JAKARTA — Parliamentarians from across Southeast Asia have called on ASEAN and regional governments to take immediate action to protect civilians in Myanmar’s Rakhine State and avert a looming humanitarian catastrophe there.
“This is the time to act, or we could have another Cambodia in our backyard,” said Malaysian MP Charles Santiago, Chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), referencing the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s. “It’s time for ASEAN member countries to shelve the archaic non-interference policy and warn Myanmar to stop the killings.”
Days after fighting erupted between Myanmar security forces and Rohingya insurgents, MPs called on Myanmar Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing to ensure that forces under his command practice restraint and avoid civilian casualties, and urged the Myanmar government under the leadership of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to avoid inflammatory rhetoric, take measures to de-escalate tensions, and move toward implementing policies aimed at securing long-term peace and prosperity for the area.
“The priority here must be civilian protection. Urgent measures must be taken by all parties to protect all individuals caught up in this violence, regardless of ethnicity or citizenship status,” said APHR Board Member Eva Kusuma Sundari, a member of the House of Representatives of Indonesia. “This isn’t about politics; this is about the most fundamental responsibility of safeguarding human life – an obligation under international humanitarian law.”
The renewed crisis follows a coordinated attack by Rohingya militants on police outposts in northern Rakhine State on 25 August, which left dozens dead, including 12 Myanmar security forces. The Myanmar military launched “clearance operations” in response, leading to the displacement of thousands of residents and reports of widespread burning of homes and buildings.
Parliamentarians expressed concerns about vulnerable civilians caught up in the violence and reminded the Myanmar government and regional neighbors of their collective responsibility to protect all residents, expressing particular concern over reports that Bangladeshi authorities were pushing back Rohingya attempting to flee violence by crossing over the border.
“The Bangladeshi government should allow Rohingya to take refuge, and cease pushbacks, which put vulnerable civilians directly in harm’s way. ASEAN member states should step up to alleviate concerns about the cost of providing for refugees, which the Bangladeshi government has cited as a reason for pushing them back,” said Philippine Rep. Teddy Baguilat, an APHR Board Member.
“ASEAN governments should also be welcoming more refugees into their own countries and providing them with adequate protection and resettlement opportunities. This is a regional problem, and unless ASEAN governments take action, it will have a destabilizing impact region-wide.”
While recognizing the constitutional limitations on its power, parliamentarians also called on the civilian government to ratchet down its rhetoric in order to promote de-escalation of the conflict and reduce tensions.
“The office of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi may not have control over the military, but it does have control over the information and messaging it conveys to the public. Officials should refrain from sharing information in a manner likely to inflame tensions. Using emotive terms and casting aspersions against aid workers is a dangerous game, and must end. Not doing so risks limiting the delivery of much-needed, life-saving aid to vulnerable civilians and exacerbating the consequences of the conflict,” Baguilat said.
On 27 August, the Office of the State Counsellor shared photos and information on Facebook suggesting a link between international aid organizations and “extremist terrorists” in northern Rakhine State. The United Nations subsequently announced the relocation of all “non-critical staff” out of the area, leaving tens of thousands without access to aid.
APHR reiterated its call for the Myanmar government to take immediate action toward the implementation of the recommendations from the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which were delivered to the government on 24 August.
“The Myanmar government must recognize that violence is not a long-term solution to the challenges faced by all populations in Rakhine State. The Rakhine Commission’s recommendations should be urgently implemented, particularly those aimed at deescalating tensions, facilitating inter-communal dialogue, and promoting rights and accountability,” said APHR Board Member Mu Sochua, a member of the Cambodian National Assembly.
“The report also rightly points to the need for regional solutions to address long-term challenges in Rakhine State. ASEAN needs to raise its voice and push for a solution to this escalating crisis. This needs to happen sooner rather than later, or else the human toll will be devastating.”