ASEAN’s fatal blind spot: human rights

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is known for promising shocking solutions in his war on drugs, and the recent announcement to offer “dead or alive” bounties for each policeman accused of helping a narco-politician only adds another unsettling dimension to his conduct.

The announcement came shortly after this month’s ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) gathering, where Duterte denied having discussed the rampant human-rights abuses in his country with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Human-rights groups and the international community have been rightfully skeptical of the US  administration’s willingness to engage with Duterte on rights abuses, particularly given the US-Philippine partnership in fighting a militant insurgency in the south of the country. Nevertheless, Duterte’s refusal to play ball at the summit, as well as his recent comment, is a crushing disappointment for those hoping for improvements of the Philippines’ human-rights record.

Though upsetting, it was clear from the beginning that Duterte was unlikely to be deterred, having so far proved impervious to criticism. Instead, he has a full track record of shooting back at his detractors. Duterte has shamelessly blocked the United Nations from holding an independent investigation, and has condemned his critics as “crazies”.

In a predominantly Roman Catholic nation with one of the highest rates of drug use in Asia, his bid to reintroduce the death penalty may still be successful, after the lower house of Congress passed the bill, though the Senate is yet to approve it. In the past, Duterte brushed off threats to be tried before the International Court of Justice by suggesting his country would simply leave the UN, and argued that his drug war shouldn’t be “trivialized” by human-rights concerns.

The death toll of Duterte’s drug war, however, is anything but trivial. Since the war on drugs was unleashed last year, the campaign has been marked by stunning violence and an unprecedented display of brutality that has reportedly caused the deaths of more than 7,000 people. The exact numbers are disputed, but since Duterte took office on June 30 last year, police alone are suspected to have killed nearly 3,200 people, with thousands of vigilante killings, as well as murders of innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire.

During his election campaign, Duterte was known to boast that under his rule, the fish in Manila Bay would grow fat from the bodies of drug dealers in the water. It turns out his comments were far from mere shock tactics: One year on, fishermen have confirmed that bodies have indeed been dumped into Manila Bay.

As his campaign continues uninterrupted and his popularity remains high, Duterte has no incentive to end the bloodshed. But while Duterte receives all the media attention, the Philippines is not the only ASEAN member guilty of treating human rights as an expendable afterthought.

Largely ignored, the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar face discrimination and pervasive violence at the hands of the country’s Buddhist majority. Despite receiving far less press attention for their plight, the Rohingya have often been labeled the most persecuted minority in the world – unable to claim citizenship in Myanmar, where 1.1 million of them live in Rakhine state, or elsewhere in the region.

The group is fleeing in growing numbers to nearby Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand. In the first quarter of 2015, more than 25,000 people boarded boats to escape across the Bay of Bengal.

Since 2012, when 140,000 Rohingya were forced into refugee camps after their Buddhist neighbors turned on them, their situation has been especially precarious. Things have escalated to the point where experts from the UN and America’s Holocaust Memorial Museum have suggested that their treatment is borderline genocidal.

Recent estimates indicate that some 100,000 Rohingya refugees live in Malaysia, drawn by that country’s economic opportunities and Islamic heritage. Nonetheless, Malaysia refuses to grant them any legal status. Neither will Bangladesh. Forbidden by law to work and their children blocked from accessing education, the next generation of Rohingya is entirely dependent on the mercy of charities.

But far from owning up to its moral responsibility, Myanmar is doing its utmost to cover up crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. After  an incident in October in which Rohingya militants killed nine border guards, the army responded with a severe crackdown that included raping Rohingya women, shooting villagers on sight and burning down homes. While a Myanmar government inquiry – unsurprisingly – concluded that these events have not occurred, the effects of such indiscriminate cruelty are very real, leaving Rohingya women traumatized, stigmatized, and forced to fend for themselves.

In that they share a similar fate with the Lai Dai Han in Vietnam, another outcast demographic on the fringes of society. Being of mixed Korean-Vietnamese ethnicity and the result of brutal sexual assaults by South Korean soldiers, this is one of the great untold stories of the Vietnam War. As many as 30,000 of these people live in Vietnam, abandoned by their South Korean fathers, and, despite repeated appeals, Seoul has refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing in this chapter of its history. What’s more, South Korea continues denying this group the necessary acknowledgement that would allow for justice and true resolution.

Insofar as moral responsibility is concerned, the governments of both South Korean and Myanmar fall short of ASEAN principles.

Indeed, as ASEAN celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, the victimization of targeted demographics, be they suspected drug addicts or minorities, make it clear that the organization still has a long way to go in terms of ensuring just rule of law and protecting human rights.

ASEAN was founded to promote free trade and economic cooperation, and this should remain its core focus. But its leaders would be shortsighted to forget ASEAN’s other founding principles: political stability, good governance and civil liberties. Without these, the region will never truly prosper.

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