Southeast Asia’s Rohingya refugees, and those campaigning on their behalf, were dealt a mixed blessing on Sunday when Najib Razak, the beleaguered prime minister of Malaysia, delivered a strong rebuke to Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi following the past month’s military-led crackdown on the Muslim minority in Rakhine state. Addressing Suu Kyi directly at an officially-sanctioned “Solidarity March,” Najib declared that “enough is enough” – and that his country would not “sit by and watch” while human rights abuses took place in their neighbourhood.
While Najib’s remarks at the Stadium Titiwangsa in Kuala Lumpur drew strong support from the Rohingya community in Malaysia, and marked the first time a Southeast Asian leader has condemned the Myanmar state’s actions in such strong terms, they should be treated with some caution.
A cynical reading of Najib’s address would see him reaching for the moral high ground at a time of immense domestic pressure. These, after all, have not been quiet months for Najib, who has battled corruption allegations over the 1MDB scandal since early 2015 – and has just emerged from a series of tense and highly visible protests led by Bersih, a wide-reaching campaign for clean government. Despite winning a state election in Sarawak earlier this year, Najib’s ruling National Front has struggled to regain its former popularity, and was recently faced with allegations of human rights violations (from Laurent Meillan, acting representative of the UN Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia, no less) over the arrests of several activists at the Bersih rallies.
In this light, there is little doubt that Najib’s statements are at least partly designed to shore up his human rights record and regain much-needed political capital. State violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar has taken place since at least 2012, and it’s hard to overlook the particular timing of Najib’s unprecedented response. In a pointed statement ahead of the rally, the President’s Office in Myanmar called it a “calculated political decision to win the support of the Malaysian public.’”
But this was not simply the case of the wrong person saying the right thing at the wrong time. Najib’s statements reflect several political dilemmas that lie at the heart of the refugee question in Southeast Asia, and three elements of his speech deserve closer examination. First, it is worth noting that he chose to frame the issue with a moral vocabulary that other Southeast Asian leaders have, thus far, kept at arm’s length. He emphatically referred to the abuses as “genocide,” and called them, “by definition, ethnic cleansing.” With a characteristic rhetorical flourish, he asked the crowd: “Do they want me to close my eyes? Want me to be mute? […] What’s the point of a Nobel Peace Prize?”
Such statements, which not only imply that he is acting on a universal duty of response – and holding Suu Kyi to the global ideals that are seen to underwrite her Nobel Prize – are a deliberate departure from the position, long held among Southeast Asian policymakers, that regional and local values hold sway in Southeast Asian contexts. Building on the “Asian Values” discourse, Southeast Asian leaders and diplomats have previously stressed the region’s “incommensurable differences from the West” as reasons to question the universality of human rights. Najib’s statements suggest a clear pivot away from the default Southeast Asian position, and besides voicing indirect criticism at his own region’s lackluster human rights record, they may also imply that the global community (and the support it can offer) seems somewhat closer to Najib at this point than his immediate neighbors.
Second, Najib’s comments on the ASEAN Charter raise difficult questions about regional cooperation in a time of fraught relations. In response to the Myanmar government’s statement – which framed the planned protests as an external intervention in its internal affairs, and reminded Malaysia to adhere to ASEAN principles of noninterference –Najib said: “There is an article in the ASEAN charter that says ASEAN must uphold human rights. Are they blind? Don’t just interpret things as you choose.” In any case, he added, “this is not intervention. This is universal human values.”
These remarks come in the wake of palpable friction among ASEAN members over conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea, and both the United States’ and China’s increasing involvement in the region. Noninterference by regional and global powers alike has been a core tenet of ASEAN’s institutional stability since its inception, and has been credited for promoting peaceful relations in Southeast Asia especially since the end of the Cold War. However, Najib’s comments have flagged up the uncomfortable truth that this insistence on traditional state sovereignty may be less and less tenable in the present global context, and especially with regards to transnational migration. From Malaysia’s perspective, with more than 56,000 Rohingya refugees already registered by the UN refugee agency within its borders, the question of what constitutes “external interference” seems especially urgent. Najib may have a point: that ASEAN’s ability to effectively tackle regional issues is not necessarily helped by its members’ sensitivities to others’ incursions on their turf.
Finally, Najib’s focus on the “root cause” of refugee flight – Myanmar’s internal abuses against the Rohingya – successfully presents the crisis as a national issue, and sidesteps the glaring evidence that countless refugees are trafficked across the region in horrific conditions, and fall victim to the combined effects of patchy law enforcement, organized crime, and Southeast Asia’s insatiable appetite for cheap labor. Many end up in Malaysia and Thailand, or in refugee camps in Indonesia; because none of these countries are signatory to the Refugee Convention, few enjoy the legal right to work or corresponding protections against abusive employers. In late 2015, the discovery of the mass graves of human trafficking victims in Malaysia brought the regional scale of the issue to global attention.
Najib’s call for Myanmar to cease crackdowns against the Rohingya, while valuable in itself, swept this wider incrimination of Southeast Asian governments, including his own, under the carpet. More than a choice of political convenience, it was perhaps a deliberate decision to downplay transnational aspects of the refugee question, and – by drawing on regional and global perceptions of Myanmar as a pariah state in transition – place the responsibility for regional crisis within the already-tied hands of an unstable administration. While raising his human rights credentials vis-à-vis his neighbors, thus, Najib simultaneously exempted them from adopting a concerted response.
For those concerned – as we should all be – about the increasingly dire situation facing the Rohingya in Southeast Asia, Najib’s decision to take the stage with firm words against the events in Myanmar offer limited consolation. Beyond achieving domestic political motives, his remarks have sharpened the existing tensions between global and local values, ideas of regional integration and national sovereignty, and questions of transnational and national responsibility. At best, we can hope that Najib continues to place valuable political capital behind his rhetoric. At worst, the ideals he has promoted may well be eroded by a failure to follow up with policy. It would not be the first time.
Theophilus Kwek is currently reading for a MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford University. He has served as co-editor of the Journal of Politics and Constitutional Studies, publications director of OxPolicy, and vice president of the Oxford Students’ Oxfam Group.