Myanmar’s snub to Msia’s megaphone diplomacy

azrulBy Azrul Mohd Khalib

Last week’s Titiwangsa rally in support of the Rohingya in Myanmar must have left regional observers shaking their heads, first in wonderment, followed by bewilderment. That the rally was held itself was not the cause for the head scratching.

After all, rallies are held commonly enough these days, and the right and acceptable sort would not only be speedily granted permission, it would also not cause the organisers to be interrogated by police.

Solidarity gatherings and demonstrations in protest of the atrocities against and persecution of the Rohingya community in Rakhine State, organised especially after Friday prayers, have been held in the past by NGOs, political parties and even members of the Rohingya community themselves here in Malaysia.

What was strange about this obviously state-sponsored and state-supported rally was the presence of senior members of the Malaysian government, including the Prime Minister.

This is the same administration that was involved in the Andaman Sea refugee crisis more than a year ago. In that infamous incident, Thai, Indonesian and Malaysian authorities intercepted boats full of starving, dying and desperate refugees, asylum-seekers and economic migrants and pushed them back out to sea.

Abandoned by human smugglers and traffickers, many of these boats were filled from bow to stern, and contained an estimated total of 6,000 men, women and children, many of whom were Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Most were without food and water. Hundreds perished as countries, including Malaysia, played a three-way game of “human ping pong” over a number of weeks.

Half of the boats managed to slip through and were rescued by Indonesian and Malaysian fishermen. The rest were believed to have perished.

One year on from the crisis, the outcomes of several meetings of the Asia Dialogue on Forced Migration organised through the Bali Process have indicated that the countries of the region have learnt from that incident. They have since built structures and policies to improve regional and collective actions on future incidences of forced migration.

But one outcome was clear from these discussions: the essential need to engage decisively with Myanmar to ensure that future Andaman Sea refugee crises do not occur. It is critical that the root causes of this migration are addressed. To do so, it will fundamentally require Myanmar’s cooperation.

Prior to the rally, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi apparently made it clear to Foreign Minister Anifah Aman that ‘If you (Anifah) want to see me on bilateral issues yes, but I’m not willing to see you if you want to discuss the Rohingya issue’.” A spokesperson later reminded Malaysia not to interfere in Myanmar’s internal affairs.

At the rally, Najib responded aggressively by asking “do they (Myanmar government) want me to close my eyes? Want me to be mute?”

“There is an article in the Asean charter that says Asean (members) must uphold human rights. Are they blind? Don’t just interpret as you choose.”

Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi even mocked Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize award and called for the international court of criminal justice to take action against the leaders of Myanmar.

Bold words.

But I am reminded by what Najib said at the recent International Conference of Asian Political Parties. He called on the Conference to respect the principle of “non-interference in the internal affairs of other sovereign countries.” He stated that citizens who call on foreign powers to intervene in the affairs of their countries were not patriots.

What is happening to the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar is monstrous and requires concerted international action to prevent any further escalation of the violence, and ultimately, to save lives.

Arguably, the recent actions of the government jeopardise any further possibility of Malaysia playing a credible part or sincere role in ensuring a long-term resolution to what is happening in Rakhine State.

In comparison, Indonesia’s quiet diplomacy which involved the sending of humanitarian aid to Rakhine State following the October 9 incident, the building of two schools and a medical centre, is clearly preferred by Myanmar.

Last week, Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi met with Suu Kyi after the latter extended an invitation to Indonesia to openly discuss the situation in Rakhine State. A clear snub towards Malaysia’s megaphone diplomacy.

Unless Malaysia and Indonesia were doing a “good cop/bad cop” routine, it is very clear that our cousins across the Malacca Straits will now probably be in a better position to help.

For the sake of the Rohingya community in Rakhine State, I hope the Indonesians succeed in their approach.

As a result of this grandstanding and pandering to short-term domestic political optics, Malaysia has lost much diplomatic clout, respect and regional respect.

And what did we gain? Very little for those who need help the most.

Azrul Mohd Khalib is an FMT reader. 

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