Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Myanmar needs ASEAN, UN help to fix Rohingya Crisis

As every crisis unfolds, the true nature of its players is inevitably revealed in the choices made and the actions taken. A large number of people fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh to Southeast Asia presents governments and people of the region with an intricately complex problem, but we must choose to take responsible actions that will shape the legacies of this generation of leaders.

Some reports say as many as 8,000 migrants are stranded at sea. Those who have come ashore speak of death and deprivation at the hands of criminal gangs. Southeast Asian nations are turning them away, in name of the campaign to crack down on human trafficking, but effectively condemning them to death at sea because they are denied anywhere to land. We are inviting a worst case scenario in which boats filled with the dead drift in the oceans in a gruesome testament to inhumanity.

Since the discovery of mass graves of migrants who died at the hands of human-traffickers along the Thai-Malaysian border it has become clear trafficking is one piece of a much larger, multi-dimensional and transnational challenge. The discovery of thousands of men, many trafficked and even enslaved in Benjina, Indonesia, is another indication of the scale of the problem of the irregular movement of people in Southeast Asia.

There must be a paradigm shift from piecemeal isolated efforts in a crackdown on the criminals running the business of trafficking, to a comprehensive transnational set of policies enacted by governments, law enforcers and all involved parties to tackle the causes and mechanisms fuelling the human trafficking business - and protect the migrants' lives and rights.

Rohingya leaders in Myanmar's western Rakhine State report rising deprivation and segregation causes more Muslims to turn to trafficking gangs that operate in the Bay of Bengal. An estimated 100,000 Rohingya have fled the state since violence broke out in 2012. Thousands more are kept in camps after being displaced by the violence. 

The only way to escape their misery is by turning to traffickers who take them by boat to transit camps in Thailand for eventual transportation to Malaysia and elsewhere. Survivors of the camps in southern Thailand describe regular beatings, torture and killings by the traffickers, in order to extract money from the migrants' families. Human rights advocates have described "a widespread pattern of death, torture and exploitation". 

The crackdown comes just weeks after an Associated Press investigation uncovered the slavery of hundreds of men, on Benjina island, Indonesia who said they were tricked or lured into working for years in appalling conditions on boats allegedly owned and crewed by Thai nationals, to fish and process seafood distributed to the USA, Europe and Asia.

Again this is not an isolated incident. The International Labour Organisation estimates 17% of workers in the sector are subjected to forced labour. As many as 4,000 men were stranded on islands surrounding Benjina.

Many of the workers have yet to go home. Some chose to remain and demand their wages.  Indonesian and Thai authorities pledged to take further action to prevent abuse.

Asean foreign ministers must hold an emergency meeting to discuss this serious regional humanitarian dilemma and form a task force to tackle the problem as a matter of urgency.

The United Nations is in the best position to take the lead on international support to find immediate and longer term agreements acceptable to all stakeholders to save more lives.

One possible model for coordination of national, regional and international responses is the Tripartite Core Group (TCG) formed in 2008 after Myanmar was devastated by Cyclone Nargis.

The TCG brought together the Myanmar government, Asean and the United Nations and allowed the delivery of desperately needed help under the leadership of an Asean task force. There is no reason this could not be replicated and adapted appropriately for this crisis.

The source of the problem is the situation in Myanmar, which must take responsibility through engagement and regional cooperation for humanitarian assistance, poverty reduction and inclusive development of Rakhine State.

Without durable solutions, this will continue to affect regional human security in both Myanmar specifically, and Asean as a whole. This is why former Malaysian prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, former Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan, former Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya and I took the unprecedented step of writing to Asean leaders, calling for active engagement to address this matter, last month.

We urgently need to work with Myanmar to reduce the desperation and other push factors causing Rohingya to leave Myanmar in boats. We need to help Myanmar fulfill its obligations according to international humanitarian law.

In the meantime, we also need to ensure that Rohingya already in the region, children in particular, have access to safety, food, shelter and the education necessary to build their ability to help their community.

The rapidly escalating dangers of unprecedented migration from the Bay of Bengal to Southeast Asia is nothing less than a test of our capacity for humanity.

Syed Hamid Albar was Malaysia's foreign minister from 1999 to 2008 and is currently the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) special envoy on Myanmar and founder of the non-government organisation Humaniti.

publish on bangkok post, 18 May 2015

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

What's happening to Malaysia

The political scene of Malaysia and its final outcome is being followed closely by domestic and foreign political  observers and pundits. Never in the country's history has there been such intense polemics and uncertainty on the sustainability of the government. The norm is after the government has been formed, it will move on with its responsibility of governing.

At the same time within the BN they expressed surprise at how the party could reduce its majority and  clamour for a postmortem of the GE13 to know the reasons. To outsiders it was obvious that the component parties on the whole particularly in Peninsular Malaysia did not have the acceptance of the Chinese and urban voters. Nothing unusual about that. Its not only UMNO that has to change but the component parties need to carry out some soul searching reforms of themselves.

Coming out of this dismal performance there were some intelligent and some funny speculations and responses on what should be the next cause of action the leadership should take. After all the BN had presented a very attractive manifesto promising all kinds of things if it got back to power. Additionally BN spent a lot of money in the election campaign to regain the support of the voters particularly the Chinese but failed. During the election campaign Najib's advisors have also interestingly asked him to adopt the election strategy of a Presidential election akin to that of Obama. In their view Najib is more popular and acceptable than UMNO or BN. In short they considered his aura and personality would carry the party to victory. Of course this did not happen.

Unfortunately while this works in the UMNO areas but it did not alter the Chinese and urban voters who already decided they wanted change. Immediately after the election result he publicly said that the Chinese voters had betrayed BN. This announcement did not go down well with the Chinese voters. This is now in the pages of history. The MCA with such dismal performance decided to stay out of the government but came back later on the persuasion of Najib.

Thus although the overall total seats obtained by BN was less than the votes or seats obtained in the 12th GE Najib decided to stay on as leader of the government and party. Some political observers and pundits thought Najib should make way for his deputy to take over the helm of leadership in the party and government as was the case with his predecessor. Najib was said to be involved in cleverly manoeuvring his predecessor's exit. However Najib ensured this forced exit did not happen to him. He thus quickly ganered the support of the BN Members of Parliament including those from Sabah and Sarawak. For this support he rewarded the leaders of both States well by appointing many of them into his Cabinet.

It must be remembered prior to this he also made sure that all the MPs elected are his men and loyalists. In this way his leadership of the government was well secured.The rationale for him to pass the baton of leadership to his number two did not arise. Futhermore having the support from the Sarawak and Sabah MP's Najib's position at the helm of the government could not be challenged Therefore any possible dissent or request for him to step down was totally silenced. Again this was another clever political manoeuvring by Najib. Unfortunate for Najib many of his political advisors, who stood for election did not win their seats.

Two years down the road of the GE the clamour for him to go came back to the centre stage from within and outside the party. This time the voice is louder and stronger and made worst by many unwise and unpopular policies and public statements issued or made by his Cabinet colleagues. Additionally there were all kinds of stories and scandals were exposed particularly by the social media affecting the image and credibility of the government.This pressure comes also from his icon Tun Mahathir and those close to him. The social media was at the forefront of the strong criticisms and open campaign asking him to go. This time it was not merely on the scandals but also on his economic policies and personal lifestyle. Tun M.for the first time dragged into the foray the conspicious ostentatious lifestyle of the PM's wife, his relationship with Jho Low and the high debt position of 1MDB. This was made worst by the implementation of the GST and the inconsistencies of his thegiven ' explanation to the public which created enormous public displeasure. This time around it could be seen he is just hanging by the tooth and nail. His own team made contradictory statements that are inconsistent with the principle of collective responsibility as members of the Cabinet. There is a lot of political shadow boxing within the party and government.

On the other side Tun Mahathir and his supporters have stepped up their campaign to remove him. Without being apologetic he openly goes around to demand for Najib  to resign. The groundswell for Mahathir's call is getting stronger and bigger. Whether Najib would be able to withstand this onslaught is for everyone to wait and see. It had rattled him but he made a defiant statement that he would not step down at the call of Mahathir since the people has given him the mandate to lead the country. Definitely what is happening has caused what Tun Musa referred to this state of affair as imploding the country which made the political environment and the government business directionless.

There seem to be counter move against Tun M and his former Ministers like Daim and Zainudin Maidin. This made the spat between Tun M and Najib to become more serious and vicious. The public  likes all these to end one way or another to move on with their daily life. Tun Mahathir on records never like to loose a war or a battle. The country is going to continue hearing his criticisms of Najib and demanding him to step down in favor of Mahyuddin. This puts Mahyuddin on the spot whether to remain loyal to Najib or take the cue from Mahathir to force his boss to quit. This state of neither here nor there cannot go on for long. Yesterday's Supreme Council meeting seems to bring back calmness to the government and party. The dust has settled on the ground. It is important that new controversies do not keep on surfacing. Najib and Mahyuddin including party and government leaders must not at least in public be perceived to have differences which could cause the public to loose confidence and trust on the keadership of the  party and government.