile. The demand for ASEAN governments and Myanmar to step up has been unequivocal. It is noted that some nationalist groups in Myanmar, may arise having the same position as the government and right wing groups using a very narrow interpretation of minority rights to deny the Rohingyas their right to self determination in their own space. Thus, the ASEAN nations need to pressure the Myanmar government to take action and responsibility in finding a long-term humane resolution for its people by not refusing their existence.

The ASEAN Peoples' Forum 2015 (ACSC/APF 2015) urges the Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak to spearhead the efforts to lead the ASEAN nations in addressing and resolving this crisis before it becomes a more overwhelming task than it already is. ASEAN leaders must work with Myanmar and Bangladesh for them to be directly involved in a solution of its poeples, which are being  in this situation.

Let us as ASEAN nations, not wait for the overcrowded, treacherous boats of the Rohingyas to start sinking before we take action against these malnourished and marginalised refugees adrift in the open Andaman sea, under the blazing sun. Let us as an ASEAN community come together to open our doors and to find a combined solution in keeping humanity alive and in respecting every human as a life. Let us as the ASEAN people, be in solidarity with the Rohingyas in attaining their fundamental  rights to live in dignity as human beings.