‘PH influenced ASEAN members to help Rohingya’

Ayee Macaraig
‘PH influenced ASEAN members to help Rohingya’
'What was great about the Philippines making the offer was it was about humanitarian concern, and not having a common religious identity'

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines is not directly involved in the Rohingya migrant crisis but its openness to accept the refugees prodded its neighbors to finally welcome the sick, starving boat people to their shores.

Human rights advocates in Southeast Asia told Rappler that Manila’s willingness to take in the ethnic Muslim minority group fleeing Myanmar added “moral pressure” to Malaysia and Indonesia to stop pushing the boats back, widely criticized as “human ping-pong.”

Malaysian lawmaker Charles Santiago, chairman of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said that the move of the predominantly Catholic country challenged Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia to follow suit.

“When the Philippines made the offer to accept 3,000 boat people, I think that was one of the factors that helped to influence Malaysia’s position as well. The Philippines being a Christian country is willing to help Muslims. Muslims should also help,” Santiago told Rappler via Skype.

Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand’s initial policy to tow back boats carrying the Rohingya and economic migrants from Bangladesh triggered a global outcry. Caving to international pressure, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta eventually decided to offer temporary shelter to the 8,000 migrants while Bangkok only agreed to provide “humanitarian help.”

Called one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, the Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar due to state-sanctioned discrimination. They are denied citizenship and basic rights, and experience systematic violence in the Buddhist-majority nation.

At the height of the crisis, the Philippines announced that it will allow the migrants to enter its territory even without travel documents. It was one of the rare countries in the world to do so, along with the United States and the tiny African nation of Gambia. (READ: The Rohingya and the port of last resort)

Debbie Stothard, coordinator of the Bangkok-based Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, said that Manila’s stance added to the pressure that civil society and former leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) exerted on the regional bloc. (READ: Rohingya: The people ASEAN refuses to name)

“The Philippines shamed the other ASEAN countries. If the Philippines, being a non-Muslim majority country, and definitely less affluent, rich and economically advanced as Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia can make that offer, then clearly, it’s quite embarrassing to the frontline states,” Stothard told Rappler.

Stothard said that the Philippines’ decision showed that the issue was not just about resources. Governments fear that allowing the refugees entry will encourage more migrants to head to their shores, and drain national coffers.

“It’s not as if these frontline countries are so poor that they can’t afford to offer basic shelter and safety,” she pointed out.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos-Horta also joined the United Nations refugee agency in commending the Philippines for its “display of solidarity and compassion towards the unwanted Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.”

“Though the Philippines has made impressive economic, development and social progress under President Aquino, it still faces enormous challenges, including extreme poverty for many millions, and is often plagued by natural disasters,” Ramos-Horta wrote on his Facebook page.

The former Timor-Leste president praised the Philippines for having “the freest media in the region,” and for being the only country in the region along with his own nation not to have the death penalty.

“Once known as the ‘sick man’ of Southeast Asia and having ‘too much democracy,’ the Philippines has outperformed all other neighboring countries in most social and economic indicators,” Ramos-Horta said.

The Philippines Up in my admiration (ENG/PT)The Philippines, the largest Catholic Nation in Asia, deserves our fullest…

Posted by José Ramos-Horta on Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees first hailed Manila’s example as an “encouraging, courageous, and principled statement.”

PH role in ‘compassionate ASEAN’

The Philippines’ announcement was not a total surprise. After all, the country has a long history of providing refuge to the persecuted and rejected like the Jewish refugees during World War II, the so-called White Russians resisting the communist revolution in Russia in 1949, and the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s.

In the 10-member ASEAN, Manila has a unique role in adhering to international law on refugees and stateless people. It is one of only two members, along with Cambodia, to sign on to the 1951 Refugee Convention. It is also the only ASEAN member to sign the 1954 Statelessness Convention.

Even in its domestic laws, the Philippines is equipped with the framework to welcome refugees. The Philippine Immigration Act of 1940 states that the president can invoke broad discretionary powers to admit refugees for humanitarian, religious, political or racial reasons.

Santiago said that the Philippines should take the lead in encouraging its fellow ASEAN members to commit to accept refugees.

“I hope the Philippine government will impress upon ASEAN to sign on the UN convention on refugees. The Philippines has a role to convince its ASEAN allies that all of them should sign on to the refugee convention and declaration. Maybe, the Philippines can play a role to push for a compassionate ASEAN,” said the Malaysian politician.

Beyond the region, the response of some countries to the migrant crisis was not as warm as the Philippines’.

Bangladesh, a source country of migrants, was unsympathetic. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that migrants who risked their lives to leave the country were “mentally sick” and tainted her country’s image abroad.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said, “Nope, nope, nope” when asked if Canberra will receive the refugees. “We are not going to do anything that will encourage people to get on boats.”

‘Helping is beyond religion’

In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, religion figured into the call to sympathize with the Rohingya.

Muhammadiyah, the second biggest Muslim organization, urged Jakarta to accept the refugees because “they are stateless and Muslim.” Members of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), an Islamist party, likewise asked President Joko Widodo to issue a regulation to address the crisis.

Stothard, also the secretary general of the International Federation for Human Rights, said that responding to the crisis should not be based on religion.

“We have to go beyond Muslims helping Muslims, Buddhists helping Buddhists. What was great about the Philippines making the offer was it was about humanitarian concern, and not having a common religious identity. ASEAN is so diverse. We can’t just help people of the same color or age,” she said.

The Malaysian activist said that the “kneejerk reaction” of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to reject the refugees undermined ASEAN’s regional integration set for this year.

“This is a litmus test. Are we really people-centered or not? Are we really committed to integration?”

“Regional integration means anyone from an ASEAN country can travel freely without the need for visas and restrictions so there has to be a strong commitment to anti-discrimination,” she said. – Rappler.com

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