De Lima urges ASEAN to resolve Rohingya crisis

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Photo from the archives of the Senate of the Philippines (senate.gov.ph)

By Macon Araneta 

Opposition Sen. Leila De Lima joined former and present parliamentarians from the country and across Southeast Asia in urging the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to play a positive role in resolving the crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

In an open letter addressed to Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the current Chair of the ASEAN, 42 parliamentarians including De Lima, also called on the PM “to demonstrate the required leadership to articulate a coordinated, long-term and holistic strategy that addresses the root causes of the crisis.”

“It has been three years since a brutal Myanmar military operation forced 740,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Since then, the Myanmar government has not taken any meaningful steps to address the ‘root causes’ of the crisis,” they wrote.

“While we welcome the fact that ASEAN has taken a more proactive role in Rakhine State and is increasing its capacity and resources to respond to the crisis, we urge you to ensure that ASEAN’s actions effectively create positive and sustainable change that contribute to ending the cycle of violence and displacement,” they added.

Aside from De Lima, other Filipino signatories include Rep. Sarah Elago of the Kabataan party-list, Rep. Ferdinand Gaite of Bayan-Muna partylist, and former Reps. Walden Bello, Tom Villarin and Antonio Tinio.

In the letter, they lamented there are still around 600,000 Rohingya in Rakhine State that continue to live under a system of apartheid – deprived of their rights to citizenship, freedom of movement, and access to essential services – while an intensifying armed conflict between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar military is threatening the lives and safety of thousands of civilians from different communities.

They maintained that ASEAN should address all aspects of the crisis, including but not limited to human rights, political, humanitarian, social, or economic, to ensure that it will have an impact and be effective in Rakhine State.

“These include the ongoing conflict, accountability for international crimes, and the discriminatory structural state-imposed restrictions that remain in place in Rakhine State,” they said.

“By confronting these issues, ASEAN will both ensure its interventions do not do harm and also have a greater impact, as refugees will only return to a situation where they do not face entrenched discrimination, violence, and restrictions on their lives and liberty,” they added.

Likewise, the signatories to the open letter urged Xuan Phuc to ensure that ASEAN promotes transparency in its decisions and operations and ensures meaningful consultation and participation with the Rohingya and refugee communities in all decisions concerning their future.

“ASEAN would gain significantly from being more transparent and inclusive in its engagement. It would allow the grouping to have a more comprehensive, holistic understanding of the situation in Rakhine State, and thus develop and implement solutions for the benefit of all people living there,” they said.

Additionally, they stressed the need for the ASEAN institutions to strengthen its capacity to respond to “man-made” disasters, noting that “it could also increase the bloc’s ability to address and advise on all crises across the region, whether a conflict, a natural disaster, or a global pandemic.

During her stint as justice secretary, De Lima put forth the idea of sending ships to rescue 3,000 Rohingya refugees from the sea and provide them shelter as a humanitarian measure to avert a humanitarian crisis in the region in May 2015.

Last year, De Lima filed a Senate Resolution, logged as SR number 158, urging the Department of Foreign Affairs to reconsider the Philippine government’s position on the human rights abuses and atrocities committed against Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar.

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